Round 7 of the 2023 Spec MX-5 Challenge Series presented by Toyo Tires took place over the weekend at Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, South Carolina. Located near Camden, South Carolina’s oldest inland city, this weekend marked the first time the Series held a race weekend at CMP. Joining NCR SCCA for their Memorial Day Monster Major Event, unseasonably cold, rainy weather would plague the track for both Saturday and Sunday, providing an added challenge to the field of young SMX drivers as they pushed to gain valuable points with the halfway point of the 2023 season rapidly approaching.
Heavy rain would start falling before race 1 on Saturday, which would see Championship front runner Alex Bertagnoli start from pitlane to storm through the entire SMX & SM field to finish P2 in one of the Series’ most memorable drives. Rookie Will Robusto would drive a solid race to win race 1, with Nico Bratz earning his first podium in the Series with P3. Race 2 on Sunday proved to be one of not only skill, but also perseverance as drivers would struggle to keep their cars on track due to the heavy rain. Nicholson shined with a practically flag-to-flag win, feeling at one with his red #95 Belgard machine and going on to win by over seven seconds. Will Robusto had another strong race, claiming his second trophy of the weekend in P2, with Noah Harmon grabbing the last step on the podium. Both Robusto & Nicholson each had something to celebrate besides racing this weekend, as Robusto missed his high school graduation to participate in round 7, and Nicholson celebrated his seventeenth birthday.
Saturday’s qualifying session saw cloudy skies and slight drizzle, proving to be the weekend’s session with the quickest times. Front runner Alex Bertagnoli would snatch pole position with a blistering lap of 1:56.204, almost a full second clear of his nearest competitor. Nathan Nicholson would go second fastest, with Series newcomer Noah Harmon following just .2 seconds behind for P3. Will Robusto went fourth quickest, and veteran Jarrett Jones would round out the top five with a time of 1:58.800 for his best qualifying position of the season.
Temperatures continued to drop into the early afternoon, bringing more rain and a late Alex Bertagnoli to the grid. The pole setter was forced to start from pitlane as the field headed to the track, setting a fire in his belly that would unleash one of the most remarkable drives in Spec MX-5 history. As the green flag waved, Noah Harmon roared down the front straight to dive into the inside of turn one, snatching the lead from Nathan Nicholson. Harmon would widen the gap to the rest of the field as Bertagnoli began his march through the slower Spec Miatas.
By lap three, Bertagnoli was through the Spec Miata field and began to maneuver through Spec MX-5’s who were struggling in the wet. Harmon’s pace began to slow as he dealt with a blown-out tire, relinquishing the lead to Nicholson who had Will Robusto hot on his heals. The fast-charging Bertagnoli soon found himself in third after passing Nico Bratz, seeing an opportunity ahead as Nicholson & Robusto pushed each other to their limits in the wet. Robusto would snatch the lead on the penultimate lap and go on to win race 1, with Bertagnoli running out of laps to settle for P2 after gaining a miraculous twenty-two (22!) positions during his recovery race. Bratz would keep Nicholson at bay to finish in P3 and earn his first podium since joining the Series. Harmon would incredibly finish in P5 after driving most of the race with a flat tire. Corbin Collins enjoyed his best finish of the season in P6.
The rain returned with a vengeance Sunday morning, seeing the SCCA decide to cancel qualifying 2 and head straight to racing. Bertagnoli would make the grid in time and started on pole, but would struggle with visibility and grip for the duration of the race. Nearly every driver would have the same issues, everyone except Nicholson it seemed. After taking the lead through turn one of the opening lap, the Rookie would thrive in the soaked conditions and wouldn’t look back to handily take the win. Robusto would be his only challenger, however as the race went on he quickly fell back to finish just over seven seconds behind in P2. Harmon would overcome Saturday’s tire disappointment and claim the final step of the podium. Westin Workman would finish in fourth, with Bertagnoli rounding out the top five as the race was shown the checkered flag after just ten laps, seeing the treacherous conditions cause multiple cars to go off track in numerous corners.
After a wet & wild Round 7, Spec MX-5 Challenge will enjoy almost a month’s long break before we head back to the West Coast for the highly anticipated double-header at Sonoma International Raceway June 24th & 25th, and Laguna Seca July 1st & 2nd, where eager drivers aim to be at the top of the standings after an incredibly competitive first half to the 2023 championship season.