It was hard for the emotion not to show through.
Santiago “Santi” Urrutia took the checkered flag Saturday, September 12, at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with fist in the air, following arguably the most important runner-up finish of his career.
Urrutia held his fist high after he’d claimed the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title and a Mazda scholarship just shy of $600,000 to advance into the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, in 2016.
Then when he made it to Turn 4, he was presented with a Uruguayan flag from a corner marshal, with the chance to wave it high around the track.
This title win occurred 16 years and one day to the day, on the same track, where Urrutia’s hero and countryman Gonzalo Rodriguez lost his life in practice for the CART race at the track.
So there was always the underlying element that emotion would tie into the title.
How he got to this point was as unlikely as the odds of clinching at this circuit given the anniversary.
Urrutia struggled during the 2014 GP3 Series season with the Koiranen GP outfit. Neither he nor Carmen Jorda scored a single point all season, while teammates Jimmy Eriksson and Dean Stoneman both won races.
The dip in form came after fourth place finishes in his prior two seasons of action, in European F3 Open in 2013 (Indy Lights driver Ed Jones won the title) and in both Formula Abarth European and Italian Series the year before.
So come 2015, Urrutia shifted Stateside, a late arrival to the Mazda Road to Indy but in a good position with the Nigel Tuckey-led Team Pelfrey, which had captured the Cooper Tires Winterfest title this winter with Jack Aitken driving.
Urrutia also had the management of Chilean driver Eliseo Salazar, the ex-Formula 1 and IndyCar driver, to help guide him through his maiden season racing in North America.
Urrutia, 19, and 16-year-old teammate Pato O’Ward made for a young but potent driving combination in the two cars. Raoul Owens later joined in a third car.
A runner-up finish on debut in St. Petersburg and a win in Round 3 at rain-soaked NOLA Motorsports Park instantly marked him as a driver to watch this season.
“I came to America to win the championship, but I never thought I’d have the chance to win it,” Urrutia told MotorSportsTalk at Mazda Raceway, reflecting on the start of his season.
He banked his second win of the year at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend, in the third race of what was the series’ lone tripleheader round after a NOLA race was canceled due to the rain.
His leap out of the car, in front of the Pagoda, stands as one of the images of the Mazda Road to Indy season.
Save for a brief dip in form on the ovals – he failed to finish at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis and finished a respectable if anonymous fifth at Iowa – Urrutia’s consistency was never in doubt over the course of the year.
The Toronto weekend was a needed bounce back for him after Lucas Oil. He didn’t win either race but gained 22 points on closest title rival Neil Alberico in those pair of races.
A win and third place at Mid-Ohio positioned Urrutia for the championship at Mazda Raceway, where he entered the weekend 29 points clear of Alberico for the title.
Alberico ran third with Urrutia second in the dying stages of race one. Urrutia was close to securing the title, but finally did so once Alberico had an off at the Corkscrew.
The championship was secured, in front of dozens of his countrymen who’d made the trip to Monterey to witness the moment in person.
“I was champion already at P2. So I did my pace in the race,” Urrutia explained. “The goal was to win the championship, not the race.
“I’m so happy today. I can’t tell you today how happy I am. I’m only the driver. Behind me are my sponsors, my family, Team Pelfrey, everyone that has put in so much hard work for this moment.
“The Uruguayan people are so crazy. They come here, it’s about 20 hours from home. But they come and they celebrate.”
For good measure, Urrutia added another runner-up finish on Sunday’s season finale, like on Saturday behind Garett Grist.
The champion ended the year with three wins and 10 podium finishes in 16 races, securing a Mazda scholarship to advance into Indy Lights.
More importantly, Urrutia ended the year with his name firmly established as a driver to watch in North American open-wheel racing.