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Star Mazda season preview
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 two 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), a new wings that increase top speed by 10 mph on tracks with long straights (like Sebring) 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.

In considering potential contenders for the 2008 season, a pair that immediately come to mind are veterans of the 2007 season returning with their respective teams for a second year.  Nick Haye, who scored two podiums and two top-5s and finished 4th in the 2007 championship returns at the wheel of the #4 JDC Motorsports/Quantum Sphere Mazda with additional sponsorship from NHR and All-Star Ice.  Also a top prospect is Louisiana racer Alex Ardoin, driver of the #51 Mundill Racing / Oral and Facial Surgery Center Mazda.  He finishes 6th in the championship in 2007 with two podiums and his first-ever Star Mazda victory in the final race of the season at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.  Other returning drivers include Eric Freiberg (#14 World Speed Motorsports / Collision Damage Experts Mazda), Scott Rettich (#17 Mundill Racing / PDI Communications Mazda) and Jahn Zartarian (#43 JWR Mazda). 

Also returning is the unique father/son team of Dan Tomlin Jr. (#58 Team Tomlin Mazda) and Dan Tomlin III (#56 Team Tomlin Mazda).  Tomlin III races in the Expert Series for drivers aged 30 to 44 (and was the Expert Series champion in 2007) while his father runs in the Master Series for drivers 45 and older.  Other notable returning Master Series drivers include Gerry Kraut, a co-owner of JDC Motorsports (#55 Dougherty & Co. and Dougherty Funding LLC Mazda) and his new teammate, Chuck Hulse (#12 JDC Motorsports/Silicon Salvage Mazda).  A new, fast face setting impressive times in the Expert Series is Chris Cumming of Vancouver, B.C. in the #16 World Speed Motorsports Mazda. 

A relatively new driver who ran two Star Mazda Championship races in 2007, finishing a superb 5th in his home event in Trois Rivieres, Quebec is Yannick Hofman, driver of the #00 Jig-A-Loo/Andersen Racing Mazda.  Genuine ‘newbies’ to the Star Mazda Championship who established themselves as front-runners in two days of pre-Sebring testing include 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 showing promise on the JDC squad is Brazilian rookie Ernesto Otero (#18 JDC Motorsports/Brazilian Green Beef Mazda) who found some speed in the final session of testing.

Leading the Andersen Racing juggernaut, and topping the time sheets several times in testing, is Irishman Peter Dempsey (#21 Andersen Racing/Allied Mazda).  Turning laps within a tick of Dempsey is 16 year-old Tom Gladdis of Gibraltar, U.K., driving the #5 Andersen Racing/Law firm of Marrach & Co./Allied Mazda.  The quickest of the three female drivers in the field, thus far, has been Juliana Gonzalez of Mexico City in the #11 Andersen Racing / VisitMexico.com / Allied Mazda.  And Kristy Kester, part of the brother/sister Kester Racing team, also showed some sudden speed in the final test session, less than a tenth of a second behind Gonzalez driving the #48 Kester Racing/Texas World Speedway/Unifirst Mazda.

Twenty-seven drivers will take part in the qualifying session scheduled for 1:20 pm to 2:05 pm Thursday, March 13.  The 45-minute Round One of the 2008 Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear will begin with the series’ first-ever standing start at 2:50 pm Friday, March 14.  The race will be broadcast on the SPEED Channel; for the exact air date and time, log on to www.speedtv.com/programs.

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