Inside Mazda MX-5 Cup: Hunting opportunities
Sam Paley wants to drive race cars for a living and, like many other drivers, he’s banking on there being more opportunities in sports car racing, vs. open-wheelers. After several years of karting, then training in both the Skip Barber and Lucas Oil driver schools, Paley stepped up to the SCCA Pro Racing-sanctioned Formula 4 U.S. Championship in 2017.
Budget struggles and some challenges within the team meant the Kentucky native never completed a full F4 season. Then, at Circuit of The Americas in 2019, he saw an Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich series race for the first time. It steered his racing career in a new direction.
“I was at COTA watching the IndyCar race. The [MX-5 Cup] racing was incredibly close — it looked like a lot of fun,” Paley says of his first encounter with the championship that he’s made his home in since 2021. “And it looked like a great steppingstone into the sports car world.
“The biggest reason I transferred over from open-wheel world into the sports car world was I think it’s a lot more cost friendly,” he adds, “and there’s just a lot more opportunity to advance your career.”
The first opportunity came when Paley won Rookie of the Year in his first full season of MX-5 Cup competition. The scholarship money that went along with it played a big part in keeping him going into 2022 and then returning this year.
“It was huge,” says the 20-year-old Paley. “That scholarship definitely helped me race in 2022; without that prize money I wouldn’t have been able to race.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t have the best season last year; we had a lot of unlucky events. But the prize payouts that Mazda provides — both in the per-race payout and at the end of the year — is great for drivers because it really rewards performance and it helps keep talented drivers in the series. Cost is always an issue in this sport.”
Paley, a key part of the McCumbee McAleer Racing team (which also runs 2022 Mazda Scholarship winner Nate Cicero) opened 2023 with a third-place finish in the first race at Daytona International Speedway, plus a pole-position start for the second race. He followed that up with a top-5 finish and another podium on the streets of St. Petersburg, and two top-10 results at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for Rounds 5 and 6 — not a bad start to the year at all.
Paley balances racing with his studies at the University of Indiana’s Kelly School of Business, where’s he’s majoring in sales and marketing — skills he hopes will come in handy in his motorsports career. He helps fund it all by coaching.
Although he’s working tirelessly toward his degree, his heart lies in the driver’s seat.
“My goal, honestly, is just to stay in the race car as long as possible,” he says. “Any race car that I’m in — any race car that I’m able to drive — is a win for me, because a lot of people aren’t lucky enough to keep their foot in the door and keep driving. There’s a lot of stuff off the track that can sometimes be bigger than the stuff on the track.
“Hopefully I can continue climbing that ladder [toward] the pinnacle of motorsports and one day race in the Rolex 24 At Daytona, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. For now, my goal is just to keep racing.”
Don’t miss the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich as it heads to Watkins Glen International for Rounds 7 and 8, June 23-24. All races are streamed live on RACER.com and archived on The RACER Channel on YouTube.To view the full season schedule and learn more about the series, visit mx-5cup.com.