Photo: Tony DiZinno

MRTI: Drivers visit SPCA ahead of Mazda Raceway races

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MONTEREY, Calif. – The old saying that a dog is a man’s (or woman’s) best friend was on display Thursday at the SPCA of Monterey County, as several drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires paid a visit to the facility ahead of this weekend’s Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Considering the pressure some, if not all, drivers in the three series competing here this weekend are under with Mazda advancement scholarships on the line, it was nice to see those present embracing their soft sides as they got to meet a number of dogs and cats – or in two random cases, a rat and a horse.

Those drivers present included:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

  • Kyle Kaiser, No. 18 Juncos Racing
  • Neil Alberico, No. 22 Carlin
  • Dean Stoneman, No. 27 Andretti Autosport
  • Dalton Kellett, No. 28 Andretti Autosport
  • Shelby Blackstock, No. 51 Andretti Autosport

Of note, Zach Veach, Andre Negrao and Santiago Urrutia were all at Sonoma testing IndyCars for the first time, and therefore unable to attend.

Stoneman and his family have embraced and worked with dogs and cats back home in England, and seeing him with a mini chihuahua presented a softer side of the 26-year-old Englishman that hasn’t really been witnessed too much during his first full-time season in America. It was quite nice to see.

Teammate Kellett, who was confirmed for another season in Indy Lights earlier this year, appeared to get congratulations from all parties.

Alberico played up a joke with fellow American Aaron Telitz, with the two Rising Star Racing-supported drivers eyeing each other as a rat named for Aaron was in-between, unbeknownst to the debauchery.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

  • Bobby Eberle, No. 13 JDC Motorsports
  • Aaron Telitz, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

  • Parker Thompson, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
  • Dakota Dickerson, No. 18 Afterburner Autosport
  • Garth Rickards, No. 22 Pabst Racing
  • Ayla Agren, No. 33 John Cummiskey Racing (not racing this weekend)
  • Robert Megennis, No. 80 Team Pelfrey

Four of these five had a fun time with dogs – Rickards in particular – while Thompson had a different animal of note he spent time with. He got paired with a horse named Parker.

Meanwhile, here’s Agren and Rickards with dogs.

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?