Urrutia, Alberico and Florian Latorre at St. Petersburg. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda’s title tilt: Urrutia looks to honor fallen countryman, while Alberico seeks title on home soil

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Both the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championships have four drivers mathematically eligible for this year’s titles at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, yet both of the two top rungs on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder also have less than four realistically eligible once you factor in the points gaps.

In Pro Mazda, Santiago Urrutia has used consistency to build a 29-point lead over Neil Alberico, with Timothe Buret and Weiron Tan 47 and 51 points in arrears, and needing a bit of help to pull things off. The winner receives a scholarship just shy of $600,000 ($590,300) to move to Indy Lights next season.

Urrutia (Mazda Road to Indy “Meet the Contenders” profile linked here) was a late arrival to North America, as he didn’t even participate in this year’s Cooper Tires Winterfest. But the Uruguayan took over seamlessly after Jack Aitken took Team Pelfrey to the Winterfest title.

He’s won three races this season, including one of the two at the most recent round at Mid-Ohio (others at NOLA, Grand Prix of Indianapolis). Coupled with only one finish outside the top-10 (Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis), Urrutia has been a regular points-scoring presence.

This is going to be an emotional weekend for the 19-year-old, who previously raced in GP3. Urrutia, in the No. 81 entry, will wear a helmet paying tribute to his racing hero and countryman Gonzalo Rodriguez, who was killed in 1999 in an accident at practice at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Even more surreal: this weekend will take place on the exact same weekend, 16 years later (Rodriguez was killed on September 11, 1999).

Alberico (Mazda Road to Indy “Meet the Contenders” profile linked here), the Rising Star Racing-backed driver of the No. 3 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing entry, is a 22-year-old from Los Gatos, Calif. who has a longtime Mazda Road to Indy pedigree and is more or less in the same spot where Spencer Pigot was last year.

He’s a talented, confident shoe who was unlucky to get beat to the USF2000 championship by teammate Scott Hargrove in 2013 (another ace in the wings), then was outclassed again by Hargrove last year as both stepped up to Pro Mazda with Cape. Pigot had lost the USF2000 and Pro Mazda crowns to Matt Brabham in back-to-back years, but beat Hargrove to last year’s title in a thrilling weekend at Sonoma.

Alberico actually has four wins, one more than Urrutia, but has gone through a roller coaster campaign including three finishes of 14th or worse to offset the top-shelf results. Simply put, Alberico has been fast but fragile this year, and in order to account for the points deficit, he’ll likely need to win twice and hope Urrutia hits trouble in at least one of two races.

In third and fourth, Buret and Tan have both won races (Buret once, Tan four times) yet need both Urrutia and Alberico to fall off badly to have a realistic shot. If both are more than 33 points back after Saturday’s first race of the weekend, they’ll be eliminated.

Others have starred in various points this year, notably Garett Grist and Pato O’Ward in recent races, but it’s primarily been about the title-contending quartet this season.

Bill Elliott joins Tony Stewart/Ray Evernham SRX series for 2021

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott became the eighth driver to join the Superstar Racing Experience, the short-track series being started by Ray Evernham and Tony Stewart.

The two-time Daytona 500 winner and 1988 NASCAR Cup Series champion was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015 and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver 16 times (his son, Chase, has received the honor the past two years). Elliott also closed his full-time Cup career driving for Evernham’s Dodge team from 2001-03, winning the 2002 Brickyard 400.

“I am excited to reunite with Ray Evernham and some of the great legends of our sport,” Elliott, who joins Stewart and Bobby Labonte as NASCAR Hall of Famers in the SRX, said in a release. “I look forward to racing at some of the most historic American racing destinations and putting on an awesome show for the fans. We have a special driver field and it will be fun competing with some of the greatest drivers of all time.”

The series, which is expecting to have a dozen drivers, also has Tony Stewart, Helio Castroneves, Bobby Labonte, Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Willy T. Ribbs and Mark Webber in its lineup.

SRX was co-founded by NASCAR Hall of Famers Stewart and Evernham and was unveiled July 13.

Several drivers have expressed interest in the new circuit, which is modeled on the International Race of Champions (IROC) series that matched drivers from various auto racing disciplines in equally prepared cars for an annual four-race series for 30 years.

With the addition of Bill Elliott, Superstar Racing Experience has yet to reveal a schedule or tracks, but it’s expected that Stewart’s Eldora Speedway will be on the slate.