Racing seasons don't always live up to expectations, but when your expectations are only to continue to learn and drive as fast as possible, the season is bound to be a success.
A driver that takes those goals, grows throughout the winter and even more during the season, and leaves 2011 as the SCCA Pro Racing Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Champion has exceeded all expectations and is well on his way to a long and successful racing career.
This year, Mike Cooper is that driver.
"It feels nice to have the success that we had," Cooper said, after spending the past few weeks reflecting on his championship run. "Last year, there were some thoughts about [winning a championship], but they were just that - thoughts. I never thought it would be a possibility that year. And honestly, coming into this year, Justin [Hall] was coming in, Jason [Saini] was coming in. It was in the back of my mind, but I was just trying not to think about it."
Unlike many young racers, the 22-year-old Cooper didn't grow up at the racetrack, climbing into a kart before he could even walk. Counting two seasons of MX-5 Cup competition, his racing experience totals, well, two seasons of MX-5 Cup competition.
After a driving school, Cooper ran three weekends of the Skip Barber MX-5 Series during the winter of 2010, and decided to run the MX-5 Cup season with Atlanta Motorsports Group just a couple of weeks before the season began.
Cooper won once and finished third in the points as a rookie, then won the 2011 opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway in his No. 6 AMG Racing Mazda MX-5 to cement himself as a real contender for the season-long title.
"The first year was absolutely huge," Cooper explained. "I'd never been on slicks before, or anything like it. Going to each track, I have to learn the track, and learn the car, and get the car setup. I couldn't do all three, so it was kind of pick the two you want and you're ousted on the third - which is generally the setup on the car. I always struggled in that aspect last year."
The year of experience clearly made a difference for the Syosset, N.Y. native. It was early in the season when Cooper decided he might have a real shot at a championship.
"When we were at Atlanta [for Round Two], during practice, seeing the times