GUNNING FOR THE BIG PRIZE
Seven top racers are in the fight of their young careers for one of auto racing's most coveted prizes -- the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder scholarship
Round 11 of The Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear at Road Atlanta and the Petit LeMans, Sept. 30 – Oct. 3
The Star Mazda Championship is the college football of Indy Car racing, the high-profile, intensely-competitive series where the stars of tomorrow hone their skills and accelerate their careers. Alumni include Indy-car stars Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal and NASCAR rising star Michael McDowell.
With two races to go in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship season, seven drivers remain in contention for the series championship and the big prize that goes with it – the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder scholarship to move up and race in the 2009 Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda.
The hottest Star Mazda Championship driver – and current championship points leader -- is Andersen Racing driver Irishman Peter Dempsey, winner of four of the last five races in a row. Other race winners and top contenders include Americans Joel Miller and John Edwards, Englishman Charles Hall and 17 year old Tom Gladdis from the English territory of Gibraltar. Also still in contention for the championship are Louisiana racer Alex Ardoin and young Californian Billy Goshen.
The Star Mazda Championship is a major step on the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder in which Mazda funds rides for the champions in various series reaching all the way from karting to the Atlantic Championship. Joel Miller (#20) won his 2008 Star Mazda ride by being the 2007 Skip Barber Champion. And 2007 Star Mazda Champion Dane Cameron will be driving in the Atlantic season finale this weekend with sponsorship from the MAZDASPEED Ladder.
Diversity goes Zoom-Zoom in the Star Mazda Championship; there are competitors from eight countries, drivers ranging in age from 17 to 55, a brother/sister team (Kester Racing) and several corporate CEOs racing in the Expert and Master Series.
Despite the emergence in the last half of the 2008 season of the 'Irish steamroller' – Andersen Racing driver Peter Dempsey with four wins in the last five races – there are still seven drivers in contention for the series championship – and a career-launching prize; Dempsey, John Edwards, Joel Miller, Alex Ardoin, Charles Hall, Tom Gladdis and Billy Goshen.
The ultimate goal they are all fighting for is the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder scholarship to race in the 2009 Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. This remarkable program, the first-ever established by an auto manufacturer, provides scholarships to young champions on their way up the ladder. The karting champion gets sponsorship to race in the first step up the open-wheel ladder, the Skip Barber series. The Skip Barber Champion moves up to race in the Star Mazda Championship, while the Star Mazda champion wins a ride in the series at top run of the open-wheel development ladder, the Atlantic Championship.
Joel Miller, the 2007 Skip Barber champion, is competing in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship courtesy of the MAZDASPEED Ladder. He is currently second in the championship driving the #20 JDC Motorsports / K&N Air Filters Mazda. And Dane Cameron, the 2007 Star Mazda champion will also be racing at Road Atlanta in the Atlantic Championship's season finale, driving the #19 Genoa Racing / MAZDASPEED / Finlay Motorsports / Lynx Racing Swift 016.a.
The championship cannot -- as it was in 2007 with Dane Cameron -- be clinched at Road Atlanta; the battle will go down to the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But expect Friday afternoon's race to be a fierce one because, at this point, every point is absolutely critical. And while no driver can win the championship this weekend, several stand to be eliminated from contention.
A quick recap of the season is in order at this point; Joel Miller won the season-opener at Sebring, from the pole, in the #20 JDC Motorsports / Mazda / K&N Air Filters Mazda. In Round 2 at Miller Motorsports Park, another rookie won from the pole in a dominant performance, John Edwards in the #7 AIM Autosport / Mobil1 Mazda.
In Round 3 at Watkins Glen, it was Charles Hall's turn to stand on the top step of the podium with a win in the #77 Andersen Racing / Blimpie / AccentBanking.com / Pardoes Solicitors / Allied Building Products Mazda. And Hall's win enabled him to secure sponsorship from the Blimpie national chain of sandwich shops, sponsorship that will see him racing in the Indy Lights series in 2009. Rounds 4 and 5 were a double weekend at the Mazda Grand Prix of Portland. Tom Gladdis, driving the #5 Andersen Racing / Law firm of Marrache & Co. / Allied Building Products Mazda, won the pole for both races, and finished first on Saturday. But it was John Edwards who became the season's first two-time winner with his victory on Sunday.
Next up was the August road trip, with three races back-to-back at Road America, Trois-Rivières and Mosport. The last thing anyone was expecting was one driver to sweep all three, particularly a driver who finished 18th and 19th at Portland, was out of money and in danger of losing his ride. But Peter Dempsey, piloting the #21 Andersen Racing / LotusWorks / Center Jewellers.ie / Quayside.ie / Allied Building Products Mazda, brought it over the finish line first in a race punctuated by yellow flags, but filled with great side-by-side battles in between the cautions. It was a performance that earned him one more race, and he repaid the Andersen team with a win from the pole at Trois-Rivières. Then, at Mosport, a mess of a race with the last half run under caution while corner workers tried to clean up a mile-long oil spill, Dempsey was again the first car under the checkered flag.
Then came rounds 9 and 10, another double-header weekend, at the brand-new New Jersey Motorsports Park. There was perhaps a collective sigh of relief when Joel Miller took the pole for Saturday's race, even though it was John Edwards who eventually won, his third victory of the season. But on Sunday, even though it was Edwards who started from the pole, it was Dempsey who scored his fourth win of the season.
Of the remaining championship contenders not previously mentioned, Lafayette, Louisiana racer Alex Ardoin (currently 4th in the points) has scored one pole, four podium finishes and three top-5s in the #51 Mundill Racing / Oral & Facial Surgery Center / Twister Trailer Mazda. He won the 2007 season-ender at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and finished 4th in the championship. Billy Goshen, driving the #82 Goshen Motorsports / Merv Griffin Entertainment / Global Tracking Communications Mazda, is seventh in the points with one podium, two top-5s and eight top-10s.
While the big prize remains to be won, the remaining championships that are part of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, have been decided. Florida-based Andersen Racing, with four of the seven contenders and seven of ten wins, has already clinched the team championship. The Expert and Master Series championships have already been clinched as well, with Vancouver, B.C.'s Chris Cumming winning in the Expert (drivers 30 to 44) category after scoring seven class wins and three class top-3 finishes in the #16 World Speed Motorsports / Inviro Medical Mazda. Cumming is 11th in the series championship headed to Road Atlanta. Chuck Hulse, of Yorba Linda, California, also clinched his first Master category (drivers 45 and older) championship with seven class wins and three class top-3 finishes. Hulse drives the #12 JDC Motorsports / Silicon Salvage Mazda and is currently 15th in the overall series championship.
Round 11 of the 2008 Star Mazda Championship will take place at the ALMS Petit LeMans at Road Atlanta on October 3. The season finale is at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on October 18. Race 1 / Round 9 from New Jersey Motorsports Park will air on SPEED TV Sunday, October 5 at 2:00 pm (ET), while Race 2 / Round 10 will be broadcast Sunday, October 12 at 1:00 pm (ET).