Though respected racing schools like Jim Russell and Winfield were once in the business of launching the careers of underfunded drivers, the financial demands of modern racing make that sort of system impractical for most schools. Thankfully, Mazda Motorsports hasn’t given up on giving young, cash-challenged talent a chance to prove themselves.
This past month, two young American karting talents helped secure the next step of their careers through an exacting scholarship shootout. At the 2021 Spec MX-5 Scholarship Shootout, Westin Workman and Nate Cicero adapted to the demands of full-body cars and distinguished themselves as worthy recipients of sizable cash prizes that will help them through the first year of their sports car racing careers.
A Few Years of Complete Focus
Long before they were able to vie for this great opportunity, the two had cut their teeth in years of competitive karting — both with great support from their families. Like so many young racers, Westin’s dad had a fondness for speed and an urge to share it with his boy. The two started competing at the local indoor karting track, where Westin quickly established himself as a real talent.
After five years of regular wins at the indoor track, Westin was hungry for a higher level of competition, so when some of the more ambitious members of the indoor league began running outdoor karts at the nearby GoPro Motorplex, he followed. Westin’s dad quickly set him up with Timmy Tech, a local team that allowed Westin to dip his toe in the waters of KA100 Junior racing.
A little farther north, Nate got his start racing Rotax MicroMax karts at New York’s Oakland Valley Race Park with McAleer Motorsports. From the start, Nate’s talent was obvious. If it weren’t for a careless dive-bomber taking him out, he would’ve taken home the biggest trophy from his first outdoor karting event.
Even though they’d only started racing, the Cicero family was quickly catalyzed by their son’s promise. Soon, when the family wasn’t traveling somewhere for a race, they were watching Formula 1 on the weekends.
It only took a year before the Cicero tribe moved into a more competitive category. In 2017 and 2018, Nate’s first years of Junior Rotax, he had respectable finishes in the top 10, though a chance to stand on the podium eluded him. But something changed in 2019.
“I believe in exhaustive testing. It’s important to spend as much time as you can to get the most out of something before you move on to the next step,” Nate declared.
With a newfound meticulousness and a single-mindedness not typical of most teenagers, Nate returned to racing in 2019 able to win. A string of wins and the SKUSA and New York State championships in his pocket encouraged the family to move into IAME X30, but not before Nate took four races in KA100 Senior and took another title. That year, Nate was unstoppable.
Westin, too, enjoyed a similarly linear rise through the ranks. In first year racing KA100 Junior, Westin ran local events exclusively and managed to place third. The following year, moved into the greater world of KA100 Junior racing on the USPKC National Circuit, competing in Florida, Indiana, and back home in their native North Carolina. At the end of a challenging first year, Westin finished fifth in the championship.
As was the trend over the last few years, they started every new season with greater aim than the year before. In 2019, Westin stretched himself thin, traveling nearly every weekend to test and race in several different national series. By the end of a grueling season, he’d placed third in WKA and fourth in UPSKC.
The Call Every Driver Wants
Thankfully, Westin’s talent didn’t go unnoticed. In fact, eKartingNews mentioned him to Mazda, which earned him a place in 2020’s Spec MX-5 Shootout. Though Westin didn’t come home with any hardware at that event, Mazda recognized his ability and offered to sponsor him in one Spec MX-5 race at Sebring the following year.
And Mazda’s faith in Westin was justified when he finished that event in fourth. Without really much experience in a suspended car, he’d proven himself able to adapt with nominal. preparation.
Nate’s call came a year later. After a couple seasons of X30, he got some much-needed attention after putting in a daring last-lap, last-corner move for the win at the ROK Vegas — an event watched by plenty of industry bigwigs and talent scouts.
A week later, Rob Howden of eKartingnews.com reached out to Nate and asked his age. Too consumed with the thrill from winning the event, Nate wasn’t able to make the connection, but he didn’t have to wait long to learn why. The following day, Rob informed Nate he’d been invited to join the 2021 Spec MX-5 Shootout. Without any real experience in a full-sized car, he scrambled to find a way to prepare.
With the assistance of his coaches Stevan and Stuart McAleer, Nate arranged a quick test in a Spec MX-5 at Roebling Road, a course with plenty of long, fast corners — perfect for learning the intricacies of weight transfer. It was also during this test that Nate got his first taste of an H-pattern gearbox. To say there was a steep learning curve that day would be an understatement.
A New Set of Challenges
Following his foray into sports cars, Nate rushed to Sebring for the 2021 Spec MX-5 Scholarship Shootout. On the Indycar test configuration, these drivers were spared Turns 1 and 17 — real car-breakers, though they still had to share the track with the MX-5 Cup drivers lapping six or seven seconds faster. Despite the stress of avoiding faster traffic, his zeal for the event wasn’t diminished at all.
