Mazda’s ambitious effort to create its first factory club racing team had the company looking to the karting ranks across North America to nurture the next generation of drivers.
Finding up-and-coming drivers among thousands was no easy task, and the primary reason Mazda turned to prominent industry professionals, including eKarting News, Max Papis, Buddy Rice, Chris Wheeler, Jared Thomas and others to help with the process.
About 25 kart racers were asked to submit an application to the Spec MX-5 Shootout, which took place during the Global MX-5 Cup Shootout in November. Nominees considered for the Shootout either won a championship or received an at-large invitation. Judges then reviewed applications for drivers’ skills, including speed, consistency, race craft, technical understanding and public relations skills.
Judges narrowed the field to 10 Spec MX-5 finalists, who earned a trip to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta for the Shootout. Finalists were Alexander Berg, Calgary, Alberta, Canada; Alex Bertagnoli, Village of Lakewood, Ill.; Oliver Calvo, Stockton, Calif.; Hayden Jones, Weddington, N.C.; Matthew Mockabee, Dayton, Ohio; Bryson Morris, Mt. Juliet, Tenn.; Evan Stamer, Glen Carbon, Ill.; Alex Stanfield, Dallas; Westin Workman and Connor Zilisch, both from Charlotte, N.C.
“2020 marks the 15th year of the MX-5 Cup Shootout, with this being the first year we expanded to offer karters the opportunity to join us in sports car racing through a Shootout selection process,” said David Cook, business development manager for Mazda Motorsports, in a press release. “We’ve supported karters before, but not to the level of a factory team effort in club racing.”
During the two-day Shootout, drivers spent the first day doing written assessments on brand representation, racing budgets, track knowledge and event preparation. The racers also did face-to-face interviews with the judges.
On the second day, each finalist had four or five 18-minute lapping sessions. The racers were given only one set of tires and were not able to review data — only the judges had access. Organizers weren’t looking for the fastest lap. Instead, they wanted consistency and drivers who could apply feedback.
After the two-day Shootout, Canada’s Alexander Berg and Tennessee’s Bryson Morris were awarded the factory support from Mazda to race in Teen Mazda Challenge within the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series. Here’s a closer look at these promising young drivers.
Alex Berg almost didn’t participate in the Spec MX-5 Shootout in November because of a medical emergency. As the teenager was wrapping up his business proposal and video application, he went to the hospital with appendicitis.
“The day before the due date and after I had my appendix surgery, I had handed in my video and my business proposal,” Berg said. “I started it early and I was just editing it and making sure it that it was spot-on. It ended up working out.”
About a week after his surgery, the 14-year-old learned he was one of the 10 finalists going to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta to try out for Mazda’s first factory club racing team to run in Teen Mazda Challenge within the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series.
Berg started racing with the Calgary Kart Racing Club in 2015 and quickly became Canada’s top karter before setting his sights on U.S. tracks. Berg was whipping on racers several years older.
“When I went down to the States, I found that it was extremely, extremely competitive,” Berg said. “I worked my way up from the back of the pack to the front of the pack, and now I’m winning races.”
Berg leaned on his father, Allen, for advice on how to approach the Shootout. The senior Berg is a retired professional race driver with experience in Formula One, Formula Two, Formula Three and other cars. He operates Allen Berg Racing Schools, with locations in New Orleans, La., and Monterey, Calif.
“One of the greatest advantages of having my father (as a former racer) is the ability to learn from the mistakes he made, so I don’t have to make them in my career,” Alex Berg said.
To participate, Berg got his competition license from NASA at Eagles Canyon Raceway in Texas and practiced starts against different types of cars.
Being a young racer with minimal seat time in a car, Berg knew he would be at a disadvantage against the older racers. He believed the judges would not hold him to the same standard as the drivers with car experience.
“One of the things I focused on mainly was how I presented myself,” Berg said. “One of the things that David Cook said was it probably wouldn’t be the quickest person who wins one of the spots. I knew that it was really going to be a lot about how to present yourself and less about who went the quickest on the track.”
Berg had never driven Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta prior to the Shootout. But Berg said he was familiar with the 2.54-mile track, having driven it on the simulator iRacing and watching YouTube videos.
“It was still pretty nerve-wracking to be on track because things are so just so fast there,” said Berg, later adding, “I just didn’t want to make a mistake that would lead to something bad.”
