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.”

After Will Power extension, Marcus Ericsson among IndyCar drivers awaiting new deals

IndyCar free agents
Chris Owens, Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment

FORT WORTH, Texas – Defending series champion Will Power’s name is off the board of potential IndyCar free agents, but there’s still much to be settled in the field – starting with the reigning Indy 500 winner.

Marcus Ericsson is waiting on a contract offer to remain with Chip Ganassi Racing beyond the 2023 season (his fourth with the team). The Swede said he’s made it clear to car owner Chip Ganassi that he wants to stay in the No. 8 Dallara-Honda, which has four victories since June 2021.

“Yeah, it’s up to him, basically,” Ericsson said Friday at Texas Motor Speedway. “He needs to give me an offer for ’24 onward. The ball is in his corner. I really enjoy it at Ganassi, and we’ve done a lot of great things together and would love to continue, but the ball is in his corner. He knows very well what I want.”

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Two days before Ericsson won the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg season opener March 5, Ganassi sang the praises of the emerging star driver to a small group of reporters.

“I want him here beyond this year,” Ganassi said of Ericsson. “He seems to have gotten more out of winning the Indy 500 than anyone else has of recent time, which is a good thing. He did a good job. He’s been everywhere. It’s been a really positive thing for Marcus, the team, the series. He’s grown with that as well.”

Ericsson didn’t sew up his current deal until late in his breakthrough 2021 season (after a memorable victory in the inaugural Music City Grand Prix). So he isn’t necessarily anxious about it but conceded he “was thinking a bit about it over the winner in the offseason and talking about it

“But now that the season has started, I told my managers and everyone I want to focus on the driving. They focus on those things. Now the season is on, and I want to try to win races, win another 500 and championship. That’s where my focus is. (A new contract) is one of those things that happens when it happens. But I’m happy where I am, and I want to do well.”

IndyCar’s two best teams, Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, tend to be very tight-lipped about their drivers’ contract status.

Power confirmed Friday to journalist Bruce Martin that his new deal was for multiple seasons. That means all three of Penske’s drivers are in multiple-year contracts (unlike Power’s deal, Scott McLaughlin’s extension was announced by the team last year).

But there is more uncertainty at Ganassi’s four cars aside from Ericsson. While Scott Dixon has a ride for as long as he wants (and the six-time champion has given no indication of retiring), Ganassi’s other two other seats have yet to be solidified beyond 2023.

The No. 11 is being split this year by rookie Marcus Armstrong and veteran Takuma Sato this season. In  the No. 10, Alex Palou is believed to be in his final year at Ganassi before heading to Arrow McLaren.

That expected move would cast doubt on the future of Felix Rosenqvist, who returned to Arrow McLaren when the team was unable to bring in Palou (who was embroiled in a contract dispute with Ganassi).

Aside from Penske, virtually every other IndyCar team (including Andretti Autosport, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Meyer Shank Racing, which has Helio Castroneves in a contract year) has seats that potentially could open for next season, and even drivers who appear to be under contract for next year still could be on the move (via buyouts and option years).

Though Juncos Hollinger Racing announced a “long-term, multiyear contract partnership” last July with Callum Ilott, but the second-year driver was cagey Friday when asked about how long the extension ran.

“It’s for whatever I want it to be,” said Ilott, who finished a career-best fifth at St. Petersburg. “I’ll say that.”

Before returning to JHR, Ilott turned enough heads as a rookie to draw interest from several teams, and he indicated Friday that he still would be listening.

“I’d love to talk to some other big teams,” Ilott said. “Nothing stops me from talking. Look, you’ve got to be fair. I agreed to (the deal), but it’s pretty obvious that I’m quite interested as people are interested in me as a driver, but I need to focus on the job I’ve got here.

“I’m confident whether it’s in one year, two years, three years, four years, that if I’m wanted now, I’ll always be wanted. I’m a good enough driver that I don’t need to lack confidence in that side. … I’m not worried.”