Inside Mazda MX-5 Cup: Nathan Nicholson puts in the work

Mark Twain once said, “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.”

Coming into rounds 7 and 8 of the 2024 Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by Michelin at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, Nathan Nicholson – no stranger to hard work – sits fifth in overall points and leads the rookie standings.

Hot off back-to-back second-place finishes last time out at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, Nicholson is riding a wave of confidence. His ambition isn’t to be leading the rookie standings, even if that’s an outstanding achievement considering the depth and strength of the class of ’24 – it’s to be leading overall.


“I don’t think I’ve lost a points championship in about four years, even though I’ve been new in every series,” says Nicholson. “Everyone thought I was crazy when I said I’m here to win the championship, but I’m here to win the championship. I’m not going to settle for being like, ‘Oh, well, my goal is to finish fourth or fifth.’ Sure, that’d be a good result. But when you know you’re working this hard, I’m going to try to go for the win.”

Putting the work in is nothing new to Nicholson (below). Together with his father, Don, he’s been not just the driver, but his own mechanic and engineer since his days in karting to the present.

“In 2021 I started in Spec Miata, and in 2022 won a regional championship. I was aiming for the (Mazda Scholarship) Shootout that year, but I didn’t get invited and that kind of fueled me to take it serious the next year,” he explains. “I did Spec MX-5 the following year (2023) with me and my dad running the car, which we bought and got up to racing shape. We did all the setup and maintenance ourselves. I won the points championship and got invited to the Shootout.”

It was a lot to take on for a family without any background or connections in racing. Don owns a masonry retail business in Bloomington, Ind., that he started in a desperate moment when wife Mila was expecting Nathan. Outside of attending some races at Bloomington Speedway and working on vehicles and machinery needed to support the business, Don had no prior experience with racecars.

When they made the transition from karts to cars, Nicholson was a freshman in high school. It was also the first year of the COVID pandemic and he used the opportunity to teach himself the engineering side of the sport.

“Yeah, I spent a lot of time on YouTube videos and the SIM,” recalls Nicholson. “I honestly wasn’t doing much school. Instead, I was on the simulator just messing with stuff on there and then trying it in real life. We have a membership at Putnam Park, which is the local road course track. So, me and my dad would go up there and that’s where I learned how to drive a stick shift on track and how to set up a car and figure out what I liked.”

The system works so well that to keep things in budget, and despite being aligned with a top team in JTR Motorsport Engineering, the Nicholsons continue to do all their own car prep between races.

Placing second in the Scholarship Shootout and earning a $75,000 award helped to solidify his current entry in MX-5 Cup. The opening double-header rounds at Daytona and Sebring were filled with ups and downs, including two wrecks that left his car substantially damaged.

“Daytona was definitely a little bit of trial by fire in this series,” recalls Nicholson. “Getting two practice sessions is a lot different than what I’m used to. In Spec MX-5 we had at least six. So, you have to be on your game arriving to the track.

“Race 1 was OK. I was able to stay with the leaders, didn’t get into much trouble, and I think I came away seventh or eighth, which wasn’t bad. In Race 2, I took the lead for a little bit and was running in the top three. Then I got caught up in a crash and got to do the famous Daytona slide across the logo, but not exactly how I wanted to end the weekend.

“Then in Sebring, we were a little slow. In qualifying, I got into a crash and totaled the, the front and rear frame rail. I had to go to a backup car to start 30th. I think those races where you’re really challenged and there’s a lot of adversity are what decide the championship at the end of the year.”

Despite the hardships, Nicholson managed to secure a large enough haul of points to salvage the Sebring weekend. Then came the big breakthrough in the following round at WeatherTech Raceway.

“We did some testing the week before. It was my first time there, but I’ve driven it a lot on the SIM, so I definitely didn’t feel like a stranger there,” recounts Nicholson. “In Race 1, Jared (Thomas) and I had a plan to try to work together and get away. We (along with Aaron Jeansonne) had something like a four-second gap, and it was going to be no pressure for the podium. But then there was a safety car that set up a last-lap shootout. Now, the field has tightened up and I have pressure from behind. Well, Aaron made a mistake on that last turn, and I was able to capitalize (to finish second).

“Then Race 2, I got hit and dropped to ninth place. I think in that race I went through every emotion in racing. I was kind of pissed off at first and then I was just seeing red, and then I got to the front and I was nervous. I went through everything in that race,” he explains. “So, Race 2 meant a lot more. I felt like I was really able to show everyone what I can do in that race. Afterward, I was crying as it meant a lot to me that Mazda and Whelen and all these people supporting me believed in me enough to help me get to this level.”

Back-to-back podiums at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca have propelled rookie Nathan Nicholson to fifth in overall points.

When asked where his work ethic and competitive fire come from, Nicholson doesn’t hesitate.

“I think some of it’s natural, but it’s also from my parents,” he says. “My dad had eight siblings growing up in the middle-of-nowhere Indiana. And my mom moved to the United States when she was three years old (from Russia) with just a suitcase. So, for them to even survive and be in a position they are today to give me the best life, they had to be competitive, and they were true fighters. When I was in karting there were a lot of kids with fifty, sixty, seventy thousand-dollar budgets and there’s no way that I could compete with that. Being in the mid pack with lesser equipment, I hated losing or being slow. So, working harder at that age I think is what made me competitive.”

• All Whelen Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by Michelin races are streamed live on and archived on The RACER Channel on YouTube. Coming up this weekend, tune in to rounds 7 & 8 from Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. The action kicks off on Saturday, June 8, at 3:25pm ET, followed by the second race on Sunday, June 9, at 10:25am ET.

To view the full schedule and learn more about the series, visit

Story originally appeared on Racer