The judges liked what they saw, because they picked Berg and Bryson Morris for the first club racing factory team formed by Mazda. The young drivers will be part of the Haag Performance team, which will provide coaching, maintain and support the Soul Red Crystal MX-5 Cup cars. The factory drivers will compete in the West Coast region of the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series, which includes three regular season events and at least one post-season event.
Both drivers will have to balance the demands of high school with travel for racing and testing. Berg said online school is allowing him to keep up on his classroom assignments, and he will work ahead when he has a race weekend. “My philosophy that I go by for life is to work as hard as you can off track so that you can work as little on the track,” Berg said.
Berg knows he has a rare opportunity in becoming the first Canadian and first-time winner of the scholarship from Mazda. In addition to getting to know his new team, Berg needs to make connections that could help further his racing career.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that doesn’t happen very often in racing,” Berg said. “My goal is to turn some heads on track and get my name to be known off track. It means so much in racing to be a factory driver—that’s every racer’s dream, no matter what series it is.”
The Covid-19 pandemic forced a change of plans for Bryson Morris, who was planning to move from karting to road racing. The delay proved fortuitous because Morris cleaned up in the karting ranks and won his first SKUSA Pro Tour title.
The results earned Morris a trip to the Mazda Spec MX-5 Shootout, where he won a scholarship to campaign a Spec MX-5 for the 2021 season. It caps a fast rise for the 16-year-old driver from Mt. Juliet, Tenn., who started racing karts nationally just three years ago.
Morris said his biggest concern going to the Shootout wasn’t the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta track, rather the interview process with the various judges.
“The first day I was probably more nervous for that day than the actual driving on track,” Morris said. “It’s very calming more than nerve-wracking to go out and drive a car, but that could also be because I’ve driven at the track before. I felt at home at that track and in that car.”
Morris began racing karts at age 10 after taking an interest in his father’s Porsche club racing, even though the younger Morris had never attended a race. Three years later, Morris moved to the national circuit where he was initially surprised by the competition.
“At my first national race, I think I finished outside the top 20, which was definitely not something I was used to,” Morris said. “We kept going for it, and then finally we got up to the front after a couple of years.”
Morris raced with Rolison Performance Group, where the team reviewed data after every session. It’s a skill that judges have come to expect from the candidates. “I’m very familiar with how to read data and how to apply it on track,” he said.
Morris’ season and two SKUSA Pro Tour Championships caught the attention of the editors at eKartingNews.com, who nominated Morris for the Shootout. After completing an online application process, Morris was picked to make the trip to Braselton, Ga.
On the track, Morris improved his lap time by a half-second over the day without putting any tires off the track. Drivers were warned prior to the sessions that a small mishap could disqualify them.
“I’m a pretty smart driver and that’s not me just being a cocky driver. I’ve been told that as well,” said Morris, later adding, “In the last session, I was told to make it my best session, but I also didn’t want to throw it all away in the last session. So that last session definitely put a lot of pressure on me.”
Morris knows the pressure will be on him when he starts racing with the team and the goal is to quickly learn the limits of the Spec MX-5 car and contend for podium spots, though he’s new to the series. Morris believes his determination helped set him apart from the other drivers.
“It’s my drive to win races and win championships and be the fastest out there. When I go to a race and I’m not one of the fastest or the fastest, I’m like, ‘Man, this is not good. Like what could I have done better that session?’” Morris said. “I’m able to look at those things and apply what I didn’t do perfectly, and go out there and get almost perfect.”
A student at Green Hill High School in Mt. Juliet, Morris has to balance academics and racing. Because schooling has gone online because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has made it easier to fit school activities around racing commitments. Morris has in-school classes two days a week and the remaining days are online.
“The actual in-class stuff, most of my teachers record the lessons, so it’s pretty easy to keep up with the school,” he said. “Some of the teachers don’t really understand the sport and so a lot of them just think I’m going out, like they’re only used to driving in a car, like on the streets. They don’t really know what it’s like, so most of them, they don’t cut me any slack.”
Morris’ parents Jason and Jennifer are excited for their son to take the next step in racing.
“My mom is really happy because she doesn’t like spending a lot of money,” he said. “But she is very happy now that some of the costs are being cut.”