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: John Force-like motor explosions get contagious during Sunday’s Gatornationals

Photo and video courtesy NHRA
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John Force is rubbing off on others – but probably not the way they or he would like.

The 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion has had spectacular motor explosions in each of the first three races of the new NHRA season, including during Friday’s qualifying for this weekend’s Gatornationals.

During Sunday’s quarterfinals of eliminations, Force’s teammate (and son-in-law and president of John Force Racing) Robert Hight squared off with fellow Funny Car driver Matt Hagan.

As the duo closed in on the finish line, both cars experienced spectacular motor explosions of their own – virtually side-by-side and nearly at the same time.

Hight’s car was the first to explode, tossing its body high in the air. A split-second later, Hagan’s car exploded, also sending the body flying.

Check out the NHRA video:

Hight wound up losing the race.

Hagan, meanwhile, and his crack pit crew rolled their backup car off the hauler, put in a new motor and went on to race through the semifinals and into the finals, losing to race winner “Fast Jack” Beckman.

“We had a pretty great race day, to be honest,” Hagan said. “I’ve never been to the finals in Gainesville.

“We obviously had a huge blow up in the second round, then to watch these guys pull the other car back out and put it together in the amount of time they had, then turn a win light on against Capps (Don Schumacher Racing teammate Ron Capps in the semifinals), then to be able to go to a final, it was huge and it speaks for itself.”

As for Hight, here’s his take on what happened with the motor explosion:

“I couldn’t see (Hagan) over there and it wasn’t like it was hazing the tires or anything else. As it turns out it wasn’t spinning at all. It kicked two rods out when it blacked the bearings in the crank then it hit the valves and blew up.

“The thing gave me no indication at all before that. What really scared me was once I got it under control and I look over and see his body is off his car. I am thinking ‘Oh man, he got gathered up in me.’ Then I stood up and looked and his injector was sideways so I realized he had an explosion as well. We are just lucky we didn’t get into each other.”

As for the guy who has had so much trouble in the motor department, John Force, he lost in the first round of Sunday’s eliminations to daughter Courtney Force.

John Force planned on shutting the motor off on his car at around the 700-foot mark of the 1,000-foot dragstrip, not wanting to risk another motor explosion – even though it meant a likely loss to his daughter.

Now John Force and his entire four-car team, including Courtney Force, Robert Hight and daughter and Top Fuel driver Brittany Force, will be off for extensive testing to try and determine what’s been causing the motor explosions.

“We have to evaluate it and go test,” Force said. “We’ll figure it out.”

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