Canada vs. America in Quest for Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship
PALMETTO, Fla. – The battle for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – and a Mazda Road to Indy scholarship prize worth over $383,000 to graduate to the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – will go down to the final two races of the season.
Canadian Scott Hargrove, from Vancouver, B.C., currently holds a healthy 44-point advantage, 269-225, over Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Neil Alberico, from Los Gatos, Calif., but with 65 points still up for grabs and as many as 25 cars expected for the double-header finale, anything can happen in the pair of races which will form the Marlin CNG Services Grand Prix of Houston on a challenging 1.69-mile, 10-turn temporary circuit at Reliant Park.
“I have a love for street circuits which will make for a very enjoyable final weekend,” said Hargrove, 18, who has claimed four victories this season – including both events on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in March. “Everyone at Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing has done a phenomenal job to put us in this position, with Neil and myself first and second in the championship. However, the title is still on the line and I couldn't be happier about it ending at a track no one has driven (before). It should be a fun weekend and I plan to treat it as I would any other race.”
The championship rivals, both competing in their sophomore USF2000 seasons, have struck up a close friendship since racing together last year at JDC MotorSports, spending time with each other’s families in B.C. and California, but they will not be expecting any favors from each other with such a momentous prize at stake.
Alberico began the year as a firm favorite for title honors after dominating the pre-season Cooper Tires Winterfest, winning five of the six races held in Florida in February. He has continued that form into the regular season, winning a series-high five times, but has also experienced his share of misfortune after failing to finish on three occasions. Alberico also has excelled on temporary circuits, winning once on the streets of Toronto in July and leading most of Race Two until being “ambushed” at a late restart. At one stage Alberico trailed Hargrove by as many as 77 points, so he has far from given up hope of snatching the coveted prize from his teammate’s grasp.
“We have overcome many difficult obstacles this season together as a team,” said 20-year-old Alberico. “We are now here at the final event of the year having already been crowned team champions – however, we must finish in the same manner that we started. Everyone is going to give their maximum effort every second of every session. That is what it is going to take to finish strong, and that is exactly what we have to do." Grist Seeks to Cement Third place and Top Rookie Honors
Another Canadian, Garett Grist, 18, from Grimsby, Ont., currently holds third place in the championship after a strong streak with the Andretti Autosport team which has included one win, a second, a fourth and a fifth from the most recent five races. Grist is 30 markers behind Alberico and leads his closest rival for Rookie honors, Wyatt Gooden, from Cleveland, Ohio, by 28 points with two races remaining in the 14-race season.
Aside from Gooden, who bounced back to prominence with a third-place finish for Afterburner Autosport earlier this month at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in California – his first appearance on the podium since claiming a pair of seconds at St. Petersburg – six other drivers also hold a mathematical chance of finishing among the top three.
Florian Latorre, 16, from Libourne, France, trails Gooden by just three points after an impressive rookie campaign with the JAY Motorsports team which has included a handful of top-five finishes including a pair of podiums. Toronto race winner Danilo Estrela (Belardi Auto Racing), from Goiania, Brazil; 2012 National Class Champion Henrik Furuseth (PRL Motorsports), from Oslo, Norway; Pabst Racing Services teammates Jesse Lazare, from Montreal, Que., Canada, and Jason Wolfe, from Mount Vernon, Ohio; and RC Enerson (ZSports with Team E Racing), from New Port Richey, Fla., also have their sights on finishing the season among the top three in points. Baron, Afterburner Aim to Continue Their Winning Ways
After a stunning USF2000 debut at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, where he claimed victory from the pole in Race One – the first-ever win for Afterburner Autosport – and added a third-place finish in Race Two, Alexandre Baron has every intention of maintaining his momentum in Houston. Baron, who lives in Narbonne, France and holds duel French and English citizenship, has previous street circuit experience at the famed Grand Prix du Pau in France.
Australian Scott Andrews will return with the JDC MotorSports team after also impressing on his series debut in California, posting the fastest time in practice and overcoming some trials and tribulations to claim a pair of top-10 finishes.
Other contenders to watch will include the Belardi Auto Racing stable of Peter Portante, from Plainville, Conn., who won the 2012 Skip Barber Racing National Scholarship and has two podiums to his credit this season, Michael Epps, from Hemel Hempstead, England, Daniel Burkett, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, and Matt McMurry from Phoenix, Ariz. Epps and Burkett both secured season-best top-five finishes at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and McMurry broke into the top 10 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Alliance Autosport Teammates Rettich, Verra Vie for National Honors
The National Class Presented by SCCA Enterprises, which features cost-effective Elan/Van Diemen chassis and Mazda engines complying to the SCCA Formula Enterprises regulations, also will be decided at the final two races of the season. Regular pacesetter and multiple SCCA National Champion Scott Rettich, from Camden, Ohio, won nine successive races to open up a commanding points lead but elected to skip the two most recent races in California, thereby offering a slim opening to Alliance Autosport teammate Ryan Verra. The Canadian native from Calgary, Alb., will need to win both races at Houston with Rettich failing to score in order to wrest away the top honors. Toppe Looking to Impress at Home Race
JDC MotorSports’ Clark Toppe, who turned 16 in September, will be looking to close out his rookie USF2000 season with a strong showing at his hometown race. Toppe, who resides in The Woodlands – just over 30 minutes north of Houston, claimed his season-best result of 12th at Mid-Ohio. He is a graduate of Skip Barber, finishing on the podium in five out of the last six Winter Series races last year. Of Note
Florida-based Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing has already clinched its second successive Team Championship but the battle for second place rages on between Belardi Auto Racing and Afterburner Autosport, which are separated by just 19 points. To date this season, four different teams have won races and eight different teams have been represented on the podium.... Michael Johnson, from Flint, Mich., is the only paralyzed racer on the Mazda Road to Indy roster. Johnson enjoyed an impressive motorcycle racing career before sustaining injuries in a racing incident when he was 14 years old, and refuses to be deterred from his goal of winning the Indianapolis 500. Johnson, who celebrates his 21st birthday on Wednesday, began his comeback in karting and won races in the Skip Barber Series before graduating to USF2000. His efforts over the last 18 months, competing in a hand-controlled car for JDC MotorSports, have been recognized by Mazda which has named him as one of the “Game Changers” featured in its national advertising and marketing campaign.
Follow the Action
The USF2000 contenders will commence their race weekend action with a single practice session on Friday afternoon, October 4, at 12:20 pm CT, followed by qualifying at 4:35 pm. Race One of the Marlin CNG Services Grand Prix of Houston will start at 9:55 am on Saturday, October 5, with the green flag for Sunday’s season finale set for 9:45 am on Sunday. Live timing and scoring for all on-track sessions can be seen via the series website at www.usf2000.com.
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