By RACER Staff | August 22, 2023 4:58 PM ET
The Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires took part in two days of testing with four cars and eight total drivers, including NASCAR Hall of Famers Bobby Labonte and Dale Earnhardt Jr., as well as Martinsville Speedway track president Clay Campbell, to determine the feasibility of bringing the IMSA-sanctioned series to the half-mile track.
And while additional logistics and scheduling need to be hammered out, by the end of the two days, optimism from all sides was high that it would be feasible to bring the fan-favorite excitement of the MX-5 Cup to the oval in the future.
Prior to this week’s test, the Mazda MX-5 Cup had only seen action on road and street courses. Martinsville Speedway hadn’t seen an open-top race car turn laps since the NASCAR Convertible Series last raced there in 1959.
The test was a collaboration between NASCAR, IMSA, and track executives alongside Flis Performance and the Mazda MX-5 Cup. Flis Performance, based in Daytona Beach, Florida, builds the race cars.
“We’ve talked about it for a couple of years, would these be a good fit at Martinsville and we would like to see a test done to find that out,” Campbell said about the collaboration. “I think it’s just so unique, it’s never been done before. To run at an iconic facility like Martinsville brings something that is traditionally a road course car, it just has everybody pumped.”
It didn’t take long for Troy Flis, Managing Partner of Flis Performance, and the rest of the Flis Perfomance team to realize the test was a success, despite not knowing what to expect heading to Martinsville.
“We were a little bit concerned on how the cars were going to drive, but in realistically two-thirds of a day, the car was dialed in really well,” said Flis. “I think they’ll race really well, I’m super excited to see 30 or 35 of these things around Martinsville. It gives our drivers the opportunity to see a different style.”
He added that the best moment of the test for him was that realization on Monday that, “We can do this.”
“When that hit yesterday, that was cool. I think the biggest thing was us yesterday knowing that we could put on a really good show, and it’s not just a show. It would be competitive and it’s going to be hard to pass, and you’re going to have to not make mistakes. All the things that we try to introduce to these new kids coming into this series and try to learn before they get to the national level.”
Current Mazda MX-5 Cup regulars Connor Zilisch, the 2022 series rookie of the year, and Gresham Wagner, the 2021 series champion, took part in the test. They were joined by veteran driver Chad McCumbee, who brought extensive oval experience to the track with 105 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races under his belt, as well as numerous starts in the ARCA Menards Series and CARS Tour. Veteran sports car drivers Andrew Carbonell and Tom Long also joined the test.
“It’s about exactly as what I thought it would be, the car adapted amazingly well,” said McCumbee, who is also co-owner of McCumbee McAleer Racing, which fields an MX-5 Cup Series team. “That’s just a testament to what Mazda and Flis gave us for a platform to race with these cars. We’ll see what kind of limit we can get with these cars, but a lot of excitement.”
On Tuesday, Labonte, Earnhardt Jr. and Campbell also took turns around the track, providing their feedback on both the car and the excitement around the series testing at Martinsville.
Labonte agreed with other assessments that the MX-5 Cup could put on a great show for fans at Martinsville.
“I can see where you can start to run two-wide as the race goes on, and I know this is not a drafting place, but you can still feel it. I think that it would be for sure a little side-by-side battle and rubbing on each other a little bit, pretty exciting.”
For some, bringing the MX-5 Cup to Martinsville was like bringing a video game to life, as many have run the short track on iRacing with an MX-5 Cup car.
“It’s already got a cult following in sim racing,” said Earnhardt. “The series is very exciting and well-respected, people know when they tune in to MX-5, whether it’s at Daytona or Road America, that they’re going to see a fantastic show. And I think that they want to see what that would look like on a short track like Martinsville, and the sim world has already checked that box. It would be very tempting for a lot of oval racers to come be a part of the series if they were to come to Martinsville.”
Any plans to add the Mazda MX-5 Cup to the Martinsville Speedway calendar will be released at a later date, but the appeal is there for Campbell.
“We’re always trying to attract new fans to our events here at Martinsville,” Campbell said. “I hope to be able to run one of these in the very near future, I think the fans would love it. Drafting, passing, side-by-side, that’s what fans want to see.”
The Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich Tires has two races this weekend at VIRginia International Raceway and ends its season at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta. All races are streamed live on RACER.com.