Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Aaron Telitz delivers the goods in run to Pro Mazda title

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Resilience and experience told the story for Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires rookie Aaron Telitz, as the young American captured the title on the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder and the Mazda advancement scholarship that went with it.

The 24-year-old is older than his peers for a ladder system that is, admittedly, overflowing with teenagers.

But that’s not a bad thing. Using James Hinchcliffe as a comparable example, Hinchcliffe spent a full seven years in the ladder between Formula BMW, Pro Mazda (then Star Mazda), Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights before graduating into IndyCar in 2011. And at 24, Hinchcliffe promptly rocked up and qualified eighth on his debut at Barber Motorsports Park… while eventual future champion Simon Pagenaud, then 26, was 23rd in a one-off injury replacement outing before ending eighth.

The point of that preamble is that Telitz is already at a position where he’s both experienced from the ladder and mature enough for when he could graduate into IndyCar. For him, 2018 would be the target season if he can emulate Spencer Pigot in winning an Indy Lights title a year after winning Pro Mazda.

That experience probably served him better than his closest title rival all year, his Team Pelfrey teammate Pato O’Ward, who at 17 lit a fire under the rest of the field with a blazing start.

O’Ward, on a limited planned schedule that was eventually extended through the year, won six of the first seven races, while Telitz left that seventh race some 55 points behind.

The Telitz family and friend brigade. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The Telitz family and friend brigade. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

At Road America, Telitz’s home race, the tide turned in a big way. A single-day sweep of two races was enough to get the ball rolling on a comeback, with the double win coming in front of a wealth of family, friends, partners and supporters.

Two more wins followed in Toronto, then two podiums in Mid-Ohio, and Telitz had turned the 55-point deficit into a 14-point lead over O’Ward, who went winless in this six-race stretch.

“After Lucas Oil I was super down. But I knew coming into Road America, that I can’t give up,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “It was my biggest race of the year. I had all my friends, fans, family, supporters, sponsors… it’s everyone who has ever seen your posts, friends from college. I knew I had to perform, so getting something done there really turned my season around.

“Toronto, winning again, that was huge. That was the turning point in the season. ‘Mr. Mid-Ohio,’ Nico Jamin, was awesome there. But being on the podium there both races got me out front.”

Even though Telitz only won one of the three races at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale, the last one, it was qualifying on pole for all three that positioned him to hang onto his points lead.

“Here, qualifying on pole won me the championship,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “Pato didn’t get to qualify on pole, and it’s tough to make passes here, so it’s hard to be on the outside of Turn 2.”

Indeed the only drama between the two all year came in the Sunday morning race, when Telitz collected a fast-charging O’Ward around the outside of Turn 2. O’Ward went up-and-over Telitz’s car and landed with suspension damage; Telitz was issued a drive-through for avoidable contact.

That left the pressure on Telitz to ensure he didn’t blow the lead in the final race and he didn’t, with a dominant win from pole enough to deliver the goods and secure the title. O’Ward fought valiantly but came up short with finishes of 10th and sixth in his last two races, after a terrific win in the first win of the tripleheader weekend.

“He raced awesome. I was really happy to be teammates with him. He really is a great driver,” Telitz said. “Yes we came together once, but over the course of 16 races, it was mostly us two racing for top spot. So to only have the one time coming together, I think was OK.”

The 24-year-old native of Birchwood, Wis., who now lives in Minnesota, isn’t your typical driver. He has a college degree, he caddies when he’s not driving, and he’s knitting when he’s not doing either of those. He’s also one of the funniest drivers you’ll get to meet.

But despite him adding a needed dose of personality to the Mazda Road to Indy, he’s still plenty serious and focused at the track. His relationship with Tom Knapp, the veteran engineer who suffers no fools and keeps everyone on task, helped bring out a more tenacious and determined side of Telitz this year after a tougher 2015 season in USF2000 with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.

“Having him there was huge,” Telitz reflected. “Even when Pato was winning, I never felt he got special treatment or had a faster car. Sure, I thought I might have been faster but things didn’t go my way. But there was no favoritism; I knew I had a fair crack every weekend.”

He had his first crack in an Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda at this weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He spent a day apiece with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Belardi Auto Racing, the latter of whom invited him to Watkins Glen as a guest.

