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.”

What Drivers Said after the finish of the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Here’s What Drivers Said after the rain-delayed conclusion of the INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet) – WINNER: “That was more eventful than I would have liked. But everybody did a great job. How about Team Chevy today – they gave us a great engine, good fuel mileage and good reliability, and that’s what we needed to win this race. It’s great having Hitachi – we got Verizon a victory, now we got Hitachi a victory, so thank you guys. Everyone at Team Penske did a great job, but like I said, that was more eventful than I wanted it. It would seem like smooth sailing for the most part, we didn’t have any yellows, which we were hoping no yellows today, but then the rain crept in. I couldn’t believe how long everyone stayed out. It was really risky what they were doing, but I understand why there were doing it. I’m glad we made the call to come in so soon.”

RYAN HUNTER (No. 28 DHL Honda) – finished 2nd: “It was a good race, it was tough getting the fuel number and trying to keep the pace up, but it was a lot of fun when it started raining, trying to find the grip again and searching around. I was almost worried that I was going to burn the front (tires) off. We came in early for the wet (tires). I stayed out there as long as I could, but on the slicks, I was a lot quicker and it was that inconsistent snap that you have. When you have one of those (snaps) with the slicks you can absolutely lose it completely, so we thought that was the best time to come in and grab the Firestone wets. It was good from there. I just needed a little bit more time to cut in on (Josef) Newgarden’s lead. Congratulations to Team Penske and (Josef) Newgarden. Great job by the DHL guys this weekend. We rolled off the truck, we weren’t that happy with the car and we kept working on it methodically, chipping into it and everybody just executed it – so a good weekend overall.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda) – finished 3rd: “I feel bad for the fans as much as anything. We were driving around out there, and it’s like, ‘Right guys its getting wetter, it’s getting wetter….’ ‘Wet enough for rains?’ ‘Nah, not wet enough for rains…’ ‘Wet enough for rains?’ ‘Nah…’ ‘Pit for rains.’ ‘Are you guys sure?’ It was the right call for sure, so big props to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports guys; solid weekend for us in the end. As I said before, not a great test here, but two cars in the top 10 after qualifying and then two cars in the top five in the race, so pretty proud of these boys and everyone on the Arrow Electronics car. It’s good to get a couple of Hondas up there, maybe not on the top step of the podium, but we took the rest of it.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda) – finished 4th: “I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint, so once (Scott) Dixon started getting close to me, I was thinking I might have to give this position up. Then the rain came, so the fuel mileage kind of happened naturally. The rain saved us a bit, but overall great job by the Lucas Oil guys. I was a little gutted that we came out into a big bunch of traffic, but it made the race fun. It was also a little bit frustrating as we lost a bit of track position there, and I think we could have both been fighting for higher steps on the podium today.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda) – finished 5th: “It was just a tough day for the SealMaster Honda No. 18 team. It was looking perfect. We executed the plan to perfection. I started on scuffed Firestone red (alternate) tires, so we had a lot of tire degradation, but were still able to save more fuel than almost everyone. Josef (Newgarden) went for the push and it looked like we were still going to beat him because he pitted the second time and we got ahead. I had enough fuel to finish, but unfortunately, Mother Nature decided to open the skies and there wasn’t anything we could do about that. We tried to stay out and it bit us. On top of that, when we put on the wet tires, I don’t know what happened but the car was diabolical. I couldn’t do anything. I barely kept Scott (Dixon) behind me. I gave it my best shot, the guys did a good job, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone is executing perfectly. Unfortunately, you can’t predict what the weather is going to do, so you have to make a call one way or the other and we were on the wrong side of the fence today. The good news is we finished fifth and keep putting ourselves in position. Our pace is good and we are in the championship mix.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 6th: “I think I was one of the drivers on the fence in regards to if we should restart or not yesterday. I guess overall, it was the same for everyone. I literally couldn’t see a thing from the PNC Bank car and was just trying to hold it straight. Cars were just going by me, and there was nothing you could do because I couldn’t see anything out of my visor. It’s a shame we couldn’t get in the full distance Sunday because Barber is an amazing track with an incredible crowd. I think the one-stop strategy was the one to have today and it would have put us third, but the rain took care of that, unfortunately. The car was fast and really good on fuel mileage, but it is what it is. Hopefully we can get a break to go our way in a few weeks.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda) – finished 7th: “In the dry, we were able to make some moves and get by some guys, and turn in some good laps when we needed to before the pit stops and cycle out to a pretty good spot. Overall, it was a decent day. I can’t say too much bad about it. I’ll take seventh. We lost some ground to a few of the guys ahead, but overall it’s good to be third in points.