Andy Lally’s MX-5 Adventure

Endurance racing star and NASCAR Rookie of the Year Andy Lally joined Mazda MX-5 Cup for the MX-5 Cup Challenge at Sebring

Andy Lally, whose regular ride is in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship with Magnus Racing in the GT Daytona class, wasn’t aware of the Mazda MX-5 Cup Challenge race until he walked into the Laguna Seca paddock last year. There to drive for Magnus in the California 8 Hour round of the Intercontinental GT Challenge, someone joked that since he raced everything, he must be racing in the MX-5 Cup Challenge as well.

“I heard that Mazda put up this gigantic purse for a one-off race that weekend,” the four-time Rolex 24 at Daytona GT class winner says. “I said that would be pretty cool and made a mental note for if they did it next year. As 2018 rolled around, I’d forgotten about it, and my buddy Todd Lamb, who lives just down the road from me, gave me a ring and said, ‘I remember you having an interest. I’m going for it and I think it would be helpful to have a teammate to have a drafting partner. If you feel like it, I’ve got a second car you could use and we could hook you up.’ I said absolutely; it seemed like a cool challenge to try to adapt to something in a day of practice and get out there with the best guys on the planet that race these things.” 

Scheduled to take place with the Michelin IMSA SportsCar Encore at Sebring International Raceway, the Mazda MX-5 Cup Challenge brings the best MX-5 Cup racers from around the world for a shot at a $50,000 prize. This year, as last, the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires champion took home the big prize (Patrick Gallagher in 2017, Nathanial Sparks this year), but Lally had a good time, adapted quickly and had a good shot at it. He was even in position to win the second race until a mechanical problem struck.

“As expected, it was going to be a subtle art how you handle that specific car, that tire, that wheelbase, the power-to-weight ratio,” Lally says. “I took what I learned in the first race where I was a little bit sloppy here and there and learned from a couple of the good guys that I was following and racing with. I learned what to focus on and what was sort of white noise; what I could ignore. I was able to almost capitalize on it in race two, as we were in a really good position and I felt comfortable to fight at the front with all of those guys. It was an absolute blast, [but] the car unfortunately our day a bit early after we led a whole bunch of laps.”

For Lally, who also races street luge, it was fun to go racing on a no-pressure weekend. He drove down to Florida, stopping at a few skate parks along the way and even visited one in Orlando after the test day on Wednesday to hit a cool skate park, something he’d never do on a regular race weekend. 

And the MX-5 Cup car presents a different challenge from a stock car or a GT3 car – he raced an Audi R8 LMS GT3 for Magnus in 2018, and the team will switch to the Lamborghini Huracán for next season. 

“With the GT3 cars, even the stock cars, in fast corners, the front of those cars are making a lot of downforce, and if you get in dirty air, get right on somebody’s bumper, it’s very tricky to keep your speed and not lose the downforce,” Lally explains. “With MX-5 Cup cars, you don’t have to worry about that at all, and they are so closely paired. The fact that those tires really don’t fade – I think I set my fast lap of the first race on the last lap – that’s extremely unusual. The fuel burn helps with lap times because the tire is still there; you can push that tire the whole time.”

He adds that what he really needed to learn was the drivers and how close he could run with each of them. “I needed to be really close to these guys coming off the corner if I expected to get a run. By the time we get to the apex, our foot is flat on the gas, and if you haven’t beaten that guy to the power and you’re not right on his bumper, it’s going to be tricky to make a move there. The proximity of the racing is awesome. It would be great if every race car on the planet could race that close,” he says.

Lally finished sixth in his first MX-5 Cup race, and led five laps of the 10 he ran in the second. He says it’s something he’d love to make a yearly tradition.