Next month Clayton Ketcher will be at Sebring International Raceway in Florida with 11 young drivers hoping to earn a scholarship at the Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout.

It’s Ketcher’s second appearance at the MX-5 Cup Shootout and his best chance to earn one of three scholarships to compete in the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich Tires.

Ketcher has an interesting story to tell as a fulltime student at Columbia University on the East Coast and racing Spec MX-5 on the West Coast. Leading a bicoastal life has been a challenge, but Ketcher said sacrificing a traditional college life is worth it.

“It feels great to be a finalist for the second year in a row. It validates all the hard work I’ve put into racing this year,” Ketcher said. “Obviously, the main goal is to win the Shootout, but regardless of the result, I’m excited to get another taste of the MX-5 Cup car and be surrounded by the best young drivers in the nation.”

On the line is $260,000 in scholarships with a $110,000 top prize for the winner at the MX-5 Cup Shootout, Nov. 9-10. Finalists are either automatically qualified by winning a championship or by an at-large nomination, which is how Ketcher earned a spot.

During the two-day event, drivers not only will have to impress the judges with their lap times, but they also showcase their knowledge on reviewing data and giving feedback. The drivers also present a business and brand ambassador plans for the judges.

The Sacramento, Calif., resident moved quickly up the ranks, spending two years in karting before moving into Spec Miata in the NASA NorCal Region. He raced three years in Teen Mazda Challenge before switching to the Spec MX-5 class this year and racing under Charlie Hayes Racing flag.

Ketcher, 20, would encourage any teenager wanting to race to participate in the Teen Mazda Challenge.

“(When) I was being brought into racing, Teen Mazda Challenge really supported me through that, especially in the first year,” Ketcher said. “It made the transition to cars easier with a group of us going through the same experience.”

Ketcher’s karting instructor Lisa Caceres saw the talent early and encouraged his parents, Gina and Keith, to move the then-16 year-old into road racing.

“He is what I would call a complete racer,” Caceres said. “You can see the natural talent there, but I also see his desire to really comprehend what is going on and wanting to just get better.”

For the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series, Ketcher opted to compete in the west region because of his familiarity with the tracks, and renting an MX-5 Cup car from Charlie Hayes Racing. With three of the Spec MX-5 races taking place during the school year, Ketcher would catch a flight after classes on Thursday and take a red-eye flight back late Sunday

“One of the biggest challenges being here on the East Coast in New York City is that it’s very difficult for me to practice between races,” Ketcher said. “In an ideal world, I’d have my computer and racing wheel out here so I could do iRacing in between, but it’s too impractical to bring that to school. It just takes up way too much space, especially when you’re already going across the country.”

To keep his skills fresh between races, Ketcher watched videos and sketched a track map to test his knowledge. He’s also working out consistently to increase overall strength and improve his concentration.

“A lot of what we’ve worked on this year is getting the most out of the time that I run and being really precise about what I want to change in the car, based on a small sample size of laps,” Ketcher said. “At the same time, you don’t want to put unnecessary mileage on the car that wears it out prematurely. We’ve worked on setup and then being able to really feel out the car in a short amount of time.”

Ketcher’s approach when it comes to racing is to be smart and reduce risks, something you would expect from an Ivy League college student.

“I’m a decisive driver,” Ketcher said. “If I have to make a move, I’m going to be smart about what I do because at the end of the day I have to get the car back in the garage.”

As part of the MX-5 Cup Shootout, Flis Performance is providing three MX-5 Cup cars and the drivers will work with engineers and data analysts. The competition can be intense, but the goal is to find a driver who can win at the next level.

Last year’s Shootout winner, Connor Zilisch, was the 2022 MX-5 Cup Rookie of the Year, falling short of the championship by 10 points. Jared Thomas (2019 Shootout winner) was this year’s MX-5 Cup champion.

“I had high hopes I would be going to the Shootout, but you never know for sure,” said Ketcher, who won the western region and finished second overall in the driver standings to champion Thomas Annunziata. Ketcher knows what to expect at the Shootout program, but he still has to deliver.

“The clear advantage is that I have prior experience in driving the Cup car,” he said. “The more overlooked advantage is that I’ve connected with judges, and they’ll be able to see my year-over-year growth, which I believe is a huge reason for my success on and off-track this year.”

Asked if she had any advice for Ketcher at the Shootout, Caceres said the young man is prepared for the moment.

“He can just turn off everything else and focus, and that’s what he needs to do,” Caceres said. “He needs to just get there, relax, and do what he always does — just perform on track like he always does. I think at this point, there isn’t anything else I can say to him. He’s very ready for this.”

could ever repeat what he is doing. It is just not possible for me. It is fascinating.”

Name: Clayton Ketcher
Age: 20
Region: NASA NorCal
Hometown: Sacramento, CA
Racing Class: Spec MX-5
Sponsors: Pair Design, DriverMonitor App, Charlie Hayes Racing, Patrick Harbison Public Relations
Day Job: Columbia University student
Favorite Food: Chicken parmesan sub
Favorite TV show: NA
Favorite Movie: “Inception”
Favorite Book: “The Stranger” by Albert Camus
Favorite Track: WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca
Dream Racecar: 2013 Audi R18 E-Tron Quattro
Images courtesy of RS James Creative and RSJames Creative

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