Three NASA Drivers Earn Mazda Scholarships at MX-5 Cup Shootout

Chris Nunes (top left), Savanna Little (middle row, far left), and Aaron Jeansonne (lower left) are the three NASA drivers who swept the Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout last November at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. We share their stories below.

Nine of the top prospects in grassroots racing met up at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta in hopes of earning a scholarship to compete in the 2021 Global Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires. For two days, the drivers showcased their skills for the judges from brand presentation to on-track talent in the Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout.

When the Mazda MX-5 Shootout was over, three drivers drove away with scholarships to take part in next year’s Mazda MX-5 Cup. NASA Mid-south driver Aaron Jeansonne collected the top scholarship of $110,000. NASA SoCal Teen Mazda Challenge driver Chris Nunes and Time Trial regional champion and NASA Championships TT podium finisher Savanna Little each earned scholarships valued at $75,000. What’s notable is that seven of the last nine Shootout winners have come from NASA racing.

“We’ve gotten to know the candidates over the years and particularly over the last 12 months,” said David Cook, manager of Mazda Motorsports Business Development, in a press release. “We knew it was going to be difficult to pick a winner, and that didn’t change after day one.”

Nine racers received an invite to the Shootout including Michael Borden (SCCA T4 National Champion), Bryce Cornet (Spec MX-5 Challenge Series), Konrad Czaczyk (SCCA Spec Miata), Aiden Fassnacht (Spec MX-5 Challenge Series), Hannah Grisham (NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge, Spec Miata), Tyler Quance (Spec MX-5 Challenge Series and SCCA Spec Miata) along with Jeansonne, Little and Nunes.

Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, judges had to alter the format. Instead of starting with a physical fitness evaluation, the drivers were instead given written assessment questions on racing budgets, event preparation and track knowledge. The day ended with a series of one-on-one interviews with the judges.

Day two allowed the drivers to showcase their track skills. Each finalist received one set of BFGoodrich tires that they had to manage for the four 18-minute lapping sessions on the track. Tires were swapped out by series partner Flis Performance, who prepared the three identical Mazda MX-5 Cup cars for the contest. Data was collected, but it wasn’t shared with the drivers. The drivers were warned to keep the cars on track, and that any offs could possibly disqualify them.
Cook said the judges weren’t focused on the fastest lap, rather they wanted to see consistency and willingness to learn from the candidates.

“On track, some performed better than others today, but it’s just one day, so we’re considering all the data points we’ve collected,” Cook said. “We’ve gotten to know these racers so well over the last year, really it could have gone so many different ways.”

The scholarship winners make their professional debut in the 2021 Mazda MX-Cup in January, racing with IMSA at Daytona International Speed, Jan. 28-31. Learn more about the scholarship winners.

Aaron Jeansonne—$110,000 scholarship

When Aaron Jeansonne was a runner-up at the MX-5 Cup Shootout in 2019, he was determined to get back to this year’s Shootout to showcase his talent for the judges.
Jeansonne raced Spec MX-5 and Spec Miata to get more sports-car racing experience and to stay on Mazda’s radar. He capped the strange 2020 racing season by being named the Spec MX-5 Challenge Series Emerging Talent Champion and Invitational Champion, which got Jeansonne nominated for this year’s Shootout.

Jeansonne made the most of the second opportunity, collecting the top scholarship of $110,000 to compete in next year’s Mazda MX-5 Cup. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that Jeansonne came up short in 2019.

“It was hard to hard to see that at the time when I didn’t win last year, but looking at it now, I think it worked out perfectly,” he said. “I worked really hard this year to make those improvements and one big one being my knowledge of car setup and giving feedback.

“Every event this year I worked on developing my setup and understanding why I was making the changes I was making, and actually helped me a lot with my on-track performance. I think that was one of the biggest things I improved on this year.”

Jeansonne, 22, was a latecomer to motorsports, buying his first dirt oval kart at age 16 and racing some local tracks around Turkey Creek, La. By the following year, Jeansonne did a three-day driving school through Skip Barber Racing School and a month later he was competing on the Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series. He won his first race weekend.

Aaron Jeansonne started racing at age 16 in dirt oval karts and later in the Lucas Oil Formula Car Series.

“I had to wait until I could get to work so I could start racing,” Jeansonne said. “All through my teenage years it really ate away at me. I never thought I’d get this far with it, but I’m really thrilled looking back now.”

