Heather Hadley isn’t afraid to change a plan, which is exactly what she did by winning the Mazda MX-5 Cup Women’s Initiative Scholarship.
The path toward achieving a long-term goal is seldom a straight one. Heather Hadley is not among those who find their hopes dashed by refusing to deviate. Until recently, Hadley’s path was in the direction of NASCAR. But when she discovered the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich, everything changed.
Hadley was born and raised in the suburbs north of San Francisco. As a kid she tried her hand at several sports. When she went to her local indoor karting center, something clicked. It was there that she started racing, and winning. In her first 107 races, she was first to the finish line in 104 of them.
By 10-years old, she had her first racing kart, and by 14 she was fully immersed in the U.S. Legends Cars scene, first in her native Northern California, before competing in several states across the West.
Finishing high school, Hadley left her hometown of Vallejo, Calif., to attend the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC Charlotte) where she could continue her studies and establish herself in the heart of stock car racing country.
The move to North Carolina meant racing with an entirely new group of people.
“It was difficult for the first year,” says Hadley on making the move away from home. “Not only the racing, but just moving across the country was an enormous culture shock.
“I was still racing Legends cars (in addition to her studies), but most of them (in N.C.) had been racing since they were four or five years old, so I had to work hard to gain their respect. It takes time to prove yourself but over time it got easier.”
As well as the Carolinas, Hadley spent a lot of time racing in Florida, and even as far away as New Hampshire. So far, so good on that direct path to her goal. Then, an opportunity to make a sudden pivot arose.
“In Legends, I was doing both circle track and road courses, and for some reason I was better at the road courses,” Hadley, now 21-years old, explains. “I had started training at PitFit in Charlotte, and there were some IMSA drivers training there as well. After talking to them, several mentioned that they got their start in MX-5 Cup. I looked into it some more and decided that it was the perfect setting to transition into professional racing.”
Doing her due diligence, Hadley connected with Shea Holbrook (Hixon Motor Sports) who helped make some introductions to the right people at Mazda Motorsports and learned about the Mazda scholarships.
Hadley arrived at the Mazda MX-5 Cup Shootout as one of the three female drivers vying for a scholarship and came away with the Women’s Initiative prize.
“My plan changed to compete in MX-5 Cup for 2023,” says Hadley. “I’m not sure it would have been a full season, but winning the scholarship made it possible.”
Hadley teamed up with Spark Performance and come the opening round of 2023 found herself behind the wheel of the No. 54 Mazda MX-5 Cup car. The pivot from stock car racing ambition to sports car racing was made. Now, it’s time to perform.
Through the first two weekends encompassing four rounds of racing, Hadley is off to a promising start, including an eighth-place finish in round four at St. Petersburg. It was her first-ever experience on street circuit. Indeed, every round this season will be Hadley’s first experience of each venue. Not only will every track be new, so will pretty much everything else. Hadley explains that beyond being familiar with a sequential gearbox, not much transfers over from her Legends experience.
“It’s been really exciting and really intimidating,” she says. “Everyone has been really welcoming and helpful so far. The learning curve is pretty steep, but I’m still aiming for a podium this year. I know that’s saying a lot because the competition here is next level. I’m a quieter, more introverted person and that often correlates with being underestimated. So, I’m more about letting my driving and results do the talking.”
She’ll get her next chance to put points on the table with momentum on her side when she returns home to California for the next two rounds at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, May 12-14.
All rounds of the Idemitsu Mazda MX-5 Cup Presented by BFGoodrich are streamed live on RACER.com and archived at The RACER Channel on YouTube. To view the full season schedule and learn more about the series visit www.mx-5cup.com.