And Then There Were Three – Meet the Playboy MX-5 Cup Title Contenders
TOPEKA, Kan. – With the final two races of the season this week at Road Atlanta, the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup championship has come down to three drivers, with a fourth still mathematically in contention.
The man in the driver’s seat for the Mazda-funded ride higher up the development ladder next season is Stevan McAleer, who began his rookie season wondering if he had the resources for a full season in the No. 28 Blue Mercury Capital/Numerix MX-5. Two wins and seven podium finishes has kept the CJ Wilson Racing driver moving forward.
With just one event to go, McAleer has a 32-point lead over John Dean, and a 50-point lead over Ara Malkhassian. A strong 17-car field is expected this weekend, so with 60 points for a win and 26 points for finishing last, just a pair of decent finishes could clinch the title for McAleer.
Those all-too-critical points are a factor in the 28-year-old’s run this week.
“Yes, this weekend I will have a different approach for sure,” McAleer said. “I have no interest in fighting for position; my main objective is to stay on John’s bumper! If the opportunity arises then, of course, another win or podium would be nice but the 32 points can be gone very quickly with a bad finish.
“My nerves are super high, higher than they have been all year! I’m sure on paper I’m the clear favorite to win it, but we have all seen things happen to change championships around. I’m just going to try drive smart and stay out of trouble during both races.”
Dean entered the season as a complete unknown – not only was he a series rookie, but his Sick Sideways team was at a disadvantage to the more established CJ Wilson Racing squad. A win on the opening weekend at his home Sebring track established the No. 16 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5 as a race winner, and additional wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park cemented his role as title contender.
The 31-year-old, in his first season as a pro racer, has also helped his team to an additional win and three podium finishes with Christian Szymczak’s No. 34 Projections Research/Sick Sideways MX-5. Szymczak is mathematically alive at 58 points back, but in fourth place would need serious troubles from each of the top three contenders to move into the lead.
With the deficit, Dean has just one option – get to the front and gather all the points available, including five for winning the pole, one for leading a lap, and an additional point for leading the most laps.
“I am 32 points behind in the championship with only 2 races left,” Dean said. “My mindset is the same as it was at the beginning of the season – win races! If McAleer has any bad luck, we will be right there. If not, at least we can leave this year with our heads high.
“Our team has won five races, I have won four races, we have three drivers in the top five [including Nathanial Sparks], and we have set multiple track records so far this season. We came from racing Lemons cars to being the winningest team in the most competitive pro race series in the country in just one year. We have a lot to be happy about.”
Malkhassian is the veteran of the field, having missed just one start in the six-year history of the MX-5 Cup. The career leader in fastest race laps and top-five finishes, the No. 11 ALARA Racing MX-5 is also a two-time winner at Road Atlanta – including last season.
Malkhassian unfortunately saw his championship hole get a little bit bigger at Round Nine on Coronado Island when a transmission failure relegated him to a 12th place finish after running in the top five during the early part of the race.
“Our strategy this year has been to focus on consistency in finishes,” Malkhassian said. “The DNF at Coronado was a setback, but it doesn’t derail our overall plan of continuing to race strategically and let the race come to us. Unfortunately, the points gap dictates that it is going to take the 28 having a bad weekend in order for us to have a strong chance at the championship. We don’t wish that on anybody!
“Going into a double race finale at a track that ALARA Racing has won three times over the last five years is definitely a confidence boost!”
With Round 10 on Thursday afternoon at 4:45, followed by the finale at 8:15 a.m. on Friday, the 90 minutes of racing will decide the championship in a hurry. Will nerves play a factor? Spectacular driving? Those questions will be answered soon. Follow live timing and notes at www.MX-5Cup.com.
Watch the final two rounds on Velocity in high definition as part of the Mazda Motorsports Hour on Saturday, November 10 and Saturday, November 17, both at noon ET. Round Eight from Virginia International Raceway airs Saturday, October 20 at noon, with Round Nine from the Coronado Festival of Speed airing on October 27, also at noon.
Follow the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup on Twitter @MazdaMX5Cup.