By Steve Wittich
For the third straight year, the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire (MRTI) banquet began with a cocktail reception in the fresh air along side a picturesque body of water. After two years of the salt water scent of Monterey Bay greeting the guests, it was the distinct fresh water bouquet of Seneca Lake that greeted the drivers, teams, families, sponsors, series personal and media.
After an hour of mingling with friends you barely recognize because they are not wearing their usual track “uniforms,” the group of 250+ guests entered the ballroom of Watkins Glen Harbor Hotel to tell stories, eat dinner and begin the program that included the awarding the $2.6 Million dollars worth of “hope.”
Victor Fraznoni, the 2017 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire champion, told INDYCAR Radio’s Rob Howden after the final race, that Mazda, and the MRTI were not just giving out prize money, but giving drivers hope, and the 21 year-old echoed, and expanded on that sentiment during his banquet speech, saying:
“You made me the driver that I am today, you brought me here, and you are making my dreams come true, so thank you very much for the great job you are doing.
“You are not just giving out prize money, you are giving out hope, and that’s why I’m here, and why everybody should come to the Mazda Road To Indy – it’s amazing.”
The big driver awards and speeches were certainly the highlight of the gala, but it wouldn’t be right if we failed to single out a few other awards.
First on the docket was the induction of three new members of the MRTI Hall of Fame.
- Bobby Oegel, a one-time USF2000 driver and prominent team owner for drivers like J.R. Hildebrand, Dane Cameron, and Charlie Kimball joins names like Dan Wheldon, J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Chris Simmons, Tonis Kasemets and Spencer Pigot in the USF2000 Hall of Fame.
- NBCSN broadcaster Anders Krohn, who in 29 career Pro Mazda starts won once, and finished on the podium seven times, is joining names like Peter Dempsey, James Hinchcliffe, Jack Hawksworth, Joey Hand, Tristan Vautier, and Joel Miller in the Pro Mazda Hall of Fame.
- Two-time Indianapolis 500 winning car owner, and first generation Indy Lights race winner Bryan Herta won the 1993 Indy Lights Championship, and joins names like “Pat” Patrick, Roger Bailey, Josef Newgarden, Paul Tracy, Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Tony Kanaan, and Helio Castroneves in the Indy Lights Hall of Fame.
The drivers certainly get their fair share of attention, but thanks to the MRTI sanctioning body INDYCAR, the guys and gals that put together the cars are recognized with $1,000 award for each step on the ladder. In USF2000 it was Jay Green from Exclusive Autosport, and for Pro Mazda is was Tom Vasi for Team Pelfrey.
Kyle Kaiser completed 637 of a possible 638 laps in 2017, well ahead of any of his competiton, and it’s fitting that A.J. Smith, his Juncos Racing mechanic won the $1,000 award from IndyCar.
“My crew chief Tom, and all the mechanics – A.J., Keith, and Jimmy – you deserve a ton of credit,” said Kaiser during his acceptance speech. “I didn’t have a single mechanical failure all season, and we were the only car to finish every race. That speaks volumes about the great work and preparation that these guys do behind the scenes.”
For many years CART and CHAMPCAR used to give away the Greg Moore Legacy award to the driver that best represented the off-track ideals of late Canadian star. Unfortunately, that award has disappeared, but the three winners of the three $5,000 prizes for Hi-Tide Boat Lifts Kids on Track Spirit Award, who have all shown a dedication to racing beyond the track. An ideal that Moore held high.
Andretti Autosport Indy Lights sophomore Dalton Kellett, who has an degree in Engineering Physics from the prestigious Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, is dedicated to volunteering with various Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) programs to share his love of those subjects.
Forty-nine year-young Bobby Eberle, a veteran Pro Mazda driver from the World Speed Motorsports stable, rededicated himself to his physical fitness and instead of competing in the National Class, was competitive with the “kids,” in the Championship Class.
Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson, a veteran USF2000 pilot from Red Deer, Alberta, takes time during the season and off-season to spread his anti-distracted to driving message to tens of thousands of high school students through his Drive to Stay Alive campaign.
