By Steve Wittich

When testing for the 2017 Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire season began, Victor Franzoni was not sure he was going to have a home, but when the checkered flag fell for the final time at the “Soul Red Finale,” the 21 year-old walked away with the $790,000 prize, and the trophy for winning the Pro Mazda Championship.

Victor Franzoni shares an emotional embrace with team owner Ricardo Juncos after winning the final race of the 2017 Pro Mazda season, and collecting the $790,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Franzoni led all 20 laps on the way to his seventh win of the year, 12th win of his MRTI career, and an 18 point final gap to Anthony Martin in the Pro Mazda Championship.

“It’s amazing,” exclaimed an emotional Franzoni. “This season, I grew up about 10 years in my career. Fighting with Anthony (Martin) was unbelievable. He’s really, really good, and I had to push all the time at 150% to beat him. I think both us did a great job this season, and both of us deserve to be in IndyCar.”

The Brazilian was only racing this season with help from his teammate Jeff Green, his team Juncos Racing and BN Racing (more on that later).

The driver’s championship is the third Pro Mazda title for the Speedway, Ind. based Juncos Racing. Franzoni joins Conor Daly (2010) and Spencer Pigot (2014) in providing Ricardo Juncos with the top prize. It also ensures that when Kyle Kaiser starts the Indy Lights race this afternoon, Juncos Racing will be the first Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire team to win two of the three categories in one season.

Martin, the reigning USF2000 champion, had a two point lead heading into last weekend’s 55-lap oval race on the Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25 mile oval, but two seconds and one third was not enough to hold onto the lead.

Anthony Martin congratulates Victor Franzoni after a hard fought 2017 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire campaign (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I was pushing 150%,” said Martin. “There was a championship on the line, so I was doing everything I could do to get up front. I left everything out there… that’s for sure.”

Carlos Cunha, who started and finished second, his best result of the year, and fifth consecutive podium finish to close out the year. With that strong finish, Cunha ended the year in third place in the championship, the highest placed Team Pelfrey pilot.

The Mazda Renesis rotary engines were fired up for the last time at 8am on a damp, chilly morning in the scenic Finger Lakes region of New York State. The air temperature when the green flag waved was 54F, and the track temperature was 55F, and all 10 starters were shod with treaded Cooper Tire rain tires.

Franzoni was able to get a good jump on the field, with Cunha falling in behind his Brazilian countryman.

Martin, who qualified third, but had to start fifth after being penalized tow grid positions for running an extra lap after receiving the checkered flag during qualifying, made up two spots in the opening corner, and slotted in behind Cunha in the third spot.

The first lap was clean, and when the cars had completed the 11-Turn, 3.37 mile circuit, Franzoni had already built up a 2.5 second lead over Cunha. Martin was pressuring Cunha hard for second, and behind the top three the running order was: Nikita Lastochkin, Sting Ray Robb, Matt Machiko, TJ Fischer, Kris Wright, Bobby Eberle, and Jeff Green.

Over the next two laps Martin continued to pressure Cunha, and the Australian who needed to win to have any chance to take the scholarship, spun in Turn 1 on Lap 4 while trying to get by the Brazilian. Martin did not lose any spots, but did fall five seconds behind Cunha.

Anthony Martin gets inside Carlos Cunha in Turn 1 at Watkins Glen International (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I was just sitting beside Carlos (Cunha) for a few laps, and he made a little bit of mistake and I was able to get right on his gearbox,” said Martin. “It was at that moment where it was now or never. I went for it, but just got on the rubber (on the racing line), got a little bit sideways, and hit him on the rear tire.”

Anthony Martin’s Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire championship aspirations ended when he spun in Turn 1 at Watkins Glen International after trying to pas Carlos Cunha (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

When Frazoni began lap 5, his lead over Cunha was 7.13 seconds.

On the next lap, both Cunha and Franzoni went wide in Turn 1, and inadvertently found that going wide straightened out the run up the Esses, and significantly lowered their lap times.

Over the course of the next three laps, Cunha and Martin, were able to significantly narrow the gap to Franzoni. When Lap 9 began, Franzoni’s lead over Cunha was down to 5.2 seconds, with Martin 6.5 seconds back.

Race control warned Cunha and Martin about exceeding track limits, and after ignoring it for a few laps, they finally complied, allowing the gap to Franzoni to stabilize and eventually grow.

It only took a few laps before Martin was right back on the gearbox of Cunha, but on Lap 12, he made a mistake in the “Bus Stop”, and fell further back. That was the last time that Martin was able to put any pressure on Cunha, as he “settled” for his 11th podium of the year.

When Lap 13 began Franzoni had grown the lead to 5.9 seconds over Cunha, and 9.9 seconds ahead of Martin.

Further back, Matt Machiko and Sting Ray Robb were going hammer and tong for the sixth spot, with Robb making a daring move to complete the pass in the “Bus Stop.”

As the final lap began, Franzoni was 3.1 seconds ahead of Cunha, and ended up crossing the line with one second lead.

Pro Mazda Watkins Glen Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires Race #2 results

1 23 Victor Franzoni 20 LAPS
2 81 Carlos Cunha 1.5903
3 8 Anthony Martin 11.0633
4 80 Nikita Lastochkin 38.2935
5 82 TJ Fischer 55.5497
6 14 Sting Ray Robb 83.2505
7 3 Matt Machiko 90.4569
8 12 Kris Wright 108.3230
9 13 Bobby Eberle – 1 LAP
10 60 Jeff Green -1 LAP