Cicero Breaks Through at VIR for First Mazda MX-5 Cup Win

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Cicero Breaks Through at VIR for First Mazda MX-5 Cup Win

Championship contenders run into trouble

ALTON, Va. (August 26, 2023) – The latest Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Shootout winner, Nate Cicero (No. 83 McCumbee McAleer Racing), proved the judges made the right choice by earning his debut win at VIRginia International Raceway on Saturday. The rookie beat reigning series champion Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) to the line in a photo finish of 0.057-second.

Connor Zilisch (No. 72 Hixon Motor Sports), who is Cicero’s predecessor when it comes to winning the MX-5 Cup Shootout, controlled most of the 45-minute race. Starting from outside the front row, Zilisch took the lead almost immediately and headed a 10-car train for the first third of the race. He traded the top spot with Max Opalski (No. 3 Copeland Motorsports) and Gresham Wagner (No. 5 Spark Performance) briefly, but always took the lead back.

The first and only full-course caution of the race came out near the 15-minute mark when Selin Rollan (No. 87 Hixon Motor Sports) needed assistance removing himself from the Turn 17 tires. He was able to continue once pulled free but came to a stop and retired shortly thereafter.

The DNF is a blow to Rollan’s championship hopes and he wasn’t the only title contender to suffer on Saturday. Shortly before the yellow, Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Spark Performance) begin to fall down the order with mechanical issues, eventually falling to 23rd by the end of the race. And during the yellow, Wagner came onto pitlane with a car issue that the team tried to fix on pit lane but had to send him back out before he went a lap down. He would eventually finish 17th.

This left Thomas, the 2022 series champion and current point leader, as the sole championship contender still in contention for a podium.

As time ran out, the lead pack of five became a pack of four, when Robert Noaker (No. 13 Robert Noaker Racing) got crossed up in the famous Oak Tree turn.

When the white flag came out, Opalski made his move for the lead on the back straight and brought Thomas and Cicero with him. The quartet fanned out exiting the final turn and drag raced each other to the line. Zilisch ran out of room and chose to bump Cicero, which just may have been the boost the rookie needed to take the win by 0.057-second over Thomas.

“I got my first podium here last year, in Spec MX-5,” Cicero said. “This place has a good flow, I love this place. I managed to stay with the group and get it at the end. I saw Max [Opalski] had a bad exit out of the last corner after we got Connor [Zilisch] on the back straight away and I thought we could actually win this. I got down to the inside and we went three-wide. Connor actually gave me a nice push.”

After a tough race weekend at VIR last year, Thomas more than made up for it by going from sixth on the grid to second at the finish.

“It was definitely not the start of the race that I wanted, but I kind of just settled in,” Thomas said. “My spotters and crew chief were keeping me updated on what people were doing. I stayed patient and got the car in a good position at the end and it was a drag race to the finish line. I think Opalsky kind of set Zilisch up in Oak Tree and then the drafts on the straights here are so big, so we went by him. I didn’t expect to get a run to go three-wide, but I did, and it paid off.”

Zilisch beat Opalski for the final podium spot by 0.033-second.

“At first, I was kind of waiting for them to get impatient with the temperatures, especially with how hot it was,” Zilisch said of his time at the front. “I feel like as I race in this series more and more, I have gained experience in how to control the race and make it really hard for them to get by me. I wanted to stay out front and control the race and that’s what I did. I made one mistake on the last lap and that’s all it took. I had a really fast car; it was just driver error that cost myself the race.

“We have a few things that we can work on to make things a little easier on me. I didn’t block Opalsky along the back straightaway like I needed to and he was able to get by me, which made it easy on him. Tomorrow I will know what to do differently.”

Opalski had the lead exiting the final corner but was fourth by the time he got to the finish line. Noaker completed the top five.

Sunday’s Round 12 race will begin at 10:25am ET and be streamed live on Zilisch is provisionally slated to start from pole.