From the very first year of Andersen Promotions’ ownership of the Pro Mazda Championship, we’ve seen ebbs and flows of participation. In 2013, the first season under Dan Andersen’s guidance, the high-water mark was 16 cars at COTA to start the season. But, for the most part, the series drew between 10-12 cars each race. Ovals always see a drop in participation as the ‘Expert’ or ‘National’ drivers don’t often include these races on their calendars. The absolute domination by Matthew Brabham didn’t help in 2013 either. That said, the series swelled to between 17-21 in 2014 and 2015, but we’re in the middle of another low point with just 10 cars taking the green at Road America. The early departure of Weiron Tan, Jorge Cevallos and Jake Eidson, paired with the mid-season graduation of Garett Grist to Indy Lights, has thinned the field significantly. Thankfully, Cevallos is expected back before the end of the year and TJ Fischer has advanced from USF2000 to fill Tan’s seat at Team Pelfrey. Today’s Pro Mazda support and incentive announcement should also provide a positive turn for the long-time program.
That said, the quality of the drivers at the head of the grid is on par with any of the preview three years. You have two of the top Pro Mazda rookies from last year in Pato O’Ward and Will Owen, and first and third from the 2015 USF2000 Championship in Nico Jamin and Aaron Telitz. Juncos Racing’s Jake Parsons and Nicholas Dapero are coming up to speed very quickly, and are now challenging for podiums. I’m expecting some really solid wheel-to-wheel racing in the final three events of the year (Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca), especially if Andersen’s new incentive package has the desired and expected results.
The light field makes it both easier and harder to select my Star of the Race for the Road America doubleheader. For Race #1, I’m going to give the nod to Juncos Racing’s Nicholas Dapero. For a young man who started the season as the raw rookie and the fourth driver on a four-car team, the 17-year-old has come on so strong of late and is now rolling with confidence. Coming off his podium finish on the oval at Lucas Oil Raceway, Dapero continued to impress at Road America. He was never outside the top-five all weekend and scored a career-best result of second in Race #1. We’re just starting to see what this kid can do. I expect more podiums before the end of the year.
I skipped over USF2000 race winner Anthony Martin in their Star picks, but I’m not going to do that in Pro Mazda. I’m going to put the credit where credit is due and give the Star of the Race for the second main event to Wisconsin’s Aaron Telitz. There was a great deal of pressure on the shoulders of the 24-year-old from Birchwood, running on his ‘home track’ in front of friends, family and sponsors. Add in the fact that his teammate had bested him in six of the first seven races of the year, and it’s easy to understand why Road America might have been a ‘do or die’ event for the American. For Telitz to step up to the plate, in the face of keeping his title hopes alive, was nothing short of spectacular. Aaron’s sweep of the weekend’s doubleheader has definitely blown the Pro Mazda championship battle wide open.
With Indy Lights heading to Iowa Speedway this weekend, I’ll work to get my Indy Lights star picks from Road America up on the site by Friday, and then do it all again next week. A grid of 13 drivers has been confirmed, so it should be a great weekend.