After a second-place finish 24 hours earlier, Michael Cooper, of Syosset, N.Y., earned his first career SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup victory on Sunday afternoon at New Jersey Motorsports Park. Brad Rampelberg, of San Jose, Calif., and Nick Evans, of Powell, Ohio, completed the podium at the Mazda Motorsports Festival presented by VISITFLORIDA.com.
After swapping the lead with championship-leader Justin Piscitell numerous times during Saturday's race, Cooper was all business on his way to a 7.386-second margin of victory at the 2.17-mile, 14-turn South Jersey track on Sunday. Cooper completed the 28-lap, 60.76-mile race in 45:29.105, averaging 80.149mph.
It was the first professional win of any kind for the 20-year-old racer, whose only prior experience was eight races in the Skip Barber MAZDASPEED Challenge for MX-5 Cup cars.
"It's just awesome to get my first victory in pro racing," Cooper said. "I've been following Brad around and looking at his data and video and really learned a lot."
Cooper started third in the No. 84 AMG Racing/Bromante Landscaping & Design MX-5, moving to second on the first standing start in Series history. He snuck by AMG Racing teammate Rampelberg on the inside when the lights went green, and settled in behind polesitter Evans in the No. 28 Team MER/Mazda/Sparco MX-5.
"The standing start, I'm not sure that it helped me, but it definitely spread everyone out," Cooper said. "I was right on Nick through the first turn, so after that I tried to figure out what was going to work the best for me and Nick to get away. I tried to be in front, I tried to let him go in front. I got out in front and just got away."
Evans and Cooper worked as a pair, running nose to tail with Cooper in the lead for the first four laps. Cooper made a pass for the lead in Turn 1 – where nine different passes for the point were made during Saturday's race – on lap five, then lost the lead to Evans in the same corner on the following circuit.
Cooper was content to follow for two more laps, then again used the draft down the long front straight and a hard braking zone to take the lead on lap nine. Once in clean air, Cooper cruised to his maiden victory.
Rampelberg spent his race leading a pack of cars six deep in the battle for third. With positions three through nine running nose to tail, that battle caught Evans once he lost track of the draft with Cooper.
Again using New Jersey Motorsports Park's first turn, Rampelberg's No. 4 AMG Racing/Mazda/Cobalt Brakes MX-5 went by Evans on lap 24 to move into the runner-up position. The two-time winner this season finished 0.511sec ahead of Evans.
"I was really hoping that we could click off enough lap times and let the two up front battle it out so we could catch up, and it just didn't happen," Rampelberg said. "I've got to thank the crew, though, we had a DNF yesterday and they stayed up late last night putting a new motor in it. We ran it in qualifying and changed the setup completely.
"The guys raced super clean back there, and we've got a great group of guys. The Mazda Ladder system is working, you can see it this weekend, and I'm glad to see how much room everyone gives out there while racing hard. But I said it once, and I'll say it again, Michael Cooper has a great future ahead of him. He's been following me around for about four races and I think the grasshopper just became the master."
Once falling into the clutches of the pack, Evans battled with Team MER teammate Piscitell on the final lap before hanging on for third. It was the second third-place finish of the season for the 21-year-old.
"I feel great about the podium," Evans said. "The start went great. I'm not sure if I got a great start or not, but I know I led into Turn 1 and that's all I cared about. The car was really, really good the first half of the race. I was probably a little rough, driving over some of the curbing, and I could have knocked something off, I'm not really sure what happened. I thought we were going to be able to battle for the lead at the end, but it didn't happen.
"It was a great finish after yesterday's transmission failure, the Team MER guys worked really hard to fix the car, and I can't thank them enough."
Piscitell's No. 84 Team MER/DAMG Worldwide MX-5 finished in fourth position to hold onto the season championship lead by just two points over Cooper.
Ara Malkhassian, in the No. 11 ALARA Racing/Bulldog Productions MX-5, topped a trio of ALARA Racing teammates battling for the fifth spot that ran most of the race in the line headed by Rampelberg. He was followed by Jesse Combs, in the No. 77 ALARA Racing/Coolgas.com MX-5 in sixth.
Lyonel Kent, who finished third during Saturday's race ahead of the two ALARA Racing machines, was passed on the final lap by Mark Carpenter in the No. 14 AMG Racing/GGS Technical Publications MX-5. Carpenter interrupted what would have been three ALARA Racing cars in a row, with Kent's No. 13 Bulldog Productions machine finishing eighth.
Jeff Mosing (No. 30 Team MER/Frank's International/Race Now For Autism) and Dean Copeland (No. 7 Copeland Motorsports/Synch Speed Radios) completed the top 10.
The Series' first standing start, used on a trial basis, was a hit with the drivers. Every car in the field got through the first corner clean, with no penalties for a jumped start.
"I think we should do it everywhere possible," Rampelberg said, leaving allowances for tracks with steep hills leading to the start line. "I don't have a lot of experience with it, and it was a lot of fun."
No decisions have been made on whether the Series will utilize standing starts at any races in the future.
In addition to Piscitell and Cooper, the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Championship race remains tight through six of 11 races. Piscitell (222 points) now leads Cooper (220) by a pair of points, with Rampelberg recovering from a radiator failure during race one at New Jersey to climb back to third (294). Combs (282), Malkhassian (259), Carpenter (254), Evans (250), Kent (245) and Mosing (244) follow.
The SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup returns to action July 30-Aug. 1 at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill., for the Harrah's Autobahn Grand Prix presented by Mazda.
To follow each session's notes and timing, please visit www.mx-5cup.com.
Follow the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup on Twitter @ MazdaMX5Cup.