Aidan Fassnacht collected his first Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup presented by BFGoodrich® Tires podium in Friday’s race and now he has his first win in the No. 15 McCumbee McAleer Racing MX-5. The rookie started last on the grid and drove through the field of 29 cars and into victory lane at Watkins Glen International on Saturday.
Fassnacht’s biggest competition was another rookie, Bruno Carneiro (No. 21 Hixon Motor Sports), who came up just 0.075s short of taking his first ever win but did earn his first career Mazda MX-5 Cup podium.
Championship points leader Jared Thomas (No. 96 JTR Motorsports Engineering) completed the top three.
Just like Friday’s round seven race, Fassnacht started at the back of the grid due to a post-qualifying technical infraction. On the first lap alone, the 19-year-old picked up 17 positions. He was up to fifth place by lap four and started to chase down the lead pack of cars, but without a drafting partner or any full-course yellows.
“MMR had this MX-5 Cup car just dialed in,” Fassnacht said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better weapon to get the job done. I just kept my head down. I was considering trying to drop back into the pack behind me and use them to try and catch the group. Lap after lap I noticed that I was catching them. I kept the foot down on the right and just kept going.”
When he did catch the pack, it turned into a five-car train. Watkins Glen’s famous “Boot” (Turns 3 and 4) was the sight of several impressive passes. With less than 20 minutes left in the 45-minute race, Fassnacht was around Aaron Jeansonne (No. 24 Spark Performance) for the lead.
For seven laps, the battle was on between Fassnacht and Carneiro; both rookies eager to get their first win. Carneiro got the better of Fassnacht on the penultimate lap, but Fassnacht re-took the lead on the lap that mattered most and beat Carneiro to the checkered flag by just a few feet.
“I’ve only been here once before,” Fassnacht said. “It’s the first track that I have experience at on the schedule, though. This track is a very special place for me. I’ve watched my dad win here in several different championships. He’s come from the back in MX-5 Cup at Watkins Glen in the rain. It makes it that much more special that I get to share that with him. The rest of my family is here, it’s a really great day.”
Making up 28 positions in the race made Fassnacht the Hard Charger for the second consecutive race. The award pays $1,000 to him and $1,000 to his crew chief.
Carneiro was disappointed to not get his first win but chose to focus on celebrating his first podium finish.
“I’m covering it up because it is my first podium of the season,” Carneiro said. “It’s been a rough season so far just with bad luck. Finally, we got the Hixon car on the podium. I’m a little upset though; I had the run on the last lap there and kind of got put in the grass. It’s impossible to make a pass in the grass, so I’m a little upset but I’m trying to keep my head high. I feel like it was a win in a way.”
Leading the field for several laps made Carneiro feel right at home after taking a few years off from racing.
“I felt more at home,” Carneiro explained. “I took a couple years off just financially to try and get back into racing. It felt good to be back in the lead.
“Thank you to Hixon Motor Sports, Sendero Wealth Management, Rodizio Grill, Arai and Kimberkable for getting me here. Thanks to the awesome ‘in my ear all the time’ guy John Weisberg for having to deal with me crying and moaning all the time. I’m thankful to have just a great team behind me. Andrew Carbonell set up an amazing car. We’ll see what we can do next weekend at Road America.”
The wise elder in comparison to his fellow podium finishers, Thomas was hoping his experience would help him capitalize on any rookie mistakes, but by the middle of the race, he had to worry about traffic coming up behind him.
“It definitely threw a wrench in my plans, that’s for sure,” Thomas said. “I knew that he was going to get there. The spotter was giving me 15 minutes to go. I could see that he was about 15 cars back coming with speed. I’m like, ‘They are going to catch me.’ I didn’t really want to be the first one to get caught so I tried to position myself. When they came, they came with so much speed, I kind of let him around. I let him get around me and fell back in. I knew it was going to be hectic at the end, so I just played the long game there and ended up with a good podium finish.”
Ultimately, he was thankful for a caution-free race and to collect more valuable championship points. If he succeeds in leading the championship through the end of the season, the $250,000 payout from Mazda is his.
“I was just waiting,” Thomas said. “I knew someone was going to give up a spot, so I was just going to be there to capitalize on the situation. We are points racing at this point, so a good podium finish is what we are looking for. It was definitely exciting. I let those guys duke it out.”
Rookies really won the day at Watkins Glen: Bryce Cornet (No. 65 Hixon Motor Sports) and John Jodoin (No. 39 McCumbee McAleer Racing) completed the top five. For each driver, it is their best MX-5 Cup finish thus far. This only tightens the fight for Rookie of the Year honors, which comes with a $80,000 prize from Mazda.
It’s a quick turnaround to rounds nine and 10 at Road America — cars are scheduled to be on track starting Thursday, June 30. Mazda MX-5 Cup will race alongside the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity series for the first time in its history. Races are scheduled for Saturday, July 2 and Sunday, July 3, both at 9:05 a.m. CT. They will be streamed live on RACER.com and IMSA.com/tvlive.