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda) – finished 8th: “We tried a one-stop strategy, and basically everyone else was on two-stoppers, so we looked like we lacked pace, but we had to save a massive amount of fuel. It looked good until the middle. My teammate came on charge and was on a hard two-stopper, so I let him go and lost some positions a couple of times, but then it looked good. If the yellow came, we would have been in a very positive position. Even not, a lot of people had to come into the pits. However, unfortunately the rain came and I had to stop again for rain tires, which meant my second stint was basically just a slow pace. It’s a big shame. The rain helped me a lot yesterday to get to eighth and today, in the end, the rain didn’t help my strategy. I will take it after a difficult qualifying.  We need to make the car fast at the (INDYCAR) Grand Prix because we have a lot of work to be done.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet) – finished 9th: “We had a pretty good race going and I think we potentially could have been a top five (finisher). So, I was very frustrated with Gabby (Chavez). He was two laps down. And I just got stuck behind him, which gave an opportunity to (Scott) Dixon as I was trying everything I could to make it happen. But, it’s a real shame because when it’s not your day, it’s just not your day. You’ll have better days later, but you won’t have everybody on your side when you have a good day. And at the moment, he doesn’t have me on his side, let me tell you. But, it’s a real shame. I think the Menards No. 22 was really from where we started. The strategy to go on rain (tires) when we went on rain was a good choice and I thought it was a really good pace. We just started from too far back.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda) – finished 10th: “It was a lot of fun out there, but I think finishing 10th is the worst we should’ve finished. I think myself and the guys earned a third-place finish. We beat (James Hinchcliffe) out in the end – so we had third locked up until the rain made all the one-stoppers work. We were looking really good for a podium; the Kerauno team was way better than what the race results showed, but we know we have the pace, so we’ll keep digging and move on to Indy.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda) – finished 11th: “It definitely wasn’t our best day. We initially went into the race with the plan of doing a two-stopper, then we switched to a one-stop strategy once the race started because of the extra formation laps. Once the race got going, we were on the wrong tire for the one-stop plan, and couldn’t make the fuel work, so we switched back to a two-stop strategy. It was looking OK, but we tried to survive the rain probably one lap too long and we lost time to guys that had already switched to rain tires. We ended up 11th. It wasn’t a great day from a performance or strategy standpoint. It’s a day that we’ll certainly be putting behind us as soon as possible and look forward to (the INDYCAR Grand Prix) where we had a really strong test a couple weeks ago.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 12th: “We made some great progress from where we started the weekend, so I’m pretty happy with that. The car was good with the reds (Firestone alternate tires) in the race, so I think we had good pace. We were running with (Simon) Pagenaud, and when (Scott) Dixon came in front of me he was not that much faster, which means we made some progress from practice. Unfortunately in the rain, the car wasn’t as good, we were struggling with understeer, so I couldn’t push as I wanted. If we look at where we started and where we finished, it was a good weekend. I’m happy for the ABC Supply team and myself. Onto Indianapolis.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda) – finished 13th: “The weekend overall was good for us, confidence-wise – advancing to the top 12 in qualifying and getting up to position sixth yesterday for the first part of the race. Today, I think we definitely had the pace to finish inside the top 10, but we had a few mechanical issues during the race. I lost all of my adjustments inside of the car, so once that happened I was a sitting duck. Extremely thankful for my Group One Thousand One crew for the job they did this weekend. We held on the best we could to come home 13th. Hopefully we can improve for the (INDYCAR Grand Prix) and of course build on everything in time for the Indianapolis 500.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet) – finished 14th: “I had a really good restart. I did exactly what I wanted to do, I wanted to dispatch a couple of cars quite quickly. I managed to get past both Ed (Jones) and Scott (Dixon) before Turn 2, so that was really good actually. That gave me good track position, we were then in the top five. Unfortunately, the rain yesterday may have caused an electrical problem that took quite a while to clear. Once we got going, it was then alright. Our strategy was then compromised with the rain and we were caught out. Overall slightly annoying, we really would have been fine for a top-five finish quite comfortably, I think.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet) – finished 15th: “It was definitely a difficult race out there. We thought we were making up some ground by pitting early and running hard, which seemed to be working a bit. We tried to gamble at the end to stay on slicks. We were hoping for a yellow that the race would end under and we could stay up where we were. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and I just tried to keep it on the road the best I could. Eventually, it just got too wet and we had to come in at the end. There are some positives to take away from this weekend, we’re going to take those into the INDYCAR Grand Prix and hopefully be back up front.”

