After starting Friday morning's second race of the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup doubleheader season finale at Road Atlanta, Scottish rookie Stevan McAleer (CENTER) completed an early chapter of his improbable rags-to-riches story with the title.
McAleer finished fourth or better in eight of the first 10 races, with two wins, five other podiums and five pole positions. He then won the season finale Friday morning ahead of his championship rivals Ara Malkhassian (LEFT) and John Dean II (RIGHT). The field is top heavy with rookies, as six of the top seven in the final points table (Malkhassian the exception) have completed their first season in the championship.
The C.J. Wilson Racing driver had raced primarily in open-wheel before moving into sports cars at the end of last year. Barely a month after contacting Jason Saini, partner and driver in Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge ST at CJWR, McAleer was already locked and loaded for a potential go in this year's championship.
“Obviously Thunderhill was exciting,” he says. “It was my first time in a sports car. I had been teammates with Tyler McQuarrie, Jason Saini was in the ST MX-5 and I was in the Playboy MX-5 car, which wound up being close to the one for this year. It was so cool, so much stuff happened and it was the turnaround for me to think this was the way to go. I like the lifestyle, pull driver out, jump in kind of thing.
“We'd won our class and although we had a limited budget we tried to make something worthwhile. So we found an agreement to run the first race…”
Indeed, with barely more than a verbal commitment and a mutual understanding that the team got the prize money and McAleer kept the trophy, he showed up on debut and stormed to both pole and win. The bar was set high and it was his easy choice for his best race of the year.
“It was vital being competitive straight out of the box,” he admitted. “That first win was so important. That let the guys see that I wasn't a joke; run eighth or tenth and crash a car.”
Saini offered another reason why McAleer's presence helped kickstart the team's season.
“Quite frankly, we gained a ton of credibility having someone with an accent on our team,” he deadpanned.
Aside of the joke, Saini admitted how impressed he was at both McAleer and rookie teammate Elliott Skeer – the 2011 MAZDASPEED Shootout scholarship winner – adapted to the team, the cars and the atmosphere of providing feedback. The latter item is one of the things McAleer has appreciated most about this season.
“I'd never experienced the whole data feedback thing before,” he said. “In Skip Barber, it was simple, you drove it, got out, then someone else drives and it comes back with three instead of four wheels.
“So this was great to sit down with data and ask why (the car) is doing it. Elliott is super fast right out of the box. We banged heads at Sebring; not because we didn't like each other but because neither one of us expected the other to be so quick. It's a good friendship, and I'd like to see it continue.”
It will at least for the upcoming 25 Hours of Thunderhill in December, where McAleer and Skeer will be two of four drivers sharing a car for CJWR – more on that to come in a future RACER.com story.
The two pushed each other hard all season and Saini was thankful for the mutual respect and each of their abilities. Had Skeer not been hit with a major points penalty at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and finished outside the top five, he would have been a title contender as well.
McAleer's other major high point came at Mid-Ohio, when he took his second win of the year after rebounding from being pushed off early and recovered from 11th place. His attitude appears in the right place, as well. Despite the budget constraints, McAleer noted it doesn't affect how he races.
“If you think about crashing the car, or the budget, your mind is in the wrong place,” he said. “You need to feel capable in your ability and not think about mistakes. You have to know your responsibility.”
With the MX-5 Cup captured, McAleer's due a promotion for 2013 – up to the CJWR ST squad in Grand-Am is a logical step, although Pirelli World Challenge could also beckon. Either way, big things are ahead for the young Scot.