With Chase Elliott and Mike Helton as fans, MX-5 Cup draws NASCAR crossover interest

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After practice for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut, Chase Elliott decided to linger on Action Express’ pit timing stand to watch the Mazda MX-5 Cup 2021 season opener.

The four-time most popular driver in NASCAR wasn’t disappointed by the action.

Drafting in tight packs on the banks of Daytona International Speedway while banging fenders through the track’s infield road course, the race produced a thrilling finish with the top four separated by less than 0.2 seconds at the checkered flag.

“That was one of the best races I’ve ever watched, just as a fan sitting there,” Elliott said with a broad smile while recalling the MX-5 Cup event last weekend (two days before he won at Nashville Superspeedway). “I thought it was really cool. And those guys put on a great show, but I think that track really suited the way those cars were kind of set up and they could draft, they were going slow enough where they really drafted on the straightaways. And then they looked really fun to drive through the road course section. And it had this really cool balance. I thought it was really entertaining.”

Elliott has become a casual fan, occasionally watching MX-5 Cup races and highlights – and he plans to be watching in person this weekend at Road America when the sports car series will race twice as a companion event to the Xfinity and Cup Series (while IMSA’s premier WeatherTech SportsCar Championship races in Canada).

Elliott has become one of many NASCAR connections to the Mazda MX-5 Cup. By virtue of being sanctioned since last year by IMSA (which is owned by NASCAR), there already are some natural instances of convergence, but the Road America entry list features several more ties. MX-5 Cup rookie Connor Zilisch (who qualified first Friday) is managed by Kevin Harvick Inc., and series title contender Chris Nunes hails from the same Southern California region as seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.

But it’s the memorable racing that has built even stronger bonds. MX-5 Cup races have become appointment viewing for NASCAR executive vice president Mike Helton when he attends IMSA race weekends.

“It’s been fun to have the MX-5 Cup property and putting it in front of our audience and NASCAR folks,” IMSA president John Doonan told NBC Sports. “Mike definitely loves coming to IMSA races to watch MX-5 Cup. Anyone who is a race fan, whether short track stock car race or a road course race, wants to see a good show. And no question MX-5 Cup puts on a great show every time they’re out there.”

The Mazda MX-5 Cup opens its season at Daytona International Speedway (Mazda Motorsports/Ignite Media).

Parker Kligerman will get firsthand experience with a doubleheader Saturday and Sunday (both race will be streamed at 10 a.m. ET on IMSA.com/tvlive), making his MX-5 Cup debut in the No. 75 of Thunder Bunny Racing.

Kligerman, who races part time in NASCAR while also working as an NBC Sports pit reporter, caught the eye of MX-5 Cup officials when he tweeted that the series consistently delivered outstanding racing. The post spurred conversations about getting him in an MX-5 Cup race.

In his MX-5 Cup practice debut Friday, Kligerman turned the ninth-fastest lap.

“They looked at the schedule this year, and Road America being the first companion race with NASCAR, they said it would be fun if someone from NASCAR would come race,” Kligerman told NBC Sports. “And they asked if I was interested, and it was, ‘100 percent.’

“It’s a cool thing. I’ve always wanted to experience this, and I got to race a spec Miata at Lime Rock (the Connecticut track co-owned by Kligerman) last year and had a blast, and this is the top level of that, essentially. So I was like, ‘Sign me up!’ I’m pumped because I think it just looks like some of the most fun, pure racing. You grow up thinking as a kid this is what racing is going to be like all the time. Packs of cars, using aerodynamics, slingshot passes and that sort of thing. It doesn’t quite work out that way when you get to the top, but this looks like it would be that.”

Kligerman, who discussed Mazda’s racing history during his “In The Wall” video series this week, believes the quality of racing can be traced to the MX-5 Cup’s production-based formula, which shares some traits with NASCAR’s new Next Gen car in Cup.

As a former Mazda executive, Doonan helped build the series more than 15 years ago. MX-5 Cup moved to its current model in 2015. The cars are built in Mazda’s primary factory in Hiroshima, Japan, and shipped to Florida, where they are transformed into race cars by Fils Performance in Daytona Beach.

