Star Mazda season opens at Sebring; Star Mazda Championship debuts upgraded car, new teams, hot young drivers and racing legends in 2009 season opener at 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring With a 30-car field on tap for Round 1 of the 2009...
Star Mazda season opens at Sebring; Star Mazda Championship debuts upgraded car, new teams, hot young drivers and racing legends in 2009 season opener at 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring
With a 30-car field on tap for Round 1 of the 2009 season at the 57th annual 12 Hours of Sebring, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear is set to dive into the deepest talent pool in recent years. Three of the top four and seven of the top ten drivers in the 2008 championship will return to battle in 2009. Thirty or more cars are expected to line up for the F1-style standing start, with drivers representing all areas of the U.S. as well as Canada, England, Ireland, Norway, Brazil, Venezuela, Chile and Japan.
High-profile names joining the Star Mazda Championship series this season include Indianapolis native Conor Daly, son of former F1/Indy Car/Prototype driver and noted auto racing TV commentator Derek Daly, a two-time winner (1990 -- 1991) of the 12 Hours of Sebring. The younger Daly won the 2008 Skip Barber Pro Series Championship and is driving the #22 Andersen Racing/Indeck/Cytomax/The College Network/ Merchant Services Mazda in the 2009 Star Mazda Championship. With sponsorship from the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder, the unique and prestigious Mazda-sponsored program that provides funding for series champions all the way from karting to the top levels of auto racing, Daly will be looking to continue the family tradition of Sebring victories in his Star Mazda championship debut this weekend.
Another prominent name from the world of F1 and Indy Cars, Eliseo Salazar, will also be joining the series as team principal of Eliseo THL Motorsports, a new team formed to provide a stepping-stone for South American drivers to develop careers in North American motorsports. Headquartered in Pittsburgh, PA will field the Eliseo THL Motorsports Star Mazda car for rising 18 year-old Chilean racer Kevin Toledo.
The Freshman Class
Three of the top four and seven of the top ten drivers from the 2008 season are returning for a second year of high-speed education in the Star Mazda Championship, including American Joel Miller, who won this event from the pole in 2008. Miller, the 2007 Skip Barber Pro Series champion, raced to a second-place finish in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship with sponsorship from the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder will return with the JDC Motorsports team. Peter Dempsey, the 'Irish Steamroller' who won four races last year (three of them in a row) and started on the pole three times on his way to a 3rd-place finish in the championship will also return for a second year, driving for a different team, AIM Autosport (the team that won the 2008 championship with American John Edwards).
Alex Ardoin, the Lafayette, Louisiana racer who won the 2007 season-ending race at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and finished fourth in the 2008 Star Mazda Championship battle will return for his third season (making him actually a 'Junior' rather than a freshman), driving this year for a different team, JDC Motorsports (the 2007 series champions with Dane Cameron). Other returning drivers who finished in the top-10 last year include Californian Billy Goshen (Goshen Racing), Brazilian Ciao Lara (JDC Motorsports), Texan Kristy Kester (Kester Motorsports) and Vancouver's Taylor Hacquard (Kester Motorsports).
Top contenders for the Star Mazda Championship 'Rookie of the Year' honors must certainly include Richard Kent, the 'stranger from nowhere' who showed up at the last race of the 2008 season, set a new track record in winning the pole and then won the race. In the Star Mazda Championship, any driver who has competed in fewer than three events -- even if he wins one -- is considered a rookie. Kent, an Englishman, is a veteran of both European Formula Renault and Palmer Audi and will drive for Andersen Racing in 2009. Other hot prospects include the afore-mentioned Conor Daly and Kevin Toledo, as well as Scandanavian racer Anders Krohn from Stavanger, Norway (Mundill); he was the 2008 US F2000 series champion and Rookie of the Year.
AIM Autosport, the team that won the 2008 Star Mazda Championship with 17 year-old American John Edwards (now racing in the Atlantic Championship with sponsorship from the MAZDASPEED Ladder), continues their tradition of developing young talent by fielding cars for Canadian David Ostella and Venezuelan Jorge Goncalvez. Both are 17 years old and competed last season in the Formula BMW Americas series. Goncalvez has also raced Formula Renault in South America and Europe.
Thomas Asseo (JDC Motorsports) ran the Formula Russell Championship in 2008, winning 'Rookie of the Year' and finishing third in the championship with one win and six podium finishes; he was born in Paris and now lives in Los Angeles. Running with Goshen Motorsports is 16 year-old Ryan Booth, the 2007 Formula TR Pro Series champion who ran the Formula Asia series in 2008, winning at the Bira Circuit in Pattaya, Thailand.
