Couch Dominates 2023 Spec MX-5 Challenge Season Opener

The Spec MX-5 Challenge presented by Toyo Tires kicked off the 2023 season at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in southern California this past weekend. CalClub provided superb SCCA hospitality, split-start racing, and the option for our drivers to compete in both the SMX & STL run groups – offering double the track time for the weekend’s SCCA US Majors Tour. After historic rainfall over Southern California for the past month, the sun would grace the circuit for the entirety of the event.

With a total of nine racers being able to complete their car builds or modifications in time for the event, Round 1 saw it’s fair share of returning racers and newcomers to the Series. Returning to the Series for 2023, rising star Wyatt Couch would dominate while out on track; claiming pole position and winning both races by a substantial margin, where the rest of the field enjoyed incredibly tight racing between the eight of them.

Series-exclusive driver’s briefing with the Race Director – image courtesy of Matt Formica

Cool temperatures and clear skies provided perfect track conditions for Saturday’s qualifying session, seeing Couch jump to the top of the timing sheets on lap 3 with an unbeatable time of 1:55.721. Series veteran Todd Launchbaugh was not far behind, setting the second-fastest time in the morning, just .7 seconds off the benchmark. AJ Zarcone would claim the third fastest time, with Spec Miata convert Ryan Gutile in fourth, and returning racer Jon Davies rounding out the top-5.

Series rookie Mike Neumeyer after qualifying with Kirk Haag and son – image courtesy of Matt Formica

The first race of the 2023 season would be later Saturday afternoon, where after the first turn Couch wouldn’t need to look in his mirrors again as he would be two seconds clear of the field by the end of the first lap. Zarcone would have a great start, keeping with Launchbaugh and making the pass on the second lap at “Cotton Corner”. Launchbaugh continued to drop down the order, but would find his feet and climb back into fourth position, with Series sophomore Davies sitting comfortably in third. Zarcone would drive some quick laps, seeing him just over a second behind Couch at one point, but Couch would pick up the pace and cross the finish line as the checkered flag waved a full six seconds ahead of Zarcone in second, and Davies in third. Series rookies would finish further down the order after coming grips with their new-to-them Spec MX-5s.

Intense action on the opening lap – image courtesy of Matt Formica
Race 1 podium with Jon Davies, Wyatt Couch, and AJ Zarcone – image courtesy of Matt Formica

The star of Sunday’s race would be longtime Series veteran, and last year’s Master’s Champion Wes Mollno, who was unable to qualify and race on Saturday due to mechanical problems. With fresh tires and fire in his belly, the “Alonso of SMX” would storm through the field from ninth on the grid, making multiple overtakes on the first lap to find himself in fourth position by the start of the second lap! For the next several laps, longtime friends and competitors Mollno and Launchbaugh would battle it out for third place, with Mollno finally making the overtake on lap nine. With Couch already over seven seconds out front, the clash for second place would catch the eyes of the entire paddock. Zarcone would valiantly defend, but in the end Mollno would snatch second place on the final lap. Couch cruised for a double victory, more than eight seconds ahead of Mollno in second, and Zarcone third – a thrilling ending to a fantastic opening weekend.

Mollno rapidly approach Launchbaugh, before a multi lap battle would ensue – image courtesy of Matt Formica
Race 2 podium saw the return of both AJ Zarcone and Wyatt Couch, with Wes Mollno’s first appearance of the season – image courtesy of Matt Formica

This weekend Spec MX-5 Challenge Series heads East for Round 2, seeing the Series return to Summit Point Motorsports Park for the first time since 2021, with the DC SCCA hosting us for another US Major Tour event. As Spec MX-5 is scheduled to race in our own run group, competition is expected to be close and fierce. Both SCCA US Major Tour races will be streamed live on the Washington DC SCCA Region’s YouTube page – make sure to follow along on our socials for links and timings to the races!

Thrilling racing as always in Spec MX-5 – image courtesy of Matt Formica
Finishing touches before a long and competitive season – image courtesy of Matt Formica
Couch, Mollno, and Zarcone after Race 2 – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#66 Wyatt Couch – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#31 AJ Zarcone – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#67 Jon Davies – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#13 Todd Launchbaugh – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#10 Wes Mollno – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#116 Ryan Gutile – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#5 Adrian Comstock – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#25 Mike Neumeyer – image courtesy of Matt Formica
#15 Carl Young – image courtesy of Matt Formica

Images courtesy of Matt Formica Photography

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