2016 Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout winner Matt Cresci.

The Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout selects the best of the best from the roster of amateur drivers who race a Mazda or Mazda-powered vehicles. The Shootout also pulls in virtual racers from the world of iRacing, competitors from the NASA Teen Mazda Challenge, the Skip Barber Series and the Formula Car National Challenge. Last year’s winner, Glenn McGee, sim-raced his way into the competition and came away with the Shootout’s $100,000 scholarship to support a season of racing in the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires. It’s the largest prize in amateur motorsports.

Now in its 11th year, the Shootout is the best way for an amateur to climb the ladder into pro racing — though, it certainly isn’t the easiest. To be considered, you have to win a Championships event in a Mazda or Mazda-powered car or racing online. Mazda also awards “at-large” spots to worthy candidates. Those spots are rare, but this year’s winner, NASA NorCal’s Matt Cresci, entered the Shootout as an at-large candidate, after finishing off the podium at the NASA Western States Championships, and walked away with the $100,000 scholarship.

“In August I left my full-time job to pursue racing for the three or four months that I had saved up, and that meant preparing endlessly for the Championships because that was my one-way ticket to the Shootout,” said winner Matt Cresci. “Sure enough, it was a really great race, but it didn’t quite go in the direction I planned, so I ended up fourth. Needless to say, I was pretty gutted, and it really started to sink in on the drive home. Two days later, when Mazda told me I was going to be selected as an at-large finalist, I was over the moon.”

It’s interesting to note that five of the last seven winners of the Shootout have come from NASA. In 2014, five of the eight finalists were NASA racers. When Matt Cresci learned he was going to the Shootout, his father Andrew was in the other room.

Eight competitors drove all four identically prepared MX-5 Cup cars during the Shootout. Each driver had one set of tires that followed him from car to car.

“From deep downstairs and I hear this whoop, so I knew something had happened, something good,” said Andrew, who attends all Matt’s races. “It was pretty exciting. We’re all excited.”

This year’s competition was conducted a bit differently. In years past, finalists would spend the first day pitching their business plans to judges. The next day was spent on track, working with data coaches and engineers, and practicing media interviews.

This year’s Shootout focused solely on track activities. Finalists worked with data coaches and engineers and judges, but the essence of the event was on-track performance.

Matt Cresci reviews data with Shootout judge Andrew Carbonell, one of the leading Mazda racers competing in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

“On track we are obviously looking for speed and consistency, but also technical feedback and one-to-one interaction,” said Peter Calhoun, a Shootout judge and motorsports marketing manager for BFGoodrich Tires. “The scholarship winner will be the face and personality representing not only Mazda, but also Battery Tender and BFGoodrich Tires during the season at a multitude of events.”

Shootout judge and BFGoodrich motorsports marketing manager Peter Calhoun chats with finalist Tyler Kicera during the 2016 Shootout. Kicera won Spec Miata at the NASA Eastern States Championship at Watkins Glen.

Leading up to the event, Cresci prepared as best he could. But how? Mazda Motorsports held the Shootout at NOLA Motorsports Park, just outside New Orleans, a track that is not part of iRacing. What’s more, MX-5 Cup has never raced there. Cresci watched as many Spec Miata videos from NOLA, then called fellow Spec Miata racer Danny Steyn about the differences between driving a Spec Miata and an MX-5 Cup car. A couple of finalists had driven the new MX-5 Cup car, but none had ever driven at NOLA.

Mazda held the Shootout at NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans, a track that none of the finalists had ever driven, and where MX-5 Cup has never raced.

On the first day, drivers were split into four pairs. One pair of drivers would take to the track at a time. All drivers had the opportunity to drive each of the four different cars on site, but their tires were removed and followed them from car to car. Cresci remarked about how equal the cars were to one another.

“The competitors were pretty astonishing,” he said. “Everyone was extremely talented, but what caught me off guard was that everyone helped contribute to a fun and friendly atmosphere. People were sharing information. There was a little bit of teasing here and there, but for the most part it was extremely friendly and everyone was smiling. It made it a great event.”

By the end of day one, eight competitors became three: Cresci, Justin Hille and Julian Garfield.

On day two, the judges sent each driver out for one 10-lap session, then decided whether to eliminate one driver or just choose a winner outright. After the first session, the judges deliberated for about an hour, then emerged from the clubhouse and announced that Cresci had won.

“It was pretty intense, but for some reason I was very relaxed during the final session,” Cresci said. “I think most of the emotion came after the final lap on the first day, because that was basically when I knew that I was going to be very competitive. I had never competed against any of these guys before, apart from Daniel Langon. There’s a pretty intense résumé for each of the drivers, but I had no idea how I would stack up. But it was after that last lap of the last session of the first day when I knew I had a pretty good shot at winning this. Day two was just about maintaining that consistency and speed from the first day.”

On day two, the judges selected NASA NorCal Spec Miata racer Matt Cresci due to his speed and consistency.

Cresci will partner with an existing team in MX-5 Cup, which he wouldn’t name yet, but said he spent a portion of his Shootout scholarship on a pre-owned MX-5 Cup car. Cresci’s plan is to win rookie of the year, which pays another $50,000 scholarship, which he will use toward a second season of racing.

If you remember the “Member Spotlight” Speed News published on Cresci in February 2015, he didn’t start out karting at an early age. He got a bit of a late start at age 19 racing on a simulator in the PlayStation GT Academy online competition.

He tied for first in a field of 400,000 competitors, and won a trip to Silverstone raceway in England to compete for a chance to become a professional driver. He finished sixth overall, but that convinced his father to get him into racing. Because of Mazda’s ladder program, Spec Miata was the most logical choice.

Striving toward becoming a pro driver, Cresci finished 10th at the 2014 NASA Western States Championships, second in 2015 and fourth in 2016. It’s also worth noting that two of those years, Cresci drove his racecar to and from the track. That kind of effort got him noticed.

“If I had to identify one single trait, it would be commitment, followed by sacrifice,” said Shootout judge Calhoun. “It is not about passion. All like to drive and drive fast, but if you are not willing to be 100 percent committed to becoming a professional, it will not happen unless you are independently wealthy. The sacrifice will be to work, family and friends, as you focus on a single dream. And if the dream is solely to drive, you will fail, as that is only one component of a complete driver in the modern age. You are driver, corporate spokesperson, influencer, advocate and brand ambassador to name just a few.”

2016 Mazda Road to the 24 Shootout winner Matt Cresci.
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Image courtesy of Wes Duenkel