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Star Mazda Toronto preview

Fast Facts

  • The Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear race at this weekend’s Champ Car Steelback Grand Prix of Toronto
  • Three Canadian drivers, all rookies and all with one win each, will be battling for victory this weekend. Included are Toronto native Marco Di Leo (right), Vancouver driver Lorenzo Mandarino and Quebec’s Devin Cunningham.
  • The lone female driver in the series, Natacha Gachnang of St-Gingolph, Switzerland, now living in Toronto, has made Star Mazda history by scoring podium finishes in the last two races.
  • 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.

Three Canadian drivers, all rookies, each with one win so far this season, will be among the rising stars of open wheel racing competing in Round Seven of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear race at the Steelback Grand Prix of Toronto, July 6 – 8. 

This will be the first of three Star Mazda races in Canada over the next two months, including Trois Rivières, Quebec (where Star Mazda is the feature race) on August 18-19, and at Mosport in Bowmanville with the American Le Mans Series on August 24-25.

Heading the list is Toronto’s own Marco Di Leo, driver of the #21 Maxwell Paper Products Mazda. Di Leo was the 2006 Skip Barber National Championship runner-up, 2005 Skip Barber Scholarship winner, Team Sunoco Ultra 94 member and F2000 Bridgestone Series champion. He won the Star Mazda season-opener in Sebring and is currently third in the championship battle with 190 points. He finished 7th in Round Six two weeks ago at Cleveland.

Second is Burnaby B.C.’s Lorenzo Mandarino, driver of the #23 Newway Forming/Team G.FRO Mazda and race winner at Round Four in Salt Lake City. Mandarino had a tough weekend in Cleveland, finishing 18th, but is currently 6th in the Star Mazda Championship with 165 points. Mandarino was the 2005 SKUSA (Super Karts USA) Supernational Winner in the Super Pro class and an 11-time karting champion since 1996.

Devin Cunningham of St. Bruno, Quebec, 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. He won Round Five of the Star Mazda Championship in Portland driving the #33 Discovery Channel/AIM Autosport Mazda and is currently 8th in the championship with 163 points.

Also of note in the Star Mazda field is Natacha Gachnang, a native of St. Gingolph, Switzerland currently living in Toronto. She is Devin Cunningham’s teammate on the AIM Autosport team, driving the #35 AIM Autosport Mazda. Gachnang is the lone female driver in the Star Mazda Championship and has made series history by finishing on the podium in the last two races (2nd at Portland and 3rd at Cleveland). Gachnang was the 2001 Swiss junior karting champion and raced in the European Formula BMW series 2002 – 2005, moving up to Formula 3 in 2006. She joined the Star Mazda series at Salt Lake City and Toronto will be her fourth Star Mazda race.

It should be noted that Toronto-based AIM Autosport is the home of Team A.I.M. (Apprenticeship In Motorsport), a not-for-profit organization that fosters the development of Canadian youth in the motorsport industry and works to nurture the motorsport industry, find partnership opportunities for young racing apprentices and to grow the pool of apprentices in Canada. AIM alumni include Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish, Champ Car racer Andrew Ranger.

Also a prime contender for victory in Toronto will be current championship points leader Dane Cameron of Sonoma, California. Cameron has won two races and scored three pole positions so far this season and leads the championship with 218 points. Cameron started from the pole and finished 2nd in Cleveland. In 2006, Cameron drove in the Formula Ford 2000 series and finished second in both Toronto races (all FF2000 events were ‘double headers’) on his way to finishing 2nd in the championship and being ‘Rookie of the Year.’ As a Team USA Scholarship driver, he won the 2006 Palmer Audi Winter Championship in Europe. In 2005 Cameron was the SCCA Formula Jim Russell Series champion and Rookie of the Year.

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 86 points.

And 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, July 6 with a 70-minute practice session starting at 8:00 am. Racers will also have a 30-minute practice session starting at 5:00 pm. The 35-minute qualifying session to set the starting grid for the race takes place at 8:00 am Saturday morning. The 45-minute Star Mazda Championship race is scheduled to take the green flag at 3:30 pm Saturday, July 7.

Toronto is the seventh 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 and subject to change) for the one-hour broadcast is available at www.speedtv.com/programs. The Toronto race is scheduled to air on Saturday, July 21 at 12:00 pm with a re-broadcast on Monday, July 23 at 3:00 pm.

The next event on the Star Mazda schedule is at Road America, with the American Le Mans Series, on August 10 – 11. For additional information please visit www.starmazda.com and www.mazdausa.com.

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