Scott Shelton is a lot like you and I: he’s got a passion for driving and a love of motorsports. Like most of us, he harbors a lifelong ambition to be a professional racer; unlike most of us, Shelton never gave up the dream. After nearly twenty years of club racing, in which Shelton racked up plenty of trophies and a ton of experience, but little in the way of sponsorship or opportunity, he was able to fulfill his dream. As the winner of the 2010 Mazda Shootout, the two time NASA champion now has a full time ride in the 2011 Playboy MX-5 Cup series, courtesy of the Mazdaspeed driver development ladder system.
I was with Mazda at the opening race in Miami last weekend, and I got a chance to meet Scott prior to Saturday’s race. Like any good club racer, he was in the pits attempting to work on his car; I say attempting, because Shelton now has a crew of people who turn wrenches and handle car setup for him. “I can’t get used to it just yet,” he said, “the whole professional racer thing still hasn’t sunk in”. He introduced me to his car’s owner, and the pair soon resumed the placement of sponsor graphics on the car. Later that day, Shelton qualified his Playboy MX-5 Cup car in 10th spot in a 25 car field. To give you an idea of how competitive the series is, the difference between pole position and the last qualifying spot was eight seconds per lap. Even that isn’t an accurate assessment of the competitiveness of the spec series, since the slowest cars were Skip Barber “arrive and drive” participants, whose cars seemed to lack horsepower compared to the other entrants. If you factor those cars out, the difference between fastest and slowest was just 4.7 seconds.
If you’ve never seen the start of an MX-5 spec series race, it’s best described as an all-out dogfight, with twenty five cars vying for exactly the same spot on the track at the same time. Contact is unavoidable, even if the rules frown on making “avoidable contact” and “bump drafting”. The racing stays remarkably close lap after lap, and even the leader is often dicing with two or more cars throughout the entire event. That was definitely the case on Saturday, and afterward, the second place car looked like it had spent the day running a dirt-track figure-eight race. There wasn’t a straight body panel left on the car, which means that someone is writing big checks between now and the next race in Atlanta. Scott Shelton managed to claw his way up to a sixth place finish, which was more than respectable given the competition.
Like all racers, Shelton was his own biggest critic. He commented that he should have done better in qualifying, completely negating the fact that his performance had earned him a fourth place in the series points standing. After the race, Shelton came up to the Mazdaspeed hospitality tent for a visit. I’d like to say that we had a good conversation, but it was virtually impossible to hear anything with the GrandAm cars lapping in the background. At one point Shelton made a sweeping motion, and pointed to the largely empty stands across the track. His message was clear: why aren’t there any fans in the seats? That was a question I really couldn’t answer, other than to point out in Miami fans won’t drive for half an hour, let alone the 45 minutes it takes to reach Homestead. Still, I hear a lot of complaining among fans to “bring back competitive racing” and to “give me something interesting to watch”. I’ll say this: racing doesn’t get better than the Playboy MX-5 Cup series, the GrandAm series or the Continental tire challenge. You can find information on the Playboy MX-5 Cup Series here, on the GrandAm series here and on the Continental Tire series here. If you’re a fan, go to a race; you won’t be disappointed, and Scott Shelton deserves all the fan support he can get.