A QUARTET OF RECENT STAR MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP GRADUATES MOVE UP TO IRL, FIA FORMULA TWO, GRAND-AM SPORTS CARS AND ATLANTIC CHAMPIONSHIP
Demonstrating once again that the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear is the premier 'gateway' ladder series to all forms of racing, a quartet of recent series graduates from three countries have announced plans to move up to the Indy Racing League, the new FIA Formula Two series, Grand-Am sports cars and the Atlantic Championship.
American John Edwards drove the #7 AIM Autosport/ Mobil1 Mazda to four wins, four poles and three podium finishes, capturing the 2008 Star Mazda Championship and the fully-funded Atlantic Championship ride that goes with it. As a result, he will return to the Atlantic series (where he raced in 2007) again 2009; he has signed with Newman Wachs Racing as driver of the No. 36 MAZDASPEED/ Nuclear Clean Air Energy/Entergy machine.
2007 Star Mazda champion, Californian Dane Cameron, moved up to the Atlantic Championship with Genoa Racing in 2008 courtesy of the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder scholarship. He scored four top-fives, two podiums and a pole to finish seventh in the championship. He has signed to co-drive the full 2009 Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series GT season with Doug Peterson in the No. 30 Racers Edge Mazda RX-8.
Michelle Bumgarner, a 19 year-old female racer from the Philippines who competed in the Star Mazda Championship in 2008 has signed a five-year deal with Walker Racing to compete in the Indy Racing League beginning with the Indy Lights series in 2009. And another fast female, Swiss racer Natacha Gachnang, who made Star Mazda series history with back-to-back podium finishes in 2007, is again breaking new ground as the first female racer in the new 2009 FIA Formula Two Championship.
"It makes us very proud to see our graduates moving up in the racing world," says series founder and President Gary Rodrigues. "We designed the Star Mazda Championship to be the most competitive, educational and affordable driver development series in the world and, every year, announcements like these prove that we're still on the right track. The field for 2009 is shaping up to be extremely diverse with both current and new teams and drivers from around the world. Everyone seems excited about the 2009 schedule, thirteen races on eleven major motorsport weekends at road, street circuits and ovals. And the new package of aerodynamic and suspension upgrades available to the teams will make the cars both faster and more cost-effective over the course of the season."
With the global financial situation affecting motorsports at all levels, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear will enter its 19th year in 2009 having re-signed contracts with both of its title sponsors that extend through the end of the 2013 season. The series will pay out $1.5 million in prizes, including a fully-funded drive in the 2010 Atlantic Championship, the next step up the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder.
"I learned a lot racing in the Star Mazda Championship in 2008 that will make me a better, more competitive Atlantic driver and I’m pretty excited about this season,” says Edwards. “I had some Atlantic experience before and finished in the top 10 in the championship and now I want to finish in the top one. I have no doubt that we’re going to win races this year, and hopefully we can win a championship as well. This is a real example of how well the MAZDASPEED ladder system works and I'm happy to be part of the program."
As a 16-year-old, Edwards drove in the 2007 Atlantic Championship with Red Bull/ Forsythe Racing, earning a best result of second at Toronto. At Newman Wachs, he will be reunited with former Forsythe engineer Nick Harvey —who engineered Markus Niemela’s Atlantic championship-winning season with Brooks Associates Racing this year.
Driving the JDC Motorsports/Finlay Motorsports/Lynx Racing Mazda, Dane Cameron scored six poles, three wins to clinch the 2007 championship one race before the season finale. Moving up to the Atlantic Championship with Genoa Racing courtesy of the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder scholarship, he finished seventh in the championship with four top-fives, two podiums and a pole. His 2009 team, Racers Edge Motorsports, is itself a graduate of the Star Mazda Championship, having won back-to-back championships in 2002 with Guy Cosmo and 2003 with Luis Schiavo before moving up to the Grand-Am series in 2007.
“Both Star Mazda and Atlantic were definitely great preparation for this next step in my career,” Cameron said. “Any driver who has raced in both definitely has some serious experience and skills. I feel that I’m a better-rounded driver than I was. I've been strictly open-wheel up until now, so this is a new chapter for me and I'm looking forward to it. I did a couple of test days with Racers Edge and it's a top-notch professional team. Every time we went out on track the car got better and we made a lot of progress, in car setup, lap times, communication and coming together as a team. Racers Edge has done well in its previous two seasons in the GT class and this year I think we're going to be able to challenge for podiums and wins."
Bumgarner, voted one of the seven 'most admired women' in the Philippines, started racing at age 10, won three consecutive Asian karting championships between the ages of 14 and 16, and raced professionally in Europe for two years. Her open wheel experience includes the Italian Masters Karting Formula Toyota Series, Asian Formula 3, and the 2007 Star Mazda Championship. In September of 2008, she became the first female champion of the prestigious Rock Island (Ill.) Grand Prix, the world's largest street-kart racing event.
"I'm really fortunate to have signed with a good team," Bumgarner said of her new contract. "Derrick Walker and Walker Racing have a lot of experience with IRL and the Indy 500, which is my ultimate goal. I am also proud to be flying the Philippines flag and representing the Filipino people through this great adventure."
Swiss racer Natacha Gachnang ran with AIM Autosport (the same team that won the 2008 championship with John Edwards) during the 2007 Star Mazda Championship season. Already an experienced karting champion and open-wheel racer, she made series history with back-to-back podium finishes at Portland at Cleveland and scored an unbroken string of seven top-10 finishes. After finishing third in the 2008 Spanish F3 championship, she continues to make motorsports history by becoming the first female racer to sign up for the new 2009 FIA Formula Two Championship.
“I’m delighted to be doing Formula Two next season because it brings me that much closer to achieving my dream of getting into Formula One," says Gachnang, who is the cousin of GP2 star and Red Bull F1 test drives Sebastien Buemi. "To be honest, I try not to think about being a woman in a male-dominated sport. At times it has probably helped me, but I think it has also been hard to get people to really believe in me as a driver, especially as I climb the motorsport ladder.
For 2009, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear will feature an 11-weekend, 13-race schedule on major race weekends with American Le Mans, Grand-Am, the Atlantic Championship, NASCAR Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series. Prize money is $1.5 million, including a fully-funded drive in the 2010 Atlantic Championship. Drivers 16 and older are welcome to compete and the Star Mazda Championship also features Expert (30 to 44) and Master (45 and older) classes for more mature racers. The Star Mazda Championship features standing starts, wheel-to-wheel racing at 150 mph and budgets a fraction of other top open-wheel ladder series. iRacing.com is the official racing simulation of the Star Mazda Championship, and one-month free 'virtual test drive' of the Star Mazda open-wheel car is available by going to starmazda.com/newdriver.