Its Europe vs. the U.S. ..


 It's only two races into the 2009 season and already an interesting points battle for the top two spots is shaping up as the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear heads for Round Three at Miller Motorsports Park this weekend.

Englishman Adam Christodoulou, driving the #11 JDC Motorsports Mazda in his first-ever Star Mazda championship race, fired the opening shot with a victory from the outside of the front row in the season-opener at Sebring.  In Round Two at VIR on April 26, Christodoulou took the pole position but crossed the finish line 7th after a wild last lap; meanwhile, while Irishman Peter Dempsey started alongside Christodoulou on the front row, pulled off a spectacular 'hail Mary' pass on the last lap and brought his #3 AIM Autosport / Motorsport Ireland / Mazda home in first place.  This is Dempsey's second season of Star Mazda Championship competition and he finished third in the 2008 championship with four wins, three of them in a row.

Where the first race, with Christodoulou never putting a wheel wrong, was a reasonably restrained demonstration of driving skill, by the time VIR rolled around, many of the Star Mazda Championship drivers seemed to have gotten in touch with their inner demolition derby driver and the race was a debris-strewn yellow-flag fest punctuated with the occasion couple of green flag laps.    And at Sebring, another second-year driver, Californian Joel Miller, finished 5th while Rookie Conor Daly finished 3rd.  At VIR, they swapped placings, with Miller finishing 3rd and Daly finishing 5th.

This is all the more interesting in light of the fact that in 2008, Miller was the reigning Skip Barber Pro Series Champion and racing in the Star Mazda with a scholarship from the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder.  This year, he's paying his own way and his chief nemesis, Conor Daly, is the Skip Barber Pro Series champion and MAZDASPEED scholarship recipient.  Miller is the classic outsider, a by-your-bootstraps driver who pilots the #2 JDC Motorsports Mazda, while Daly is the consummate insider, son of racing legend and noted broadcaster Derek Daly.  He drives the #22 Andersen Racing / College Network / Indeck / Cytomax Mazda.  Both are talented and hungry, and their season-long battle is sure to be intense.

As a result of the first two races, the duo of Christodoulou and Dempsey are tied in the championship battle with 74 points, while Miller and Daly are tied for second at 69 points.  The Star Mazda Championship awards 44 points for a win, so all four, as well as a number of others, are still in the hunt.  The Star Mazda Championship presents a uniquely deep talent pool this season; not only are countries such as U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Norway, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Japan represented, but three of the top-4 and seven of the top-10 drivers from 2008 have returned to do battle again in 2009.

And at Miller Motorsports Park in 2008, while Joel Miller qualified 2nd and finished 3rd and Peter Dempsey qualified 6th and finished 4th, it was Louisiana racer Alex Ardoin, now in his third Star Mazda season, who made the biggest impression; starting from the 29th and last spot on the grid due to a mechanical problem in qualifying, he slashed his way up through the field to finish 10th.  This year, Ardoin rounds out the top-5 in the championship battle with an 8th-place finish at Sebring and 2nd at VIR, yielding 86 points.  Driving the #51 JDC Motorsports / Oral & Facial Surgery Center Mazda, he is the leading contender to step up and surprise the leaders.

Other drivers who should be watched are both second-season competitors; Canadian Taylor Hacquard, who finished 6th in 2008, and Billy Goshen who finished 8th.  Hacquard changed teams in the off-season, and now drives the #15 Kester Racing Team 3G / Wolfe Auto Group / Texas World Speedway Mazda.  Goshen's family team has expanded from one car last season to three, and he drives the #82 Goshen Motorsports / Baker Commodities / GPSTrackit / OTTO / First Quality Concrete Mazda.

Among Expert Series drivers (ages 30 – 44), 2008 Champion Chris Cumming of Vancouver, B.C. finished 2nd at Miller last year and heads back this year again leading his class championship with a class win at Sebring and 3rd at VIR driving the #16 Kester Racing Team 3G / Texas World Speedway / Motul Oil Mazda.  His strongest competition will come from Japanese racer Toshihiro Deki, second in the championship with a 4th at Sebring and 2nd at VIR in the #80 Goshen Motorsports Mazda, as well as 2008 West Coast Star Mazda champion Patrick O'Neill, who missed Sebring but won his class at VIR in the #64 Mundill / O'Neill Construction Mazda.

In the Master Series (age 45 and older), champion Chuck Hulse did not return this year, but his teammate and 2nd-place finisher in the 2008 championship, Gerry Kraut, is back in the #55 JDC Motorsports / Dougherty & Co. / Dougherty Funding LLC Mazda, scoring 2nd-place finishes at Sebring and VIR.  Kraut is also co-owner of JDC. His main competition this year again comes from a teammate, though this time its California Michael Guasch, who leads the Master Series championship by virtue of class wins in both of the first two races at the wheel of the #91 JDC Motorsports / Molecule Mazda.

In addition to the various championship battles already underway, Round 3 of the Star Mazda Championship at Miller Motorsports Park marks the first of five races designated as Star Mazda / Racing for Kids events.  Participating drivers (including Alex Ardoin, Toshihiro Deki, Ryan Booth, Chris Cumming, Billy Goshen, Taylor Hacquard, Kristy and J.C. Kester, Caio Lara and Joel Miller) will visit the Primary Children’s Medical Center at 100 Medical Drive at 3:00 pm, Thursday, May 14.  The top-finishing driver on the list at the Miller event will receive a $500 cash prize, with a comparable cash donation made to the Children’s Hospital in that driver’s name.  At the end of the season, a $1,000 cash prize will be offered to the best performing driver in the five race mini-series with another $1,000 going to the children’s healthcare institution of the driver’s choice.  Joel Miller of Hesperia, California won the RFK Star Mazda title last year and Alex Ardoin of Lafayette, Louisiana won the honor in 2007.

On-track activities for drivers in the Star Mazda Championship begins with a pair of 50-minute promoter test sessions on Thursday, May 14, one beginning at 8:00 am and the other at 1:00 pm.  A pair of official 45-minute practice sessions will take place on Friday, May 15 at 8:45 am and 1:00 pm.  Qualifying to set the grid for the Star Mazda Championship's spectacular, F1-style standing start takes place from 8:35 am - 9:20 am Saturday, May 16, with the 45-minute Round 3 of the 2009 Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear at Miller Motorsports Park during the Larry H. Miller Dealerships Utah Grand Prix Presented by the Grand & Little America Hotels scheduled to get the green light at 6:05 pm Saturday afternoon. 


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