Hinchcliffe and Rzadzinski. Photos: Nissan

Stefan Rzadzinski dazzles as ROC Factor winner at Race of Champions

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Vettel. Kristensen. Solberg. Coulthard. Massa. Busch, twice. Speed. Rossi. Hunter-Reay. Montoya. Kanaan. Castroneves. Hinchcliffe. Rzadzinski.

Rzadzinski? Yes, Rzadzinski.

Last month’s Race of Champions, held in Miami for the first time, brought together an all-star list of drivers and champions from around the world, through various disciplines of motorsport. But the event also held the ROC Factor North America fan vote, allowing talented but under-the-radar drivers through to the race if they won the vote and gathered enough support with which to do so.

rzad1Stefan Rzadzinski was a name known to only the most diehard of Mazda Road to Indy observers prior to winning this competition, beating Conor Daly among others en route to capturing the opportunity to be James Hinchcliffe’s teammate at the race. The 24-year-old Edmontonian’s open-wheel career began in reverse – he’s the only driver in MRTI history to have done all three series “backwards,” starting in Indy Lights before moving to Pro Mazda, then to USF2000, owing to what was the right opportunity he could pursue with the necessary budget.

Last year, he took on the Nissan Micra Cup competition in his home country. He won several races and contended for the championship, and pioneered “reverse donuts.”

All the while, Rzadzinski never lost faith he’d have his shot on another worldwide stage, even as his day job comes with working at a software company called Frontech Solutions, Inc. in Edmonton, in their marketing and sales division.

“I always wanted to get to IndyCar but after Edmonton lost the Indy (after 2012), that made it tougher. But I’ve never given up faith that I could do it in motorsports,” Rzadzinski told NBC Sports.

“I’ve just not been satisfied leaving it. I want to open doors, make things happen still. I’m really happy life has taken me along the way it has… I got my university degree, I work another job as well, and that adds to my story. You think you may not make it, and I still don’t have a ton of money. But this experience was about trying to show that I really still care about this. I think people have been excited by the story – I want to take people for the ride!”

Indeed what followed from the time Rzadzinski was revealed as one of 10 finalists to win ROC Factor North America was a promotional blitz where he’d let everyone he knew, or close to it, of how close he was to winning the competition. Several Canadian media outlets picked up on it and once Rzadzinski got past the usual Canadian dose of humility, not wanting to feel guilty about promoting himself, it became easier.

“Part of what got me there was being uncomfortable, but I got more comfortable as time went on,” Rzadzinski said. “It resonated with people… even though I felt a bit bad about spamming feeds! I could write a book about those three-four days.

“But the big key for me in winning was to show I wasn’t just the Facebook winner. Once I got to Saturday night, the game face went on because you have to refocus and deliver.”

Rzadzinski wasn’t in the individual Race of Champions competition on Saturday, but took part in the Nations’ Cup on Sunday as Hinchcliffe’s teammate.

And that’s when the fun started.

Despite a loss to Kyle Busch first, Rzadzinski rebounded from there. Rzadzinski drew Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi with the two racing in NASCARs, and Rzadzinski won that heat. A last-minute shift to one of the RoC Buggies for his third race – this wasn’t the car he’d planned to race – saw Rzadzinski jump into that and beat Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Scott Speed, so he’d gone 2-3.

“The RoC Buggy was my favorite, by far, and I raced it against Scott Speed!” Rzadzinski said. “I’d only driven it once before. With each car, you only have two to three minutes in it once before. I drove the buggy once, and this thing is awesome… but I didn’t drive it until the race against Speed, because I’d been told I’d be racing the Ariel Atom.”

It speaks volumes of the competitor Rzadzinski is he was disappointed with only going 2-3 in his runs, with a gear level issues sidelining Hinchcliffe in his run to knock ROC Factor Canada out of the event. Rzadzinski reflected on the experience in the moment.

The thing that stood out though about Rzadzinski as much as his on-track performance, which was impressive beyond belief, was his pure, unfiltered joy at being part of the event.

It’s easy to get cynical, sidetracked or frustrated in racing and for Rzadzinski, losing sight of how cool this moment was was not an option.

“I want to be an ambassador. I’m proud of this sport, and I grew up in love with it,” he said. “I want to represent it well and this sport is awesome… with all the personalities. It’s a special world. It’s just not normal. The excitement is still there, whether it’s F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC, or Le Mans.

“It’s really cool stuff and I don’t think we tell the story well enough. This is really cool with what we’re doing. I won the vote because people saw it mattered to me. You can’t be nonchalant about it, it’s important to have passion and emotions about what we do. Meeting those guys at the weekend, they’re the best at what they do, but they are regular guys.”

Rzadzinski admitted to having one “fanboy” moment when he and a couple friends were delayed getting to the track on Saturday and needed a lift, and got one in the form of four-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

“It was one of many surreal moments – but the inner fanboy in me was like, it’s Sebastian Vettel!” Rzadzinski exclaimed. “We missed our shuttle from the hotel to the track, and one of the RoC organizers says he could take us. So he comes by, no problem, and we jumped in the car with him and (Pascal) Wehrlein. My friend Dennis and I rode to the track with Sebastian. We’re back there and that was the one guy where it’s like, just play cool, be normal!

“But they all are normal. He was fantastic. There’s a whole new level of respect for a guy like him. He took this event seriously… he wanted to win. Seeing how he operated, but also chatting about non-racing stuff. You can’t take it away.”