Kory Enders (USF2000 – DEForce Racing), Nikita Lastochkin (Pro Mazda – Team Pelfrey) and Santiago Urrutia (Indy Lights -Belardi Auto Racing) all won $5,000 prizes for completing the Royal Purple “Slickest Pass” of the year in their respective divisions.
Enders, who is from Sugar Land, Texas, an area hard hit by Hurricane Harvey, thoughtfully donated his winnings to the relief efforts.
Urrutia won the award for passing six cars during the opening three corners of the first race at Road America in June.
The first winner to receive their big prize was 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda title winner Oliver Askew. Askew, who won seven wins and 12 podiums on the way to a hard fought seven point championship over Pabst Racing rookie Rinus Van Kalmthout.
The humble, yet well spoken driver who lives in Jupiter, Fla., was quick to thank God and his family for his success, before launching into a speech that included thank you’s for: Dan Andersen and the USF2000 Series – Cooper Tires – Elite Engines – Iowa spotter Chris Wheeler – sponsors: Art Wilmes with Rising Star Racing, Jeremy Shaw with Team USA Scholarship, Bell Helmets, MC Racing, Safe Is Fast, Scott Davidson, Chris Rothke and Greg Savage.
The meat of the 20 year-old’s thank you speech was directed to his Cape Motorsports team, teammate, driver coach, spotter and Mazda Motorsports.
“Cape Motorsports – I love you guys – Nicolas, Dominic, Reggie, Collin, Will, Don, Larry, Allen, and John – thank you for an unforgettable rookie season,” praised Askew. “I am honored to win the series title this year, but even more honored to carry on you winning legacy.
“It was an unbelievable ride this year and I can’t thank you enough for your time and personal sacrifices that you all made to ensure that I was standing here in front of you this evening at USF2000 Series Champion.
“Anthony Martin— you have been the best teammate that I could ever have asked for. Even though you are in a different class, I still learned so much from you, especially because of your experience winning the USF2000 championship last year. Congratulations on a great season, and I wish you all the best in the future.
“Jonathan Jorge, who unfortunately couldn’t be here with us tonight. Thank you for being my eyes in the sky, and for being my coach. I am on such a steep learning curve, and you’ve definitely helped the curve in all aspects, both on and off the track. I could not have done it without you.
“Also, a big thanks to my friend Chris Wheeler who spotted for me at Iowa.
“Mazda Motorsports – thank you guys so much! I can not express how much you’ve done for my career. Without your help I would not be racing – period. I’m looking for to building a long relationship with you. You have made my dreams that I thought were impossible, possible. Thank you guys.”
Askew, who also won the Team USA Scholarship, and Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout in the previous 12 months ended his speech, with effusive praise for Rinus VeeKay and Pabst Racing.
“I’d like to thank my competition, especially Pabst Racing and Rinus VeeKay, for pushing us hard all through the season, and for making us rise up to the challenge every weekend,” said the newest Pro Mazda driver. “I’d like to say we made each other a lot better through the season.”
In TSO’s opinion, that’s a big part of what makes the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire the best training ground for open wheel drivers on the planet. Whether your a team, or a driver, there always a professional competitor pushing you to get better.
The value of Askew’s championship haul is over $371,000, and includes:
- $325,000 scholarship from Mazda
- $23,000 tire credit from Cooper Tire to use in Pro Mazda
- $21,000 entry fee credit from Andersen Promotions to use in Pro Mazda
- $2,500 prize for being the Hyperco Rookie of The Year
- USF2000 Champion’s ring from Jostens
- Original Champion’s artwork by Jim Swintal
Every crew member, team owner, and driver that took the stage to collect their prize received a warm round of applause, but when Victor Franzoni was introduced, that applause was just a little louder, and accompanied by cheers. Proof positive that the Brazilian was a popular championship winner.
“Good evening,” began Franzoni. “It was much easer practicing in the shower. There are too many people around.”
Frazoni’s touching speech then launched into the up-and-down history of his career. TSO has talked extensively with Franzoni about his past, and especially how his 2017 championship season came together, and we’ll bring you a full story on that after some of the excitement from the IndyCar finale dies down.