Telitz hasn’t picked where he’ll be driving a Soul Red Mazda yet but said the caliber of team is such that any one of them can win.

“The big thing for me is picking a team where I’ll mesh,” he said. “That’s the important thing to me. Not just winning races or championships. I think every single team has won in Indy Lights? Yes. I think it’s possible to win with every team.”

Telitz made it through the year with a strong support team and he’ll look to add to that next year as he makes the step up to Indy Lights, thus adding his name to the list of those who’ve competed in all three Mazda Road to Indy series.

“I just tried to stay calm. I don’t get worked up,” Telitz said. “I have to thank my family and girlfriend (Maggie), and my driver coach Steve Welk, the team at Pelfrey, Anders (Krohn), Jonny (Baker), and (Tom) Knapp.

“They’d always call and say it’s fine. I have a huge support group that helps me not overthink it and it wasn’t that stressful.”

NHRA shocker: Englishtown ceases drag racing operations, including NHRA Summernationals, effective immediately

Photo courtesy NHRA
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If put in baseball terms, Wednesday morning’s news from the NHRA is comparable to Yankee Stadium closing down for good.

One of the most popular and longest-running race tracks on the NHRA national event circuit — Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey — announced in a statement that “it will no longer host any drag racing events at its facility, effective immediately. This includes the 49th Annual NHRA Summernationals, scheduled to take place this June.”

This is massive — and terrible news — for NHRA fans, particularly those on the East Coast, as the track more commonly known simply as “Englishtown” has long been a destination point for fans in the New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland area for decades. That not only includes NHRA national events, but also local bracket racing at the track.

Few details on the decision to stop all drag racing events are known. However, the track has long struggled being landlocked and unable to expand its runoff area for cars that have problems stopping under their own power. That is especially problematic for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, which are the most powerful cars in the sport and, due to the 10,000 horsepower they produce, often need longer stopping distances.

NHRA Funny Car driver Scott Kalitta was killed in a crash at Old Bridge Raceway on June 21, 2008, when his car was unable to stop in the runoff area and collided with a portable crane past the runoff area.

NHRA spokesperson Jessica Hatcher told NBC Sports in an email Wednesday morning that the sanctioning body will not look to find a replacement venue for Englishtown on the 2018 racing schedule.

As a result, the 2018 Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule will shrink from 24 to 23 going forward with Englishtown’s departure.

” ‘Stunned’ is the perfect word to describe how we are all feeling right now,” Hatcher said. “For 2018, we are focusing on the remaining 23 events and do not foresee any additional changes to the schedule.”

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in a media release, “NHRA drag racing events have been held at the track in Englishtown for almost 50 years. The Summernationals have played an important part of our heritage and we hope that fans in the area will try to make it to another of our events.

“Our focus remains on making the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series a memorable experience for our fans, racers, sponsors, partners and tracks.”

The nearest venues to Englishtown that will host NHRA events this season are Maple Grove Raceway outside Reading, Pennsylvania (105 miles west of Englishtown) and New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire (310 miles northeast).

The Napp family, which owns Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, issued a statement that the facility will remain open and continue business as usual going forward — with the exception of eliminating all drag racing events, both national and local.

“Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, the Napp family owned and operated business announced today a reorganization of the company’s business operations,” the statement said. “To achieve this goal, Raceway Park will no longer conduct quarter mile or eighth mile drag racing events effective immediately.

“Raceway Park will retain and use the ‘stadium’ portion of the facility including the VIP hospitality tower and grandstands and continue most of its operations including the spring and fall auto swap meets, numerous car shows, both motocross racing and practice, kart racing, as well as drifting, a full schedule of road course activities, mud runs, monster truck shows, musical concerts, & festival events and more. The long standing Old Bridge Township Airport, owned and operated by Raceway Park will also continue to operate as normal.”

From a driver’s perspective, veteran NHRA racer Shawn Langdon, who is switching from a long career in Top Fuel to Funny Car this season for Kalitta Motorsports, won in Top Fuel at Englishtown in 2013 and laments the decision to drop drag racing there.

“It really caught me by surprise because I had not heard a thing about that,” Langdon said. “It’s unfortunate because that place has such rich history and so many great things have come out of that race in the past. It was a track that meant a lot to the Kalitta family and with Scott. They always wanted to win one for Scott. We’d have loved to have the opportunity to go back to the track and win that race for Scott.”