It has been an eye-opening experience so far in my rookie season in the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup series presented by BFGoodrich tires. Having to learn six new tracks and get used to a new car has been tough, but there are a few things I learned while racing with NASA that have made the learning curve less steep.
Having good race craft in a spec series is imperative. What do I mean by race craft? Having the ability to set up and execute a clean pass, the ability to run door to door with a competitor cleanly, and timing your aggression. Racing with NASA has helped me hone my race craft and you can bet I use that to my advantage. NASA does a great job keeping the competition close in all its different race classes. With so much door-to-door action and equal competition in each class, it makes it difficult to win races without strong race craft and situational awareness. Running in large race groups will give you the most opportunities to practice the art of setting up a pass. Timing a pass is something I learned to do well in amateur racing. The same concepts I learned racing in Spec Miata work in MX-5 Cup.
Along with race craft, another key is how aggressively to race and when. In the MX-5 Cup series, the level of aggression is pretty similar to a stacked Spec Miata race, especially toward the pointy end of the field. Racing Spec Miata has really helped me figure out how to maintain a level of aggression that works for me. In a spec series, passing is tough to do, so it‘s very tempting to make an unnecessary attempt to pass that often ends up with damaged racecars. An easy way to lose the respect of your fellow competitors is to be too aggressive all the time. When other drivers know that you have a bad reputation, it will affect how they race you, which could make your competitors race you too aggressively.
Timing your aggression is another critical element to being successful behind the wheel. Plan your moves a turn or two ahead to put yourself in the best position to attack. Driving every lap of a race like it’s the last will not help you win. So learning when to make an aggressive move will help you save your car for the end of the race when you need it most. As I’m sure you have heard a thousand times, you can’t win the race in the first turn, but unfortunately sometimes it seems like some of us racers forget that once we put on our helmets.
How much tougher is the competition in a professional series? I would have to say the competition level is a little bit higher than your average amateur race weekend. There are typically fewer races in a pro series than an amateur series, so the emphasis on consistently finishing up front is critical to have a chance to win a championship. From what I have seen so far, the skill level of a pro race is similar to a national championship amateur race. Typically there is a high concentration of talent toward the front of the field. In a typical amateur race, you can expect your competition to make a few mistakes throughout a race, leaving a window of opportunity for you to make a pass.
This leads me to my next topic: mistakes. When you watch a typical auto race on television, whether it’s NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula 1, winners make very few or no mistakes at all. In a professional series, sitting back and relying on your competition to make mistakes won’t get you far. With the competition being so tough, mistakes will cause you to lose a few positions. Even the smallest gaffes like dropping wheels in the dirt, not hitting an apex right, or slightly missing a brake zone will prevent you from finishing up front.
You don’t have to race in a pro series to drive like a pro driver. If you can master these critical elements, you will drive like a pro and watch your trophy collection grow. And, who knows, if you ever get the chance to race in a higher series, you may find the transition is easier than you think.