Lessons Learned in MX-5 Cup

Good racers learn something every time they go out in the car. Some of those lessons are bigger than others.

Every racing season presents it lessons. Some come harder than others – the good among those mean a lost race; the bad mean bent sheet metal and expensive repairs. Sometimes they come the easy way. However the teachings come, the best racers take them to heart and do strive to make sure they don’t have to be told a second time.

We asked some Mazda MX-5 Cup racers about some of the biggest lessons they learned during the 2014 season as the Idemitsu MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich® Tires racers prepare to launch their season at Sebring next month. One of those who learned something the easy way is ALARA Racing principal Ara Malkhassian, whose schooling came as he watched Kenton Koch drive to the championship.

“I learned that you can learn from younger drivers,” Malkhassian laughs. “I thought I knew everything. But I learned new tricks from having Kenton on the team – you can teach an old dog new tricks, apparently.”

For Koch, whose ascension through the racing ranks has looked pretty easy so far, his biggest lesson came on the mental side of the game.

“It began at Mazda Raceway in Race 2,” he explains. “I drove pretty well during the second race, but the first race I realized what my mental state was and I figured out what I was doing wrong. Dr. Jacques Dallaire is a mental coach, and he has a book that’s all about the things you can do to mentally prepare yourself and how to get the best out of yourself as a driver. I had talked to him many times before, and I talked to him right after the first race and he told me I did this wrong and that wrong. I was, ‘Yeah, you didn’t even see the race, and you pretty much knew what I was doing wrong in a mental state.’ That’s where I took it seriously. It really sowed dividends, because from that moment on, I didn’t lose a pole. All my pole laps were on my first or second lap. I was able to put it down and get my mental preparation up there.”

Koch had the luxury of spending the previous season in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge, driving a car very similar to the MX-5 Cup cars. Joey Bickers, who got his ride with CJ Wilson Racing through winning the Mazda Club Racer Shootout, didn’t have that advantage; his background was in formula cars and Spec Miata. So his lessons were a bit more fundamental as he came to grips with the car and with pro racing.

“The MX-5 Cup platform can be fine tuned and you can feel small differences that can make significant gains on track,” he says. “I learned not only to drive to the best of my effort every session out, but to note the differences in the car between changes in alignment, shock setup, tire pressure, etc. It was a learning experience for me, having only had one year in racing prior to MX-5 Cup. I was still learning about car setup and feeling the car.”

Finally, Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Pro Challenge champ Drake Kemper illustrates wisdom beyond his years by noting something with which many long-time racers still have trouble – the only lap that really matters is the last one.

“There are so many things I learned,” Kemper says. “Two things that really stick out, though, are being incredibly smooth with the car; it doesn’t like being manhandled. The other is patience. You don’t have to lead every lap; you don’t even have to lead a lap. You only have to cross the finish line first. Be smart and draft for 90 percent of the race.”