Thompson (left) and Martin (center). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports teammates set to battle for USF2000 crown

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The story heading into the final race weekend of the 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season is that once again, a driver from Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing will win the championship for the sixth consecutive season.

But the question that lingers from here is which one of two it will be.

Series sophomores Anthony Martin, a 21-year-old Australian and Parker Thompson, an 18-year-old Canadian, are both mature beyond their years and entered as preseason favorites.

Yet only one of them will follow in the heels of Nico Jamin (2015), Florian Latorre (2014), Scott Hargrove (2013), Matthew Brabham (2012) and Petri Suvanto (2011) as the USF2000 champion, and earn the Mazda Advancement scholarship that goes with it.

Contrasting styles and contrasting fortunes have led to where they sit now. Martin, on the heels of a pivotal three-race sweep at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and six wins overall in the last eight races, leads Thompson by 21 points (347-326).

Cape went through a bit of a shocker at the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg, because between these two and third driver Nikita Lastochkin – also a series sophomore – they scored a combined zero podium finishes.

But since, they’ve combined to win 11 of the next 12 races, tilted seven-four in Martin’s favor.

Perhaps the first turning point came at Lucas Oil Raceway, the lone oval race on the calendar, back in May. Thompson had won three of four races on the Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis Motor Speedway road courses, and held a 28-point advantage over Martin at 150 points to 122.

However, Martin seized the momentum by better taking advantage of slower traffic on the 0.686-mile oval, and snatched what seemed a sure victory from Thompson away from the Canadian. That’s vaulted him into his current run, where with the six wins and a second in eight races, he’s now outscored Thompson 225-176 since that point.

It’s been a fascinating year of growth for both drivers, joining USF2000’s consistently dominant team after stepping up from single-car programs in 2015.

Martin overachieved with John Cummiskey Racing and scored a number of podiums en route to rookie of the year honors; Thompson learned and developed with John Church’s JDC Motorsports team, which has long been a hotbed of producing young open-wheel talent. They finished fourth and fifth in points, impressive efforts for both.

There have been moments where Thompson’s had an edge off the trailer while others, Martin has meshed better with the changing conditions. Case in point was at Mid-Ohio, where Thompson had a great test a few weeks earlier but was unable to match up in race conditions. Martin fared better, and edged ahead.

Both have also had to overcome adversity at various points this season, and Thompson is in the point where he’ll have to overcome going into Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Martin’s setback occurred in Toronto race one. He crashed in practice and hurt his left hand, needing to ice it and wear a brace the remainder of the weekend. A further crash in race one knocked him back to a 17th place DNF, and Thompson won the race. But Martin took a key a pivotal second place finish in race two, ensuring he wouldn’t miss a race and got 26 points that went with it.

Thompson now faces the uphill battle after a puncture in race one of three at Mid-Ohio cost him a sure podium finish and dropped him to 17th place. In that one race, a 20-point lead he had on Martin entering the weekend turned into a nine-point deficit. Successive runner-up results ensured a bit of damage limitation, but at six points per race lost, Thompson now enters this weekend 21 down to Martin.

A year ago at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Martin finished second and Thompson fifth in race one, which was both drivers’ best finishes of the weekend.

Martin heads back to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca after a month at home in Perth, Australia, where he works as a mechanic for Goldfields Compressor Hire, where his father Michael is managing director (more here from Martin’s “Meet the Contenders” feature). Outside the cockpit, he relishes the effort involved in keeping massive air compressors and boosters up and running in the recovering Australian mining industry.

But in it, he’s had advice this year from of all people, 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power – Martin’s countryman and native of Toowoomba, Australia. Power stopped to see Martin and his No. 8 Burgess BLA entry during the weekend multiple times.

“Yeah, I’ve watched it with interest, actually, because Jordan Lloyd is from Toowoomba, which is my hometown,” Power said during the Mid-Ohio weekend. “I’ve actually seen him when I’m in Toowoomba. It’s very cool to see him doing well, and you’ve got Luke Gabin, he’s from Perth, and Anthony Martin, he’s doing a great job leading the championship.

“He’s really, really come on strong. Yeah, I saw him win another race today, which is awesome. But yeah, they’re doing really well. Really well, really happy to see that, and I hope one of them wins the championship this year and gets to go on to the next series. Yeah, it’s good to see some Aussies coming through.”

Said Martin of the driver he hopes to emulate: “We’d been pulling up in front of the IndyCar box there where he was. He’d come up after every race. Which was quite cool. Today, he said you’re 21 points ahead, and focus on not making mistakes. Coming from Will Power, that’s huge as he has a lot of experience in this sport. So I take everything I can get.”

Thompson, meanwhile, has had a busy month in the interim since Mid-Ohio. He was nominated as a finalist for the Team Canada Scholarship, and received a local award from his hometown of Red Deer, Alberta.

All the while, he’s also trying to raise enough funding for next year to continue his career – regardless of if he wins the title or not and overcomes the points deficit. He drives the No. 2 Weyburn Energy/Uber entry (his Meet the Contenders is linked here).

“My mindset is to stay positive at this point,” he said. “Like you’ve mentioned, I had a great consistent season, up until Road America, I’ve qualified top-two every race. It’s always a mix in racing where it’s 50 percent driver, and 50 percent car. Sometimes stuff fails, and it’s up to luck. Mid-Ohio was a solid weekend. I didn’t put a foot wrong. But unfortunately we come out with a 20-point deficit. We see how fast points go.

“To be completely honest, I’m gonna be working to find sponsors. I’ve got a month-long break before Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It’s difficult for the championship; I’m not a shoo-in. So I have to cover myself for next year. We’ll have to work hard.

“I’ll take some time to rest, decompress, and then get back on the wagon.”

Thompson explained how open the data sharing process is at Cape between the two drivers, who were friends first before battling for the title.

“When I was in karting in Europe, we never shared information,” Thompson said. “At Cape, we’re totally open, which means the guy you’re racing for the championship knows every single move you’re making. He knows exactly what you’re doing with your feet and exactly what you’re doing with your steering wheel. I know every change Anthony makes to his car; I know every problem he’s had. The data doesn’t lie, and I think that makes it a really fair fight. Whoever wins the title, we’ll come out of the season knowing a lot more about how to be a race car driver – and that will help our careers down the road.”

The battle between the two has closely resembled the 2012 title bout between Cape teammates Brabham and Spencer Pigot, both of whom have made their IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 debuts this year.

While only one can take this year’s USF2000 crown, don’t put it past either of them emulating the Australian and American stepping up through the Mazda Road to Indy from here in the years to come.

INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500