Speaking to Nate, you get a taste of that infectious enthusiasm that drives all young racers. It’s just something that flows out of him naturally when the topic turns to racing, which is a good thing, since the candidates at this year’s Spec MX-5 Scholarship Shootout were not only graded on their speed, but also on their ability to present themselves.
Recognizing the value of marketability, Westin spent a large part of the first day shaking hands and getting to know the coaches and Mazda representatives present. This also demonstrated his outgoing nature, because there were no scheduled interviews this year—and parents were prevented from grooming their kids at the event. This year, it was entirely upon the young drivers to make an impression.
“I knew they were looking for someone who can represent their brand well, so I made it my goal to meet as many people as possible,” Westin chirped. “Mazda’s just as interested in the way their drivers perform outside the car as they do inside it.”
With the first day done, he retired early. He would need his rest to better learn the Spec MX-5 while tackling Sebring’s daunting tarmac.
Several New Challenges
The drivers needed to adjust their style to suit the demands of a front-engine car with suspension and an H-pattern gearbox. “I guess the only tricky things were the weight transfer and the brake application. With these brakes, the ABS was hard to figure out. I thought it’d be a benefit, but it wasn’t. Hammering them like you would in a kart just didn’t work. It would trigger the ABS and prevent us from attacking the corner,” Westin reported.
The drivers were given some time to adjust to the demands of the new equipment. Besides, they were graded on more than just speed — mechanical sympathy and a consistency mattered just as much. “I was trying to drive as smart as I could, since I knew they weren’t only looking for speed — they wanted someone with the full package,” Westin recalled.
That night, the nine entrants and those who held the drivers’ fate got together for dinner and more conversation. They discussed their career aims, their experiences on track, and the singular appeal of the Spec MX-5. This gave Nate a chance to showcase his technically-minded approach to racing.
“It’s a great car for a few reasons. For my first full-sized racecar, I found it pretty easy to adjust to, but it takes some real work to get the most out of it. The draft and the power keeps the racing really close,” Nate elaborated. “Plus, you can rub fenders. The cars feel really sturdy and that helps you push hard.”
The Last Day of Whittling
On the third day, the drivers were given another few sessions — a total of seven during the Shootout — to build upon their exploratory laps from the day before. This time, they could trim down their lap times by the last few tenths with the assistance of Chris Nunes, driving coach and MX-5 Cup race winner. Through a combination of data and video analysis, Nate was able to trim his times down by a second, equaling Westin’s dominant pace.
Though it wasn’t lap time that decided the winners, it didn’t hurt that Nate and Westin were the quickest of the pack. With another few tenths in their pockets and amiable personalities appreciated by all the coaches and representatives present, making the final decision wasn’t too tough. Nevertheless, the entrants were all held in suspense during that decisive hour.
“I was pretty sure it’d come down to Westin, myself, and one other,” Nate admitted, “but it was still nerve-wracking when they were deciding. It felt more like three hours instead of one!”
And at the end of the day, both could sigh contentedly as they flew home. They’d been awarded $50,000 each toward a season in Spec MX-5 and NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge. In addition to the five races, this covers one test day and travel expenses.
“Honestly, I can’t say enough about what Mazda’s doing. It’s great they’re helping a lot of young guys out and giving them a shot — nobody else is doing that. This year’s Shootout went even smoother than last year’s, and the way we’re asked to market ourselves really helps us grow into professionals. They’ve really covered all the angles with the Spec MX-5 Shootout,” Westin said.
Preparing for the Future
Westin and Nate have one to-be-decided test day before they begin the 2022 Spec MX-5 Challenge. But before the actual driving begins, Nate will be getting back into his exhausting testing regimen. Gym sessions, time on the simulator, and no real break from karting, which will keep him fit and focused for the forthcoming season.
To keep competitive and push himself throughout his first full season in cars, Westin’s started meeting weekly with a personal trainer at Podium Performance. He’s also hired a marketing manager to ensure he has the funding needed to continue climbing the sports car ladder.
And continue climbing they will. Part of the spoils of victory in the Spec MX-5 Scholarship Shootout is an entry into next year’s MX-5 Cup Scholarship Shootout and a chance at climbing to the next rung and Teen Mazda Challenge helps pave the way. Truly, few organizations have laid out such a supportive, comprehensive plan for young drivers to establish themselves. If all goes well for these two aces, and it likely will, they may not have to worry too much about finding a seat for the 2023 season.