MRTI: Aitken, Jamin emerge as last-minute Cooper Tires Winterfest champions

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The ambient temperatures in Birmingham, Ala. were cold for the final rounds (30s Fahrenheit) of the 2015 Cooper Tires Winterfest for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, but the calculator temperatures were much higher in terms of figuring out the miniseries champions following two dramatic conclusions.

Both series were set for three races at Barber Motorsports Park to match the three at NOLA Motorsports Park last week. But on Wednesday, heavy rain forced the cancellation of the first of three Barber races. That meant the final race would count as double points to make up the difference.

In the end, Jack Aitken edged Weiron Tan by the slimmest of margins for the Pro Mazda Winterfest title, while Nico Jamin scored a last-minute, surprise USF2000 Winterfest title after presumptive favorite Jake Eidson ran into problems in the final race.

PRO MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES (Results)

Aitken beat Tan to the win in Thursday’s first of two races on the day, emerging ahead following a prolonged yellow flag period for an accident involving Nicolas Latifi. That gave Aitken an 11-point edge on Tan heading into the final race of the championship, now Round 5, for double points.

Tan took the win, but Aitken in second captured the crucial bonus points to edge ahead in the final tally. Tan was also hamstrung by a five-point penalty issued to him after the NOLA rounds, issued for unsportsmanlike conduct when he left a podium ceremony after NOLA Round 3.

Nonetheless, the English driver for Team Pelfrey and the Malaysian rookie for Andretti Autosport had staged a memorable duel over the last couple weeks.

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Photo: Pro Mazda

“I didn’t know where we’d stack up but I knew it would be quite tough and that’s the reason I’m here,” said Aitken, who will focus on the Formula Renault Eurocup for his full 2015 program.

“It’s really the perfect preparation for my (European) season in Renaults, being pushed so hard by Weiron and the other guys. The whole experience has been really good. The quality is so good in this field, I’m tempted to come back for some more this summer!”

Tan was reflective and took a lot of learning from the winter racing experience, before he heads into the full season – one which he must now be considered a title contender.

“Jack did well, he kept the pressure on me,” Tan said. “I was trying to find the time, but since he had the fastest lap time, that gave him the championship. It’s disappointing. We got the victory but we lost the war, so it’s good and bad. But this is a good start for us, since the real championship starts now.

“But looking back on the penalty [from NOLA], I have regrets for doing that – if it had been a fair fight, I think we could have won. I learned from that, it’s a big mistake and it cost me the one point I needed. It’s all about learning and that’s why we’re doing this. We’re all here to learn, to grow up, and it’s all part of learning how not to make the same mistakes next time.

“But after these race weekends, we know we have good pace going into the full season. I think we should be pretty confident. We have to keep working hard and I have to stop making stupid mistakes!”

COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA (Results)

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Photo: USF2000

Pabst Racing’s Eidson had the edge heading into Barber on the strength of two wins from three races at NOLA, and a 26-point lead. But drama in the final event cost Eidson the title, and allowed both Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) and Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) a shot.

Franzoni beat Eidson to the win in Thursday’s Round 4, and Eidson needed only a seventh-place finish in Round 5 to take the title. He didn’t get it as his car ground to a halt with unspecified mechanical issues on the first lap.

That opened the door for the other two, and when Franzoni made a mistake at the final corner, Jamin had both the lead and the title in his grasp. He held onto it with the win.

Jamin is the third driver from Cape in the last four years to win the Winterfest title (Spencer Pigot 2012, Neil Alberico 2013) but neither won the actual season title.

“Everyone at Cape Motorsports worked so hard all week, and I’m so happy to get the last win of Winterfest and the championship,” Jamin said. “I didn’t trust it when the team told me! I’m super-stoked for the beginning of the championship.”

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).