Rzadzinski was quick to praise not just Vettel but all his peers at the event, including his teammate Hinchcliffe who’d been there for him in 2011 as an 18-year-old Indy Lights debutante in Edmonton.

“It started at the Edmonton Lights race… I said, ‘Hey I’m doing this race, and I know you won here the year before, if you’re around the track lemme know.’ We connected, did the track walk, and went for dinner. He’s a really genuine dude. Even on Dancing With The Stars, everyone sent him a note… I’m sure you get swamped. But I was super pumped for him. He took the time to respond. I can’t say enough good things about him. Behind the scenes, there’s much more to him.

“(Tom) Kristensen said ‘I think, you were quiet, respectful, asking questions… but deep down you knew you could do it and deliver.’ Getting that little bit of respect from guys like TK that I’ve looked up to, that’s a cool moment.

“I just want to hang out with them and learn… there’s so much more to learn! But so much more to the craft than just this. Pick their brains and be around them. Take a piece of that, and have a successful career in this sport.”

Rzadzinski, who is set for another season in Nissan Micra Cup this year with Groupe Touchette support but who arrived on the world stage via this event, said this whole experience wouldn’t have been possible without the people around him. More of his story is chronicled via his social channels (@RzadRacing on Twitter and Instagram).

“When you have time to give back, people appreciate it – they appreciate it coming from you. That’s how they get invested. We want more fans in the sport. For me, I don’t see it as a distraction at all. They’re the people who got me there.”

Robert Hight extends Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons

Photo: Gary Nastase and Auto Imagery
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MORRISON, Colo. (AP) Robert Hight beat Tommy Johnson Jr. on Sunday in the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals at Bandimere Speedway to extend his Funny Car victory streak to 13 seasons.

Hight topped Johnson with a 3.995-second pass at 317.57 mph in a Chevrolet Camaro SS for his 38th career victory.

“We definitely struggled through the first few rounds and we were lucky to get those round wins, but I have a great team who figured things out and helped get me to the winner’s circle,” Hight said. “It’s definitely a long-time coming and we hadn’t had much luck, but today we had some luck and we hope this continues throughout the Western Swing.”

Antron Brown won in Top Fuel, Drew Skillman in Pro Stock, and Eddie Krawiec in Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Brown edged teammate and No. 1 qualifier Leah Pritchett with a 3.792 at 319.82. He has three victories this season to push his career total to 64.

Skillman raced to his second straight victory and the fifth of his career, beating points leader Bo Butner with a 6.916 run at 198.15 in a Camaro.

Krawiec topped Matt Smith with a 7.145 at 188.28. The Harley-Davidson rider has two victories this season and 38 overall.

Sauber confirms Matsushita for Hungary test as well

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Honda junior driver Nobuhiro Matsushita will have a run with Sauber F1 Team on the second day of the Hungarian Grand Prix post-race week test, in the team’s C36 chassis.

Sauber’s engine selection for 2018 is up in the air. While the team announced a switch from year old Ferraris to Hondas, this was done under prior team principal Monisha Kaltenborn and rumors have persisted the deal may be off, or wasn’t fully done in the first place.

That Matsushita is running at this test for his first day in an F1 car – Gustav Malja will run on day one – could indicate the Honda switch isn’t yet a dead topic.

“When I was four years old, I was fascinated by Michael Schumacher, watching him racing in Formula 1. Since then my dream was to become a Formula 1 driver,” he said. “I am very excited about my first Formula 1 test and I am really looking forward to driving the Sauber C36-Ferrari at the Hungaroring – it is a great opportunity for me. I hope it will be a productive day for the team as well as for myself, so that I can learn as much as possible. I would like to thank the Sauber F1 Team for making this happen.”

New team boss Frederic Vasseur, formerly of Renault, gave his take on the test.

“I am pleased that Nobuharu has this great opportunity. He deserves the experience of his first test in a Formula 1 car. Ever since his debut in Formula 2 with ART Grand Prix, I have been following his progress closely, and have watched him advance his performance from year to year. With this Formula 1 test, he comes one step closer to his dream of becoming an F1 driver one day.”

Renault confirms Robert Kubica will test in Hungary

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Renault Sport F1 Team has confirmed Robert Kubica will make his return to a current Formula 1 car in the post-Hungarian Grand Prix test, which will only continue to fuel the hype train for a possible race return.

The Pole has undertaken two tests in recent weeks with older cars but this day in the Renault R.S.17 will provide the team a chance to evaluate him in current machinery to gauge his race level fitness.

It’s a story that has got the F1 world buzzing in recent weeks as Kubica, injured in a rally accident before the 2011 season, has made a comeback to restart his racing career.

Poor Nicholas Latifi, also confirmed for the test that runs the Tuesday and Wednesday after the Hungarian Grand Prix, will be undoubtedly overlooked as a result.

Jolyon Palmer will race in Hungary this weekend at least but whether the Brit continues beyond the summer break that follows afterwards remains a question mark.

Haas F1 driver Romain Grosjean to launch cookbook

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Haas Formula 1 driver Romain Grosjean may be one of the sport’s most promising talents on-track, but he also has a burning passion off it: cooking.

Grosjean may have been spent a good part of this year cooking his brakes, but you’ll now be able to cook bakes instead…

F1’s resident foodie is set to release a cookbook alongside wife Marion Jolles in the coming weeks, as announced on his Facebook page.

Grosjean currently sits 13th in the F1 drivers’ championship with 18 points to his name, helping Haas to match the points total from its debut season after just 10 races in 2017.