Daytona International Speedway is unique on the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich schedule. While all of the tracks the series visits have their long straights, the season-opener on Daytona’s 3.87-mile road course has two very long “straights,” punctuated by the tricky Bus Stop chicane.
Those “straights” are made up from more than two thirds of Daytona’s 2.5-mile tri-oval, 31-degree banking included, which is why NASCAR-style drafting is absolutely fundamental. It makes for some spectacular racing from the evenly-matched MX-5 Cup cars, but it’s one element of a whole.
“More so than a lot of other tracks, you just have to accept that you’re going to be passed at some point and get shuffled around a bit,” explains 2021 Mazda MX-5 Cup champion Gresham Wagner, who kick-started his title-winning season with a Daytona race victory. “So it’s very important to keep your head and keep your cool and know that it’s just part of racing here, right? You might be in the lead, and three or four people blow past you one lap. But it’s not the end of the world.
“Other tracks, if you got shuffled back to fifth or sixth place, it would be a tough road ahead. But just as easily [as you got passed], if you keep a cool head and race smart, you can get those spots back and shuffle your way back up to the front.”
From the outside it looks like pure insanity. Two or three rows of cars inches apart – and taking a page from the Daytona 500 playback, sometimes even bump-drafting – blasting around Daytona’s high banks in the tightest of packs. It’s spectacular, but not as crazy as it appears.
“You feel vulnerable, I guess, because if they decide that they want to shuffle you from the lead to eighth place, they can do that,” says Wagner. “And there’s not much you can do to stop it. You need to accept it’s a possibility, but you hope that it doesn’t happen. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking, not knowing what people behind you are going to do. I trust everyone to drive smart and to race clean, and it was two great, tight races last year with no issues. It’s more of a personal concern for my own race.”
Daytona, though, isn’t just about the draft and the spectacular pack racing that the draft can produce in the MX-5 Cup field. While the oval sections of the track can give a driver a chance to reset and relax (relatively speaking…), the racers have to do that without letting concentration slip. And on the rest of the road course, all the fundamentals of road racing still apply.
“You have to not overdrive some of the corners that may seem a bit easy,” Wagner explains. “It’s easy to focus on the oval and the draft, and kind of forget the fundamentals of taking the other corners. You hyper-focus on one aspect, and before you know it you’ve overshot a corner or dropped a tire. So it’s keeping the fundamentals in mind and driving the track like any other, while understanding that there’s drafting involved.”
Wagner notes that there may not be big advantages to find in the infield section in a race, and if a single car does put a gap on the cars behind him, that gap is going to disappear in a hurry once the race returns to the oval. But if a group of cars is hustling that section and can put a gap to the next group, that interval isn’t as likely to be erased. And, as the reigning champ notes, it’s way better to be racing three or four cars at the end than eight or nine.
When that final dash for the checker comes, no matter how many cars are in the lead pack, the Bus Stop enters the spotlight. The backstretch chicane that separates the two long straights is a tricky sequence where it’s so easy to make a mistake, and all the focus is on exit speed. Most drivers, Wagner included, would probably prefer not to lead going into the Bus Stop, but doing so isn’t necessarily a guaranteed losing proposition.
“I wouldn’t immediately write it off,” Wagner says. “It really depends who’s behind you, how many cars, and the runs from further back, where seventh or eighth place might be running up on a big draft in front of them. All of that determines whether first place is just going to get pushed by second or third and hold on, or seventh and eighth are going to come up and blow it wide open and everybody’s going to scramble. That’s why it’s so incredible to race here.”
If all that sounds exciting – which it should – don’t forget you can watch the livestream of MX-5 Cup right here on RACER.com. Race 1 from Daytona is Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET, and Race 2 is Friday at 10:15 a.m ET. Enjoy the show!