It was normal for Franzoni to face uncertainty heading into a racing season, and 2017 was no different. The Brazilian had signed on with the ArmsUp Motorsports squad for the first two USF2000 weekends of the season, when he got a call while working at a karting event in New Orleans, La.
“One week before the start of the season, I found a ride, and it was the best ride of my life,” explained Franzoni. “It was with Juncos Racing.
“Thank you very, very much Juncos Racing. You guys made me a champion. You guys taught me everything to learn to win a championship, and I had an amazing year with those guys. Thank you very much Ricky, Ricky Juncos. Thank you very much.
“And Jeff Green (my Juncos Racing teammate), thank you very much for everything. Without you I wouldn’t be racing this year, so thank you very much Jeff for everything.
“Oh and also thank you very much Peter Dempsey (my driver coach). Sometimes, your a pain in the ass, but it’s really nice.
“This year was awesome. It ended in the way it had to end. I think this was finally my last chance, but we did it – we won!”
The value of Franzoni’s championship haul is over $882,300, and includes:
- $790,300 scholarship from Mazda
- $67,000 tire credit from Cooper Tire to use in Indy Lights
- $24,000 entry fee credit from Andersen Promotions to use in Indy Lights
- $1,000 product certificate for winning the Quarter Master Hard Charger Award
- Indy Lights test
- Pro Mazda Champion’s ring from Jostens
- Original Champion’s artwork by Jim Swintal
Even though Martin did not win the big prize, the 22 year-old does walk away with a $75,000 second place prize, the $7,500 BBS Rookie of The Year award, the choice of any Mazda street vehicle for a year, and an Indy Lights test day. We’ll have more on Martin’s future at a later date, but expect to see the Aussie and Brazilian continue their grand rivalry in Indy Lights.
The grace with which Martin handled the disappointment of falling just short of his second straight MRTI scholarship, will certainly serve him well in the future.
The final, and largest prize of the night, the three race scholarship to race in IndyCar and 102nd Indianapolis 500 went to Kyle Kaiser.
“I’m not going to lie, I’m a little nervous right now,” began Kaiser.” I haven’t been nervous all year for a single race, but for this speech, I’ve been really nervous.”
The then 16 year-old made the first of 82 MRTI starts in a Pro Mazda one-off effort at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with World Speed Motorsports in 2012. Kaiser spent the 2013 Pro Mazda season with World Speed Motorsports in 2013, before spending the next four seasons, one in Pro Mazda and three in Indy Lights, with Juncos Racing.
“Undoubtably, the best decision I’ve made, was to partner with Spencer (Pigot) and Juncos Racing for my second year of the Pro Mazda Championship” said Kaiser. “Being there to witness Spencer win his Pro Mazda Championship, and Indy Lights Championship back-to-back was invaluable, but most importantly, it taught me to wait for my time, and be patient.”
Over the course of his five year MRTI apprenticeship, Kaiser collected six race wins, six poles, 22 podiums, and 36 top five finishes, and gives full credit to the MRTI with his steady maturation process.
“I’ve been a part of the Mazda Road To Indy for five years now, and it’s been an eventful five years, explained the Santa Clara, Calif. native. “I’ve had many ups, and plenty of downs, but everything I’ve learned has shaped into the driver I am today. 2016 was my first championship fight, but I was still lacking some consistency, and I made a few too many mistakes to be there to win a championship at the end. After my second season in Indy Lights, I made a difficult choice. Stay another year in (Indy) Lights, or move up to IndyCar. After talking to Ricardo we made the decision to do one more year of (Indy) Lights to win the championship, and it turned out to be the right move.”
Kaiser had plenty of thanks to go around beginning with Dan Andersen and his Andersen promotions staff:
“First and foremost, I have to thank the people that make this entire series possible, because without them we wouldn’t be here doing what we love. Dan Andersen and his staff. You guys have really laid the ground work for everything we’ve done in the Mazda Road To Indy. You’ve created the one ladder system that has gives a clear path to the Verizon IndyCar Series. I immensely thankful for all of you for running a great series week in and week out.”