More than 250 motorsports-specific parts are added to the production car, along with a full roll cage and sealed engines, transmissions, shocks and ECUs.

“In a lot of ways, the MX-5 Cup car philosophy aligns exactly with what the Next Gen car is all about,” Doonan said. “This cost-effective platform that level-sets for whatever the team size is. There’s a one-car team that have won the championship twice. That’s the philosophy that MX-5 has.

The Mazda MX-5 Cup features a production-based style of racing on road courses around the country (Mazda Motorsports/Ignite Media).

“It is no secret that racing is some of the best in the world. The close finishes. The racecraft that it teaches. And it’s also very cost effective for the competitors. The car is all about setup and driving talent.”

Doonan is hopeful of a “One NASCAR” philosophy possibly helping foster more crossover to MX-5 Cup in the future. Though manufacturer loyalties to Chevy, Ford and Toyota might limit the options for stars such as Elliott, some other NASCAR veterans have expressed interest in racing the series.

“The more the NASCAR-owned properties that can work together, the better,” Doonan said. “And given the opportunities with a few more road courses on the (Cup) schedule, it opens up opportunities to bring a different look and property to the NASCAR audience. And the MX-5 audience and IMSA audience as a whole has a different perspective on NASCAR these days with the new car and more road courses. You’re seeing a lot of parallels.”

Kligerman, who is squeezing in driving the MX-5 Cup car in between his NASCAR on NBC pit work this weekend, said some drivers have told him they are jealous of his moonlighting this weekend.

“I hope I represent NASCAR well,” said Kligerman, a two-time winner in the truck series. “I hope Chase and everyone is proud of me. I’m jumping in the deep end with very little practice, but I’m going in open-minded knowing I could suck. I hope to be respectful and improve throughout the weekend.

“I definitely could see more NASCAR guys racing (MX-5 Cup) as long as they can get their manufacturer approval to do it. We’re all racers. We can appreciate great racing. And when we see something that looks like it would just be fun, that’s really enticing. I can imagine a bunch of guys want to do it.”

World of Outlaws release 2023 Sprint Car Series schedule

2023 Outlaws Sprint schedule
World of Outlaws

The 2023 World of Outlaws Sprint Car Series schedule features 87 races, almost identical to the last year’s number, to be contested at 36 venues across 19 states. With cancelations for mostly weather, they closed out this year’s calendar on November 5 with 69 events in the books. Carson Macedo won a series high 11 races.

In 2022, David Gravel chased Brad Sweet into the three-race finale on the Dirt Track at Charlotte Motor Speedway in one of the most hotly contested championships in Outlaws history. Sweet emerged victorious for the fourth straight year.

For the 19th consecutive season, the Outlaws Sprints will begin their season at Volusia Speedway Park for the DIRTcar Nationals from Feb. 9-11 and will return March 5-6 for another two-day show before hitting the road with a three-track swing into Pennsylvania to take on the Posse.

MORE: 2023 World of Outlaws Late Model Schedule

“Every year we continue to build the best schedule we can for drivers and fans across the country,” said World of Outlaws CEO Brian Carter is a series release. “I’m excited for the journey we’ve put together, which includes the biggest races in Sprint Car racing, our new Spring Swing through Pennsylvania, the thrill of combining the World of Outlaws and ‘Bike Week’ and so much more.”

Some tracks returning from hiatus and one brand new course include 81 Speedway in Park City, Kans. in April and again in October, Tri-City Speedway in Pontoon City, Ill. in April, Ogilvie (Minn.) Raceway in June and BAPS Motor Speedway in York Haven, Penn.

BAPS hosts its first race in more than 30 years when the track was known as Susquehanna Speedway. This midweek show will give the local Pennsylvania Posse 14 attempts to beat the traveling Outlaws.

Ogilvie Speedway is completely new to the series and makes it the 224th different venue they will have challenged.

MORE: Brad Sweet protects his place in history

Notably missing from the calendar are Vado (N.M.) Speedway Park, Cotton Bowl Speedway in Paige, Texas, Bakersfield (Calif.) Speedway and the Bristol Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

In addition to the new spring Pennsylvania Swing, the second date at Volusia Speedway will coincide with Daytona Beach’s Bike Week and bring new eyes to the sport.

