Sebring: Pre-race notes

DIVERSITY GOES ZOOM-ZOOM -- UNIQUE MIX OF DRIVERS TO TAKE THE GREEN FLAG AT THE STAR MAZDA SEASON OPENER When the cars competing in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear take to the track for the opening race of the 2008 season at...


When the cars competing in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear take to the track for the opening race of the 2008 season at the 56th annual Mobil1 12 Hours of Sebring, the drivers under those colorfully-painted helmets will represent a diversity of nationality, gender, age and family relationships totally unique in the world of auto racing.

Included in the mix are racers from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Ireland and Gibraltar. There are three fast young female drivers, drivers ranging in age from 16 to 64, a father/son team and a brother/sister team.

And the series in which they are competing offers equal diversity. For the younger drivers on their way up the Motorsports ladder, the Star Mazda Championship -- now in its 18th year as one of the most prolific and successful open-wheel driver development series in auto racing today -- is the college basketball, the triple-A baseball, the Junior A hockey of auto racing, a high-speed training ground for future stars of the sport, such as the most recent American Formula One driver Scott Speed, Indy Car stars Marco Andretti and Graham Rahal and prototype phenom Colin Braun as well as the newest addition to Michael Waltrip's NASCAR Sprint Cup team, Michael McDowell, who won the 2005 Star Mazda Championship.

For more mature drivers in whom the competitive fire still burns brightly, the Star Mazda Championship provides a high-profile stage in the form of the Expert (drivers 30 to 44 years old) and Master Series (drivers 45 and older). Expert and Master drivers compete for points and prize money right along with the young hotshoes, but are also competing among themselves for a place on the podium with the top-3 finishers as well as their own year-end championship.

All of the drivers will be starting the season on an unusually level playing field due to technical changes that took place during the off-season. The basic format remains the same -- all drivers compete in identical high-tech open-wheel cars with a carbon fiber chassis, fully-adjustable 'pushrod' suspension, and 6-speed sequential gearbox. Power is provided by Mazda's legendary 'Renesis' rotary engine that produces 240 horsepower, top speeds of over 160 mph and 0 to 60 mph acceleration of 2.8 seconds.

But new for 2008 are standing starts (like Formula One races) and an all-new Goodyear radial racing tire designed specifically for the Star Mazda Championship cars. This last factor will be the greatest 'equalizer' as the new tires completely change the 'setup' (spring rates, shock absorber settings, etc.) of the car from what has been used in previous years. Teams and drivers will be getting their first experience with the new tire at Sebring, and those best able to adapt and find the right setup quickly will have a major advantage in the early races of the season.

During two days of promoter testing early in the week, the initial group of drivers consistently topping the time sheets included Joel Miller, the 2007 Skip Barber Champion racing with JDC Motorsports in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship courtesy of a full-season sponsorship from the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder. He will race the #20 JDC / Skip Barber /MAZDASPEED / K&N Mazda. Also a contender is 16 year-old driver Tom Gladdis of Gibraltar, U.K., driving the #5 Andersen Racing/Law firm of Marrach & Co. / Allied Mazda.

Irishman Peter Dempsey, who impressed in pre-season testing will drive the #21 Andersen Racing Mazda. The Andersen squad also includes Quebec racer Yannick Hofman in the #00 Jig-A-Loo/Andersen Racing Mazda. Also among the top runners is Nick Haye, the second-year driver who finished 4th in the 2007 championship and retuns at the wheel of the #4 JDC Motorsports/Quantum Sphere Mazda.

Another fast veteran is Louisiana racer Alex Ardoin, who won the final Star Mazda Championship race of the 2007 season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, driving the #51 Mundill Racing / Oral and Facial Surgery Center Mazda. The quickest of the three female drivers in the field has been Juliana Gonzalez of Mexico City in the #11 Andersen Racing / / Allied Mazda.

Quick drivers in the Expert Series (drivers aged 30 -- 44) include Chris Cumming of Vancouver, B.C. in the #16 World Speed Motorsports Mazda. Gerry Kraut, a co-owner of JDC Motorsports, was the fastest Master Series driver (drivers 45 and older) in the #55 Dougherty & Co. and Dougherty Funding LLC Mazda.

-credit: star mazda

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Series Pro Mazda
Drivers Michael Waltrip , Graham Rahal , Michael McDowell , Scott Speed , Skip Barber , Marco Andretti , Yannick Hofman , Nick Haye , Chris Cumming , Alex Ardoin , Tom Gladdis , Gerry Kraut , Joel Miller , Peter Dempsey