New team Juncos Racing has a duo of 'ROY' prospects, including Miami, Fl native Sean Burstyn, a graduate of the Juncos Racing School, the Skip Barber Racing School and the Formula Renault 1600 championship in 2006. He ran the Star Mazda race at Sebring in 2007 and competed in the Formula Mazda-based FARA Championship in 2008. Canadian Michael Furfari began in karts at age 12, graduated to Formula Renault 1600 in 2007 and spent 2008 testing in the Juncos Star Mazda car preparing for his full-time debut in the 2009 season.
Driving for Andersen Racing this season is Brazilian Denis Navaro; he started racing karts in 2004, graduated to open-wheel cars in 2006 and ran the South American Formula 3 series in 2007 -- 2008, finishing third in last year's championship with four wins and six poles.
Experts and Masters
Chris Cumming, the Vancouver racer who won the 2008 Expert Series championship (for drivers 30 to 44 years old) with seven class wins (including Sebring), has changed teams to Kester Racing and will again be a top contender in 2009. And the top returning racer in the Master Series (for drivers 45 and older) is Gerry Kraut (right), who finished second in the class last season with three class wins and five top-3 class finishes. Kraut, from North Oaks, Minnesota, drives for (and is a co-owner of) JDC Motorsports and is the CEO of a private investment company. His principal competition for the Master Series championship will come from Californian Mike Guasch, a veteran Star Mazda racer who ran only half the season in 2008, but still managed to finish third in the Master championship.
The Expert Series will see serious action this season with Cumming defending his title against five other drivers in the same age category. Returning after a debut season in 2008 that saw him score three class wins and finish second in the championship is Texan J.W. Roberts (Team GDT). Back for a more extensive 2009 schedule after running six of twelve races in 2008 is Oregon Racer Phil Fogg, Jr., who finished third in the Expert Series last year. Also of note are two newcomers to both the Star Mazda Championship and the Expert Series, Walt Bowlin of Tarpon Springs, FL (Juncos Racing) and widely-experienced Japanese racer Toshihiro Deki (Goshen Motorsports) who has competed in Formula 3, Formula Toyota, and Formula Junior 1600, as well as Mazda RX-8 and RX-6 sports cars. Joining the series in Round 2 at Virginia International Raceway April 25 will be 2008 West Coast Star Mazda Champion Patrick O'Neill, driving for the Mundill team.
Expert and Master Series drivers race the same kind of car as all the other Star Mazda racers, and compete in the same events for the same championship points and prize money, but they also have a race-within-a-race that sees the Star Mazda Championship with five drivers on the podium at the end of the race; the top-3 as well as the top-finishing Expert and Master.
While the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear is a part of the MAZDASPEED Motorsports Driver Development Ladder, a number of Star Mazda Championship teams also have their own internal ladder programs. Pre-eminent among these is Andersen Racing, (www.andersenracingteam.com), which runs racing programs in karting, Formula BMW, Star Mazda and Indy Lights. They also own a test track, Andersen Racepark, in Palmetto, Florida, where the team is based. Andersen is also the 'official driver development team' of Rahal Letterman Racing. Another team with IRL connections is Kester Racing, which has expanded from the two-car brother/sister team of J.C. and Kristy Kester (right) that they campaigned in 2008, to a four-car team for 2009 that includes Expert Series champion Chris Cumming and rising Vancouver racer Taylor Hacquard. The Kester team has also forged a 'driver development' deal with the IRL's Team 3G, making its series debut in 2009 with driver Stanton Barrett.
The Mundill team that will campaign Anders Krohn in the 2009 Star Mazda Championship has recently purchased a Pescarolo/Judd LMP1 car that they will campaign in the American Le Mans series beginning later this season. JDC Motorsports, the 2007 Star Mazda series champions with Dane Cameron, also run a highly-competitive F2000 effort, and the new Juncos Racing team runs a driving school in addition to their new three-car Star Mazda effort.
Upgraded Star Mazda Race Car Debuts
In the first major upgrade of the Star Mazda 'Pro Car' since its introduction five years ago, Star Race Cars has produced a package of mechanical and software upgrades for the 2009 season. More than 150 of these high-tech, carbon-fiber, rotary-powered single-seaters are utilized by competitors in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, as well as SCCA competition and regional Star Mazda series around the U.S., such as the Molecule Formula Mazda Challenge on the West Coast.
The upgrades, including new wings, shock absorbers and suspension rockers, are designed to increase the car's aerodynamic efficiency and top speed while improving engine cooling; in addition, it will be easier for drivers and their engineers to arrive at the best setup for each track. The cumulative effect of the upgrades will be to increase both top speed and cornering speed, reduce maintenance costs and enhance the mechanical reliability of what is arguably already one of the most dependable, cost-effective open-wheel cars in competition today.
Star Mazda Championship action at Sebring begins with test sessions starting Monday, March 16. Qualifying to set the starting grid takes place from 1:45 pm to 2:30 pm, Thursday, March 19. The 45-minute Round One of the 2009 Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear season is set to take the green flag at 3:55 pm, Friday, March 20.