Both the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series returned to NOLA Motorsports Park, site of three of each of their races in the Cooper Tires Winterfest in February.
USF2000 led the way with two races, one on Saturday in dry conditions and one early Sunday in the wet. Pro Mazda only had one race, which was pushed back from Saturday to Sunday following weather delays, with the second race canceled and due to be made up at another round this season.
In the pair of USF2000 races, Nico Jamin and Victor Franzoni split the victories. Jamin won Saturday’s Round 3, his first win in the series for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing. Teammate Aaron Telitz was second for the third straight race, with Jake Eidson (Pabst Racing), the double St. Petersburg winner, in third.
Sunday’s Round 4 saw Telitz dominating early before falling victim to an odd – and rare – halfshaft break on an upshift. The retirement cost him a shot at his first win of the year and promoted Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) to his first win of the year. Franzoni also won one of the three Winterfest races, with Eidson scoring the other two. Franzoni won from Jamin and Eidson on Sunday.
Eidson currently leads Jamin, 108-101, heading into Barber Motorsports Park in two weeks.
Pro Mazda saw Uruguayan rookie Santiago Urrutia, an unheralded F3/GP3 veteran, score his first win of the season. Urrutia pounced on pole-sitting Malaysian Weiron Tan on the first lap, then controlled the pace to score an accomplished victory for Team Pelfrey.
Pelfrey’s Winterfest driver, Jack Aitken, won two of the three Pro Mazda races here in Winterfest, with Tan winning the other race. Tan (Andretti Autosport) and Timothe Buret (Juncos Racing) completed the podium in what was the only Pro Mazda race of the weekend.
Neil Alberico (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) still holds the points lead despite a sixth-place finish; the St. Petersburg double winner is up by four points, 79-75, over Urrutia heading to Barber.
Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.
Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.
Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.
Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.
But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.
“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”
Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.
Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.
“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”
The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.
But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.
“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”
Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.
The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.
“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.
“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.
“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”