Star Mazda Cleveland preview
FAST FACTS – The Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear race at this weekend’s Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by LaSalle Bank
Competition in the Star Mazda Championship is so close and fierce that seven drivers are just one victory away from taking the lead.
The current championship leader, with two poles and two wins, is 18 year-old rookie Dane Cameron of Sonoma, California. Devin Cunningham, also a series rookie and the surprise winner in Portland two weeks ago, is currently in 8th place. The second-place finisher in Portland was Swiss racer Natacha Gachnang, the lone female driver in the series.
Mazda is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its legendary rotary engine, the powerplant used in the Star Mazda race cars and the company’s RX-8 sports car. The first rotary-powered road car, the Mazda Cosmo Sport, was introduced on May 31, 1967. Mazda has produced nearly 2 million rotary-powered vehicles since.
Mazda, alone among major automakers, has so thoroughly embraced racing as a core corporate value, that they have created a company-sponsored ‘motorsports scholarship ladder’ reaching all the way from karting to Champ Car.
The Star Mazda Championship is now in its 17th year as one of the most competitive and successful open-wheel driver development series. Star Mazda graduates include F1 driver Scott Speed, Champ Car rookie standout Graham Rahal and rising IRL star Marco Andretti.
After a rainy, caution-filled race two weeks ago in Portland that produced some surprising results -- including a rookie win and the first female racer to score a podium finish in ten years -- the young lions of the Star Mazda Championship will continue clawing their way toward motorsports stardom on the runways of Burke Lakefront Airport at this weekend’s Champ Car Grand Prix of Cleveland Presented by LaSalle Bank. This marks the series’ first visit to the famed airport circuit.
The young lions under discussion are the drivers in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, one of the most competitive and successful driver development series in Motorsports history. Since it was created 17 years ago, the Star Mazda series has graduated such luminaries as the only American F1 driver, Scott Speed, Champ Car standout Graham Rahal and rising IRL star Marco Andretti.
Among the current crop of Star Mazda standouts are championship points leader Dane Cameron, an 18 year-old rising star from Sonoma, California who is in his first year of Star Mazda racing. His record so far includes two poles, two wins and two 4th-place finishes. And Cameron comes to Cleveland with the advantage of having won from the pole here last year driving for Cape Motorsports in the Formula Ford 2000 series on his way to a record of four poles, 2 wins, six 2nd-place finishes and one 3rd. He finished the 14-race season as Rookie of the Year and second in the championship.
“Cleveland was my first win last year, so it’s a special place to me,” he says. “The track is bumpy, fast and wide with not many visual reference points to help a driver find his way around. And since it’s a temporary circuit, and this is the first time Star Mazda has raced here, none of the other drivers have any experience at all with the track. That’s a big advantage for me… if I can make it through the first turn.”
Cameron started on the front row in the previous event at Portland, only to be hit from behind in a first-lap, first-turn multi-car melee that knocked him out of the race, scrambled the running order and set the stage for another rookie to win his first race.
That rookie was Devin Cunningham, from St. Bruno, Quebec, who raced his #33 Discovery Channel/AIM Autosport Mazda from 10th on the grid to victory at Portland and currently sits 8th in the championship points battle.
Cunningham won the 2006 Discovery Channel competition, called ‘Star Racer,’ designed to find the next great Canadian racing driver. The 8-part docu-reality series aired last fall and Cunningham is now making the most of his prize, a full-season sponsorship in the 2007 Star Mazda Championship.
“This time last year I was struggling to pay for my go-kart racing and to find myself standing on the victory podium in a series as competitive as Star Mazda is something that took a while to sink in,” says Cunningham. “The AIM Autosport team gives me great cars at every race, and we’ll try and keep this momentum going at Cleveland.”
Finishing second in Portland, after qualifying 15th, was Cunningham’s AIM Autosport teammate, Natacha Gachnang of St-Gingolph, Switzerland, driving the #35 AIM Autosport Mazda. Gachnang is the first female Star Mazda racer to score a podium finish since Lynx Racing driver Sara Senske finished 2nd on the oval in Irwindale, California ten years ago.
“Portland was a great sensation for me, because I did not expect anything like a podium finish because it was only my second race in the series,” says Gachnang. “But my practice times were in the top-10 and my teammate and the AIM Autosport team are both very supportive. Racing on an airport circuit for the first time will be very challenging, so I’m hoping for a dry weekend.”
With 177 points, Dane Cameron – despite his DNF at Portland – holds a slim, 12-point lead over Australian driver James Davison (also with two poles) with 165. Davison also had a tough weekend in Portland, qualifying 8th and finishing 22nd. Third in the points battle is Canadian Marco Di Leo – who won the season-opener at Sebring – with 161. Di Leo started on the pole in Portland but finished 7th.
With 44 points awarded for a win, any of the top eight drivers could upset the apple cart with a surprise victory on the challenging 2.106-mile runway circuit at Burke Lakefront Airport this weekend.
An interesting side note is that the Star Mazda Championship is something of a ‘United Nations of Racing’ with drivers not only from around the U.S. and Canada, but also, Venezuela, Switzerland, Pakistan, England and the Philippines.
And the series demonstrates another aspect of democracy with special categories for drivers who don’t fit the ‘young lion’ category. The Expert Series is for drivers in the 30 to 44 age range, and the current points leader is Tony Rivera with 92. In the Masters Series category for racers 45 and older, Steve Hickham leads with 76 points.
Here’s the story on what they’re all fighting for; forty years ago, on May 31, 1967, Mazda introduced the first street car with a rotary engine, the Cosmo Sport. Since then, they’ve built two million rotary-engined vehicles and the company has built its very identity on the idea of Zoom-Zoom and every vehicle they produce having the soul of a sports car.
In pursuit of that ideal, Mazda has created a unique, company-sponsored ‘motorsports ladder’ that reaches all the way from karting to Champ Car. This year’s Star Mazda series champion will receive a Mazda-sponsored full-season drive for 2008 in the next series up the ladder, the Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda. And the 2008 winner of the Atlantic Championship gets a $2 million sponsorship to help them move up to Champ Car.
So… they’re racing for their dream, and for the opportunity of a lifetime. And it all begins on Friday, June 22 with a 45-minute practice session starting at 6:40 pm. Racers will also have a 45-minute practice session on Saturday afternoon, with the 45-minute qualifying session starting at 6:20 in the evening. The 45-minute Star Mazda Championship race is scheduled to take the green flag at 3:15 pm Sunday, June 24, after the Champ Car event.
Cleveland is the sixth round of the 12-race 2007 Star Mazda Championship schedule. Star Mazda races are broadcast tape-delayed on SPEED TV. Date and time (all times stated are Eastern) for the one-hour broadcast is available at www.speedtv.com/programs. The Cleveland race is scheduled to air on Monday, July 9 at 3:00 pm (ET), with a re-broadcast on Thursday, July 12 at 4:00 am (ET).
The next event on the schedule, also on a Champ Car weekend, is at Toronto on July 6 - 7.
For additional information please visit www.starmazda.com and www.mazdausa.com