RENE BINDER – finished 16th: No comments

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet) – finished 17th: “Today’s conditions were not ideal for us to start. Our strategy we used yesterday to hope for a yellow to get our lap back obviously never came. We just did more to learn, try to gauge our pace and try to keep improving. I thought we really improved on our pace compared to everyone else and we did well to pick up a few positions at the end of the day and brought the car home. Now we get to work on our most important month of the year.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet) – finished 18th: “We had a very difficult weekend and I’m glad it’s over. Looking forward to Indianapolis.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda) – finished 19th: “Yesterday was tough with all the rain, and I think it was a good call to postpone the race to today. With the two-lap penalty that we received yesterday, we knew we were already at a disadvantage. So, the main goal today was to show my race craft aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car, show that my pace was there and to show that if we would have been on the lead lap that we could have definitely fought for a top 10 position. I think we did that with how I was able to pass other cars on a track that is known to be difficult for passing. We had good pace, and the fastest race lap, so it was a positive weekend overall even if it didn’t go our way.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda) – finished 20th: “Yesterday at the start, I was trying to attack, but it was very difficult. I just couldn’t see anything. Especially on the restarts. Maybe I could have been more aggressive or kept my foot down, but I didn’t think it was worth the risk in the NTT DATA car. Conditions were just very, very tough. You couldn’t see a thing. Today we got restarted and we were making progress, but we had mechanical issues and had to pit way before it was over. The guys will have to take a look at the car to see what happened I think. Hopefully we can move on and have a good start to the month of May in Indy.”

WILL POWER – finished 21st: No comments

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet) – finished 22nd: “That was a really unfortunate way for us to end the weekend. We were happy with the qualifying effort of the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet and felt like we were making progress, but after the race was red-flagged and everyone was allowed to start on full fuel, we knew we were going to have a hard time doing much strategy-wise to move toward the front. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t get a chance to see what we could do during the remainder of the race because of an electrical issue that had us stopped on track before the field went green. The boys had it fixed and back out on track, but once we had confirmed the issue was fixed out on track and the heavy rain picked back up again, there was no point in us continuing and possibly tearing anything up.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet – quote given Saturday) – finished 23rd: “The No. 10 car of Ed Jones just drove into the back of me. The stewards reviewed it and decided that no action would be taken, which I vehemently disagree with. Yeah, visibility was tough out there, but it was tough for everyone. I didn’t run into anyone and no one else ran into me, except for the No. 10 car. I don’t know what the stewards were looking at, but I’m going to have a discussion with them after the race. I’m just disappointed because the Carlin guys know how to run in the wet and they gave me a great car. We were moving up the field a few spots, and with the Marco (Andretti) spin, we were able to elevate another spot. We were just knocking on the door of making it into the top 10 and coming out of here in these conditions with a top-10 result heading into May would’ve been really good for the team.”

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