Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca: Score one for the real racers

800_8864AB First came the car. Then came the car racing. Man’s need for speed has been well publicized. But you already know that story.

What sets auto racing apart from other sports that captivate us is its variety. While we adore baseball and football, they rarely diverge from the norm. Hit the ball, run around the bases, nine innings, three outs. Run up and down a painted field into an end zone. It’s different with motorsports. Plenty different. There’s road racing, track racing, dirt racing, hill climbing, off-roading, and more. They’re driving on an asphalt track, over desert sands, or even on a public street. You can race in circles, in a straight line, or on 14.7 miles of twists and turns. Racing cars is a big part of the American fabric, and we love it.

But like everything else in sports, the price to play has put auto racing for many virtually out of reach. For the bigger racing series — NASCAR, Indy Car, Formula One — it seems as if you need a degree in marketing more than you need driving talent. Why those bigger racing series are struggling: the fans can no longer relate to the superstar drivers or vehicles that barely resemble what they’re piloting on their daily commutes.

Where are the fans going? The trend is toward smaller, less-expensive, more grassroots racing where the race cars are closer to production versions than a NASCAR will ever be again.

Which is why we are at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, to watch and cheer for the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Series. As racing goes, the Mazda MX-5 Cup is relatively young. It started in 2006, and its purpose, according to Mazda, is to provide an opportunity to compete in similarly-prepared low-cost cars with limited modifications. It’s the entry-level of production car-based competition in SCCA Pro Racing. For 2013, the MX-5 Cup races will be held at six different tracks such as Sebring, Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, Mid Ohio, Road Atlanta, and others.

To put the money in perspective, to even think about running a car in NASCAR will cost somewhere north of $300,000. To be a competitive driver with real sponsorship money, figure closer to $25 million. If you think that’s bad, Red Bull’s Formula One racing team had a tab of close to $360 million. By comparison, the cost to run the entire MX-5 Cup Series is around $75,000. This figure doesn’t include the price of the race vehicle, an everyday MX-5 Miata you can purchase at your local dealership. Because this series is designed to appeal to everyone, the drivers can choose to run one or all of the races, and some do just that. Those who aren’t planning on making racing their career can compete in the series as a hobby. They can race at local tracks, enjoy the ambience offered by the host city, and not spend their children’s college fund in the process. A racing weekend can be as affordable as you want. It all depends on where you want to stay, how many people you want on your crew, and how much you can afford to spend on repairs, or as they call it, a “crash” budget.

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The limited modifications are so refreshingly short that it only takes a half page to list them all. Obviously, most are done for the driver’s safety, such as a rollcage, fire extinguisher system, and racing seat. The wheels are original equipment, the brakes rotors are stock, and you can’t even change the gear ratios on the stock six-speed transmission. How’s that for affordable!

For those who see this entry-level series as a stepping stone, it’s a great way to get a foot in the door, or on the track, as it were. If you win a race, the prize money is about $5,000, and if you win the entire series, the championship is worth $250,000 and a guarantee of sponsorship to move up into the next series.

The series consists of 12 races for 2013, and the races last 45 minutes, so we’re not talking 24-hour all-nighters, here. If you have your SCCA racing license, it’s easy to join, and the entry fee is $499/race. As a bonus, if you sign up and participate in the first 10 races, Mazda will pick up the tab for the last two. Even vehicle registration is affordable, at $250 for the entire 12-race series. Championship points are awarded based on qualifying sessions, pole position, and race winners.

For 2013, the MX-5 Cup Series has 20 drivers vying for the championship; the big news is there are two women among that 20 — Beth Chryst and Emilee Tominovich. Some of the racers in this group are in it for the sport; others are in it to win the chance to move up the racing ladder.

800_8605AZMeanwhile, back at the track, the MX-5 Cup/Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge held two races: one on Saturday, and one on Sunday. The Saturday race went to car #34, driven by Christian Szymczak from Palos Verdes, California, of team ALARA Racing. This was Szymczak’s second win; the first came at the season opener in Sebring in March.

As goes life, however, so goes racing. While Szymczak was on top for Saturday’s race, Saturday’s MX-5 Cup race went to Elliott Skeer from Vista, California, in the number 17 car, with Szymczak suffering from a DNF (did not finish).  This is Skeer’s second win, and that puts him in the points lead for 2013. The next race in the series is scheduled for June 14th at Mid-Ohio.

For more information on this great series, or to be a part of it, visit mx-5cup.com.

Photography: Scott Killeen/Team Killeen