Mazda Motorsports finally secured its first IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship podium with its Mazda Prototype, powered by the Mazda MZ-2.0T engine, at of all places, Belle Isle Park on the streets of Detroit.
Not bad considering the two drivers who banked the third place – Tristan Nunez and Jonathan Bomarito – were sidelined in Detroit last year as the then-No. 70 car now was temporarily parked while Mazda determined which engine would be in the back of the car. The team ran the SKYACTIV Diesel powerplant last year but also tested the gasoline-powered AER engine in the second half of the year in preparation for its presence this year.
Alas, both Mazdas stayed out of trouble on the streets of Detroit and following an early race collision between the Nos. 31 and 90 Corvette DPs from Action Express Racing and Visit Florida Racing, the path was opened for the Mazdas to bank two top-five positions and move into podium contention. The Mazdas stayed slightly ahead of the No. 60 Michael Shank Racing Ligier JS P2 Honda during the weekend, which had a mixed crew and a new driver with Katherine Legge making her team debut in place of John Pew, who was at Le Mans preparing for the Test Day.
It was a huge bounce back after a missed opportunity at Mazda’s “spiritual” home track of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey in May. Nunez had the pole in the No. 55 car but with an oil pump failure sidelining the sister No. 70 car of Tom Long and Joel Miller, then a bad pit stop and a spin hitting the No. 55, the car was resigned to fourth place.
Saturday in Detroit the Nos. 55 and 70 cars ended a better third and fourth.
“It’s pretty unbelievable. I can’t believe it happened that way,” Nunez told NBC Sports post-race. “We ran our race with no mistakes and a great pit stop. We weren’t gonna make the same mistake as at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. So it’s learn and move on. The guys gave us a great race car. It was great to get through traffic. This is what happened. First podium, and there’s many more to come.”
Bomarito explained why this result was so surprising given the physical nature of the track.
“The Detroit track is just incredibly bumpy for our cars. It’s very physically demanding, not merely because of the G-forces but the forces going down your spine and through your neck,” Bomarito said. “There are a lot of hard-hitting bumps that take a toll on you. You really have to be focused to get through those physical issues. But when you’re on the podium, you always feel a little better!”
With more flowing road courses at Watkins Glen International and Canadian Tire Motorsport Park coming up, the Mazdas could be positioned for greater success at tracks that suit their car better.
“There’s some great tracks coming up for this package. We got our first podium out of the way at a place we never thought we’d get it. It should be great momentum for the rest of the season,” Nunez said.
MONTEREY, California – In an international series that personifies diversity from all over the globe, the two main combatants in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship are from the United States.
Josef Newgarden of Tennessee takes a 41-point lead over Alexander Rossi of Northern California into Sunday’s double-points season finale at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca. This year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud of France, is just 42 points out of the lead.
It’s been quite a while since the two drivers entering the final race of the season were both Americans. Four of the top 10 drivers in the series are from the United States. Last year, five of the top 10 were from the USA.
All but one race in the 17-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule is contested in the United States.
Patriotism still matters in IndyCar.
“I think so,” said Andretti Autosport driver Rossi, who is the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. “I know I’ve read a lot of things from other drivers saying, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s not important, no one cares.’
“I can’t really get onboard with that.
“I think me as an American, growing up, being a fan of the Olympics and everything, like you cheer for Americans, right? That’s what you do as a patriotic person. Canadians cheer for James. We see the Swedish contingent that comes to the races for Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenqvist.
“I think Americans will cheer for Americans. I would love to see an American to win the championship. I think it’s important for the young kids watching hoping to be IndyCar drivers one day, that they see someone who grew up in Tennessee or California or wherever. It’s like, there’s a lot of relate-ability to that for a young kid with aspirations of being a racecar driver.”
Since Sam Hornish, Jr. won the final of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2006, just two American drivers have won the title – Ryan Hunter-Reay in 2012 and Newgarden in 2017. During that span, Scott Dixon of New Zealand won four of his five NTT IndyCar Series championships and Dario Franchitti of Scotland won all four of his IndyCar titles.
The last time two Americans had a chance to win the championship in the final race of the season came in 2001 when Hornish won the championship over Colorado’s Buddy Lazier. Connecticut’s Scott Sharp was third and Arizona’s Billy Boat was fourth in the final standings that year.
That was a much different time and place for IndyCar. At that time, many of the top drivers were in CART while the old Indy Racing League featured a predominantly American lineup. Once unification brought the two sides together in 2008, the championships have been fought on American soil, but international drivers were victorious.
The last time two American drivers finished 1-2 in CART was 1996 when Jimmy Vasser of California defeated Pennsylvania’s Michael Andretti for the crown. In 1992, Bobby Rahal of Illinois defeated Andretti and Al Unser, Jr. of New Mexico for the CART title.
Prior to that, the IndyCar “National Championship” was dominated by drivers from the United States.
“For me, it’s never been something I put a lot of emphasis on,” said the Team Penske driver. “I’m proud to have grown up in such a wonderful country as the United States, but what I’ve always loved about the IndyCar Series is that they bring the best of the best from around the world. That’s always been important to me.
“It means more I think when you have the best from all over the place coming to compete at the Indianapolis 500, during the whole championship. You really feel like you have that in the IndyCar Series. You get the best drivers from around the world.
“To pair with that, I think we need strong Americans running, as well. So for sure, having guys like Alex and Graham Rahal, some young guys coming up like Colton Herta, myself, it’s really great to have young American competition representing as well and running so strongly.
“What I’ve always loved is the great mix of talent from around the world. To me that’s just so important. If it was all Americans running in the championship, I don’t think it would mean as much. I like that we have that great diversity and that great mix from around the world.”
Although these two drivers are both from the USA, they are fierce rivals. They have mutual respect for each other, but they sure aren’t considered close friends.
“Josef and I honestly aren’t that close,” Rossi admitted. “He never lived in Indy when I moved here, or he was just moving. I actually never really hung out with Josef.
“We obviously have a lot of respect for each other. We raced together for a short period of time in Europe. We have a lot of mutual friends.
“Josef and I don’t talk or socialize really. So, it doesn’t have any impact.”
Newgarden agrees that these two men choose to embrace the rivalry.
“I think it’s just really business,” Newgarden said. “He lives in Indianapolis. I live in Nashville. I don’t see him too often outside of the racetrack. We go and we compete. He’s a great competitor. He’s definitely a tremendous talent, has done a great job in his career.
“It’s been a good, competitive relationship I would say.”
With the return of American drivers capable of winning races, championships and Indianapolis 500s, it has sparked a rejuvenation in IndyCar racing. With drivers from all over the world fighting it out for glory, this series that was born and bred in the United States can take pride in featuring some of the best racing in the world as the series continues to grow in popularity.
“I think we just need to continue a focus on our product,” Rossi said. “I think we have the best race product on the planet in terms of entertainment, the variance of winners that we have throughout a season, how many guys are capable, teams are capable of winning races.
“But that’s an ever-moving target. I think IndyCar has done a good job of placing the priority on that. I just think we need to continue doing that and everything will be moving in the right direction.”