Knoxville Raceway adds another multi-night show to the calendar in April, giving this track eight sanctioned events in 2023.

And of course, there are plenty of mainstays and high dollar events, such as the Memorial Day Spectacular at Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Speedway, the 35th running of the Brad Doty Classic in July and the Labor Day Spectacular at Gray’s Harbor in Elma, Wash.

Several big paydays are on the line in 2023 including the 40th annual Kings Royal at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio paying $175,000 to the winner, the Huset’s High Bank Nationals’ $250,000-to-win finale and the grandaddy of them all, the 62nd Knoxville Nationals with a total purse exceeding $1 million.

2023 Outlaws Sprint Schedule

Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 9-11 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)

Sunday-Monday, March 5-6 – Volusia Speedway Park (Barberville, FL)
Friday-Saturday, March 10-11 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, March 17 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday, March 18 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday, March 24 – Talladega Short Track (Eastaboga, AL)
Saturday, March 25 – Magnolia Motor Speedway (Columbus, MS)
Friday, March 31-Saturday, April 1 – Devil’s Bowl Speedway (Mesquite, TX)

Friday, April 7 – US-36 Raceway (Osborn, MO)
Saturday, April 8 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, April 14-15 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Friday-Saturday, April 21-22 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday, April 28 – Tri-City Speedway (Granite City, IL)
Saturday, April 29 – Tri-State Speedway (Haubstadt, IN)

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, May 10 – Lincoln Speedway (Abbottstown, PA)
Friday-Saturday, May 12-13 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Friday, May 19 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Saturday, May 20 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, May 26-27 – Atomic Speedway (Chillicothe, OH)
Monday, May 29 – Lawrenceburg Speedway (Lawrenceburg, IN)

Friday, June 2 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, June 3 – Ogilvie Raceway (Ogilvie, MN)
Friday-Saturday, June 9-10 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Friday-Saturday, June 16-17 – Beaver Dam Raceway (Beaver Dam, WI)
Wednesday-Saturday, June 21-24 – Huset’s Speedway (Brandon, SD)
Friday, June 30-Saturday, July 1 – Cedar Lake Speedway (New Richmond, WI)

Friday, July 7 – 34 Raceway (West Burlington, IA)
Saturday, July 8 – Wilmot Raceway (Wilmot, WI)
Tuesday, July 11 – Attica Raceway Park (Attica, OH)
Friday-Saturday, July 14-15 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Wednesday, July 19 – BAPS Motor Speedway (York Haven, PA)
Friday-Saturday, July 21-22 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)
Saturday-Sunday, July 29-30 – Weedsport Speedway (Weedsport, NY)

Friday-Saturday, Aug. 4-5 – Federated Auto Parts Raceway at I-55 (Pevely, MO)
Wednesday-Saturday, Aug. 9-12 – Knoxville Raceway (Knoxville, IA)
Thursday-Saturday, Aug. 17-19 – Jackson Motorplex (Jackson, MN)
Friday, Aug. 25 – River Cities Speedway (Grand Forks, ND)
Saturday, Aug. 26 – Red River Valley Speedway (West Fargo, ND)
Thursday, Aug. 31-Saturday, September 2 – Skagit Speedway (Alger, WA)

Monday, Sept. 4 – Grays Harbor Raceway (Elma, WA)
Thursday-Saturday, Sept. 7-9 – Silver Dollar Speedway (Chico, CA)
Friday, Sept. 15 – Keller Auto Speedway (Hanford, CA)
Saturday, Sept. 16 – Placerville Speedway (Placerville, CA)
Friday, Sept. 22 – Eldora Speedway (Rossburg, OH)
Saturday, Sept. 23 – Sharon Speedway (Hartford, OH)
Friday-Saturday, Sept. 29-30 – Williams Grove Speedway (Mechanicsburg, PA)

Friday-Saturday, Oct. 6-7 – Port Royal Speedway (Port Royal, PA)
Friday, Oct. 13 – 81 Speedway (Park City, KS)
Saturday, Oct. 14 – Lakeside Speedway (Kansas City, KS)
Friday-Saturday, Oct. 20-21 – TBA

Wednesday-Saturday, Nov. 1-4 – The Dirt Track at Charlotte (Concord, NC)