Jeansonne has participated in multiple shootouts during his short racing career and going into the MX-5 Shootout Cup at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, he had few nerves. Jeansonne felt he was a more well-rounded driver for this year’s Shootout.

“You have some important eyes on you and they want to see who can really come through under pressure,” he said. “I really focused on not making any mistakes and I noticed the other competitors were really fast, and it actually pushed me a little bit out of my comfort zone there. I had to push even harder than I was comfortable with, but I had to take a risk to come out victorious.”

David Cook, manager of Mazda Motorsports Business Development, said judges weren’t looking who could turn the fastest lap. Rather, the judges wanted to see consistency and drivers who learn and apply feedback.

“He ran a couple of Spec MX-5 events this year and a Spec Miata event. That gave us three more data points to reinforce that he’s not only fast, but he has great race craft and awareness,” Cook said in a press release. “That extra confidence that we gained this year, took away that unknown from last year.”

Jeansonne is less of a risk taker, and employs a methodical approach when it comes to racing to keep the equipment running.

“I always try to think of the bigger picture, especially with the background and the humble background that I’ve come from,” Jeansonne said. “You can’t go out and crash cars and make it in this sport. I have to be really calculated, but as far as just driving the car, I drive the car very hard.”

As the excitement builds for his professional race in January at Daytona International Speedway, Jeansonne expects lots of drafting and close races between an mix of rookie and experienced drivers. Jeansonne hopes to stay close to the front in Daytona and continue to build on his success in future races.

“I want to keep building my network and get further involved in racing,” said Jeansonne, who recently moved near Indianapolis, Ind., to further his racing career. “What better series in the U.S. than the Mazda MX-5 Cup. I think it’s going to be hugely competitive this year. Looking down the road to move up the ladder, this is the absolutely best place to be to further develop.”

Savanna Little—$75,000 scholarship

More than a year ago, Savanna Little fell short of winning a scholarship at the Mazda MX-5 Shootout. Determined to earn another invitation to the Shootout, Little spoke to the judges on how she could improve, and narrowed her racing focus.

Little built her own Spec MX-5 car, a project she documented on YouTube and social media, then raced it for the 2020 season. Her strong season earned her another invitation to the Mazda MX-5 Shootout, and Little made the most of it by becoming the first female MX-5 Cup Shootout Scholarship winner. Little earned the $75,000 scholarship in November and is joining Hixon Motor Sports in the Global MX-5 Cup and IMSA paddocks for her first professional season.

“I ultimately just tried to work on myself as a driver and worked on the skillset that I needed to improve by taking the feedback from the year before and knowing what I needed to change,” Little said. “(And) knowing what changes Mazda and other interested parties would need to see from me in order for me to get where I ultimately want to go, which is professional sports car racing.”

It was a bold move to go exclusively run the Spec MX-5, especially when the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the season until July. Little, 26, had a personal car with sponsorship funding to campaign it, but instead went and built the new car.

“It was a tough decision to make early in the year to say, I’m going to put this other car on the back burner and I’m going to build a new car and I’m going to go race in a new series, and I’m going to give it my all,” she said. “The validation of not only being nominated, but being selected as a finalist, it really just made it all seem worthwhile.”

Little didn’t leave much to chance going into this year’s Shootout. She talked to previous Shootout attendees and drew from her own experience in 2019. Little test drove an MX-5 Cup car and gained more experience on the Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta course.

Savanna Little had a chance to test drive an MX-5 Cup Car at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta before the MX-5 Cup Shootout.

“That was massive for me to be able to get in the car,” said Little, who lives in Austin, Texas. “I had never driven a car with a sequential gearbox, so it was good to get familiarized with that as well as get used to the tire and get used to the chassis.”

Little is a first-generation racer who started in the sport as “an umbrella girl” but knew she wanted to be behind the wheel. She started in 2016 building her first racecar and competing in Time Trials, while getting her competition license the following year. Little had to serve as her own mechanic because she couldn’t afford to pay a race shop.

“I just figured to myself, if I want this bad enough, there’s no reason that I can’t be my own mechanic, that I can’t be my own truck driver, that I can’t do all these things that these men do,” Little said. “My father wasn’t into motor sports or into cars that he was going to teach me how to do all of this stuff. I was really out there on my own learning from YouTube videos and just trial by fire.”

Little partnered with Hixon Motor Sports because the team’s marketing strength and the manager is a female racer too. Little has 150,000 combined followers on Facebook and Instagram, bringing her own marketing might to the team. Hixon Motor Sports says its goal is to foster and develop drivers by providing an experienced crew, coaching and trackside support in the Global MX-5 Cup paddock.

