Something unorthodox and totally different may soon come to Martinsville Speedway.
Mazda MX-5 Cup, an IMSA sanctioned sports car series, conducted a two-day compatibility test at the Virginia half-mile short track on Monday and Tuesday. This is notable and unusual because these cars do not race on ovals but are instead companion events for the IMSA WeatherTech Championship and Verizon IndyCar Series.
In other words, this is a road course track day platform and not one associated with NASCAR.
But IMSA, which is owned by NASCAR, alongside Mazda are looking to expand the usage of the MX-5 platform and their combined leadership groups eventually talked themselves into testing at Martinsville.
The initial laps, on Monday, were conducted by road racing regulars Chad McCumbee, Connor Zilisch, Gresham Wagner and Tom Long with the goal of just establishing a baseline set-up before refining it on Tuesday.
“In my mind, we knew within the first hour that this would work,” McCumbee said. “Mazda and Flis Performance have given us a great platform and I believe the great racing you see with these cars on road courses could translate over here to oval land.”
This is coming from a veteran of both stock car and sports car competition.
“I’ve had a lot of fun,”Zilisch said on Monday. “I think there is a real possibility to put on a lot of good races at any number of race tracks.”
Thus, the test rolled into Tuesday where NASCAR Hall of Famers Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bobby Labonte jumped in the cars alongside IMSA president John Doonan and Martinsville Speedway president Clay Campbell. Earnhardt, a devotee of pavement short track racing, was convinced to make laps over the weekend while broadcasting the NASCAR weekend at Watkins Glen.
“I had a really good time in the car, right away, and they’re a lot of fun to drive,” Earnhardt said. “It comes with some challenges. The car is on edge and handles differently on both ends of the race track. Braking in this car is different than anything I’ve ever experienced and it has a light steering wheel, so that was something to get used to.
“I felt comfortable pretty quickly but finding the extra bit of speed I would need to compete with the guys who run these cars all the time, that’s going to be the real challenge.”
In short, literally everyone loved the experience and are already looking forward to the leadership groups getting back together to determine what comes next. Doonan, who previously served as Mazda’s director of North American motorsports, started the MX-5 Cup in 2006 so Tuesday was a full-circle moment that also pivoted towards the future.
“We knew this would be a good race car, the Miata MX-5, and everyone has seen the races on road courses, they’re magical and some of the most exciting things ever so then fast forward to today and a track that’s been known for incredible stock car and modified shows for decades and decades,” Doonan said. “So, to come here, with this selection of drivers, was unique and shows the versatility of the race car, that we could do this with minimal changes, springs and camber.
“Race fans have loved watching MX-5 Cup and I think they’ll really love to see it on an oval.”
So, what comes next?
“The first conversation begins with Mazda and the team there, to see if this kind of event would add value to what they’re doing with MX-5 Cup and their overall brand,” Doonan said. “Then we look for a place on the schedule where we can couple onto an existing event at Martinsville with Cup or the Whelen Modified Series and show what these little sports cars can do at a great facility.”
One can’t discuss the future of Miata racing at Martinsville without discussing its ridiculously glorious digital past in sim racing lore under the ‘Mooncar’ banner on iRacing. Mooncar is the streaming platform of Travis ‘Moonhead’ Brown, who has promoted countless over-the-top sim racing events over the years.
One of them was the 24 Hours of Moonhead, a Miata enduro which took place at a digital version of … you guessed it …. Martinsville Speedway. Now, that silly vision has come to serious real-life and Brown was on-site to take it in.
“Seeing Miatas making laps at Martinsville was incredible,” Brown said. “Watching a car and track combination that is so special to our community become a reality is one of the coolest things I’ve experienced.
“It’s easily the most exciting test session I’ve been to and I can only imagine what a bunch of them in an actual race setting could produce out there. I don’t know what I expected going in bit I was sold after three laps. Whatever happens, I think it’ll be as good if not better than what we’ve seen on iRacing.”
There have been plenty of silly Moonhead Miata races at Martinsville but a lot of serious ones over the years too and it’s something Doonan, Campbell and their contemporaries have all taken stock of in recent years.
Campbell says a race at Martinsville is no longer a matter of if but when.
“They were doing four car runs this morning and there was constant passing,” Cambell said. “It was awesome and I would pay to watch that. I can’t imagine 20 to 30 of them doing the same thing. Yesterday, they were really pleased and probably a little surprised how adaptive these cars were to Martinsville, and mostly because they never been here before it seen.
“This has worked out great and we’ve just spent today refining the rules package that we would probably use. Dale Jr. dropped in and turned some laps and was really excited. Bobby Labonte is here. I jumped in one and it’s just a lot of fun.”
Don’t count Earnhardt out of making a start if such a race comes to fruition.
“It’s already got a cult following in sim racing,” Earnhardt said. “The series is very exciting and well-respected, people know when they tune in to MX-5, whether it’s at Daytona or Road America, that they’re going to see a fantastic show.
“I think that they wanted to see what that would look like on a short track like Martinsville, and the sim world has already checked that box. It would be very tempting for a lot of oval racers to come be a part of the series if they were to come to Martinsville.”
Matt Weaver is a Motorsports Insider for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.