Moving onto Mazda and Cooper Tire:
“Equally important, are the main sponsors for the Mazda Road To Indy, Mazda and Cooper Tire. Without their support, their is no scholarship program that allows us to graduate from this series and move up the ladder. I’d specifically thank John Doonan and Chris Pantani. Their belief in this program, and commitment to these scholarships is building the future starts of IndyCar, and I’m forever grateful for their investment into the sport.”
And his team, including team owner Ricardo Juncos, engineer Ernie Gonella, crew, and driver coach Peter Dempsey:
“Next, I’d like to thank my team, Juncos Racing. It’s a phenomenal group of guys, who’s hard work, passion and dedication to the sport are the main reason I’m up here this evening. Ricardo and Dani, what an amazing year for the team. Two championships, it’s just unbelievable.
“I’ve been part of the team for four years now, and you’ve always had faith in me. You saw all my potential. I’m just at a loss for words. You’re always honest with me, and you’re driver development program had made me the driver that I am today.
“Your love for the sport, and unrelenting desire to win has brought you so much success, and I know it will make you an incredible IndyCar team owner.
“Ernie, you’ve been working with me my entire time at Juncos, and we’ve built a great relationship on AND off the track. Each year my technical skills have advanced tremendously, and thanks to your understanding of the car, and your ability to teach me. I would not have been able to secure this championship without you.
“My driver coach, and personal friend Peter Dempsey – I know Victor has already said it, you can be a pain in the butt at times. I’ve been working with you since I came to Juncos, and you’ve always brought the most out of my driving, so thank you!
“My crew chief Tom, and all the mechanics – A.J., Keith, and Jimmy – you deserve a ton of credit. I didn’t have a single mechanical failure all season, and we were the only car to finish every race. That speaks volumes about the great work and preparation that these guys do behind the scenes. I’d also like to thank Kevin Logan for doing a great job with data analysis, and Aaron for always bring the cars and all the equipment to the track safely.”
Kaiser ended with his family:
“Lastly, I’d like to thank my family and friends for their unconditional support over the years. I’ve always had a great support system to lean on whenever the adversity or hard times happen, and it happens a lot in racing.
“I’m glad to have some of the important family members in my life here with me today. Most importantly, I’d like to thank my dad, because without him, I’d have never would have achieved what I have achieved in my racing career.”
And singled out his dad, Jeff:
“My dad was actually the one who introduced me to the sport of racing when I was just six years old. I used to go with him to Mazda Raceway (Laguna Seca) and watch him compete in Skip Barber races. After he saw me take an interest in racing, he bought me my first kart at seven years-old.
“We did the weekend warrior thing. Going to the track until I was 12 years-old. And then on my 13th birthday, I’ll never forget it, he took me to an empty parking lot at an amusement park, and taught me how to drive a stick-shift, and the led to everything I’ve achieved.
“From there, it’s been a long road, but every step of the way he was there for me and always believed in me. From helping teach me business aspects, or cheering from the sidelines, he’s undoubtably my #1 Fan. Thank you.”
Kaiser, who is from the San Francisco Bay area, and will be attending the Verizon IndyCar Series finale at Sonoma Raceway, ended his speech with a look into the future:
“This 2017 season has been incredible in so many ways,” exclaimed the newest IndyCar driver. “The Indy Lights field this year was full of talented drivers that were always pushing each other to the limits. This has been one of the more competitive years in Indy Lights, and it keeps getting more and more competitive every year.
“We are the future of the sport, and I look forward to racing with you guys in IndyCar!”
The value of Kaisers championship haul is over $1,055,000, and includes:
- $1,000,000 scholarship from Mazda
- $25,000 cash for the Cosworth Champion’s Cash Award
- $25,000 parts credit from Dallara
- $5,000 cash for the SS Tube Champion’s Cash Award
- Pro Mazda Champion’s ring from Jostens
- Original Champion’s artwork by Jim Swintal
The Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire will be back in action at the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 21-22, 2017.