“That was something that was really important to me to be able to continue to network and grow my opportunities,” said Little, who credits her mother, Darnelle, for her support. “Ultimately, I want to make connections to create a sustainable career in an incredibly expensive sport.”

Earning the $75,000 scholarship from Mazda has gotten Little a step closer to turning racing into a full-time profession. Little plans to continue her grassroots racing to improve her racing skills, having gotten into the sport as a young adult.

“There’s no other manufacturer that supports grassroots racing in the way Mazda does,” Little said. “To be associated with the brand carries a certain weight and that helps bring more partners to the table. It helps bring more legitimacy to the program and all sorts of other things. There’s a lot of benefits to it.”

Chris Nunes—$75,000 scholarship

Growing up in a small mountain town east of San Diego, Chris Nunes knows the racing career of local legend and NASCAR great Jimmie Johnson. It’s a similar trail Nunes hope to blaze since he started racing motocross at age 4.

Nunes used the same dirt bike engine builder as Johnson, who grew up racing motorcycles and cars in nearby El Cajon, Calif. One day at the shop, the engine builder gave some advice to the 18-year-old Nunes who still follows it today.

“He told me you need to follow in his footsteps, because look how successful he’s been,” said Nunes, who lives in Alpine, Calif. “(Jimmie) started at young age like you did, they didn’t have a lot of money like you do and this could be a great opportunity for you to kind of follow someone and be successful in a pretty unique way like he has.”

That path has led Nunes from motorcycles to cars and now a $75,000 scholarship to compete in a Mazda MX-5 Cup car in 2021.

Nunes childhood racing background is as diverse as Johnson, who retired from full-time racing after the 2020 season. Nunes started racing motocross at age 4 and competed on the KTM Orange Brigade factory team, winning several national titles. At age 12, Nunes moved to short course off-road competing in Modified Kart and won a championship by his third year. Jumping into the Pro Buggy class the following year, Nunes collected another championship trophy.

“This is something that me and my parents had kind of talked about at a young age with the end goal of racing professional on asphalt,” he said. “It was kind of my responsibility to determine when I was ready to move on to bigger, better things.”

Nunes raced a Spec Miata in the Teen Mazda Challenge this past season with NASA before receiving an invitation to compete the 2020 Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout. The teenager had to submit a business plan, a biography, a two-minute video and a plan on how they would work with Mazda.

“We decided that Mazda was honestly the best path to go as they have the ladder program, which they’re kind of famous for, and no other manufacturers have that,” Nunes said. “It makes it nice for people like us that don’t have a massive budget to try to make it professional and asphalt racing.”

Chris Nunes racing in Spec Miata at Sonoma Raceway.

Nunes and eight other drivers were invited to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta in November to challenge for the MX-5 Cup.

“You’re not out there racing with each other. They’re just looking for speed and consistency,” he said “When you go into the Shootout, Mazda is really looking for the full package driver. You don’t gotta be the fastest, most hotshot talent out there. You gotta be able to sell yourself on social media, really think outside the box, promote yourself and sponsors.”

Nunes had never raced an MX-5 and knew little about the track in Braselton, Ga., prior to the November event. A neuroscientist from San Diego State University who has been working with Nunes, encouraged him to meditate, do breathing exercises and listen to music to reduce stress. He also encouraged Nunes to enjoy the process.

The process of pre-race meditation and music worked because Nunes earned a $75,000 scholarship. The scholarship will provide for Nunes to do six races with IMSA and an IndyCar Series street race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Nunes will stay involved with NASA, serving as a driving coach for Spec Miata at various events but not actively campaigning a car.

While pursuing his goal of becoming a professional racer, Nunes is working on his two-year degree through a local community college with plans to transfer to San Diego State University to get a degree in business and a minor in engineering.

Nunes said the scholarship will help him grow as a racer, improve as a marketer and how to run a successful race team. He was busy getting a new race suit and the car wrapped soul red crystal to meet Mazda’s requirements prior to the first race in January.

“It’s been full force getting ready for this upcoming season,” Nunes said. “I kind of thought about what had happened and got over my excitement. I was like, all right, I’m a professional driver for Mazda motorsports. Now I’ve got to put my head down and start working hard.”

Images courtesy of Aaron Jeansonne, Savanna Little and Brett Becker

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