Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Aaron Telitz delivers the goods in run to Pro Mazda title

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Resilience and experience told the story for Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires rookie Aaron Telitz, as the young American captured the title on the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder and the Mazda advancement scholarship that went with it.

The 24-year-old is older than his peers for a ladder system that is, admittedly, overflowing with teenagers.

But that’s not a bad thing. Using James Hinchcliffe as a comparable example, Hinchcliffe spent a full seven years in the ladder between Formula BMW, Pro Mazda (then Star Mazda), Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights before graduating into IndyCar in 2011. And at 24, Hinchcliffe promptly rocked up and qualified eighth on his debut at Barber Motorsports Park… while eventual future champion Simon Pagenaud, then 26, was 23rd in a one-off injury replacement outing before ending eighth.

The point of that preamble is that Telitz is already at a position where he’s both experienced from the ladder and mature enough for when he could graduate into IndyCar. For him, 2018 would be the target season if he can emulate Spencer Pigot in winning an Indy Lights title a year after winning Pro Mazda.

That experience probably served him better than his closest title rival all year, his Team Pelfrey teammate Pato O’Ward, who at 17 lit a fire under the rest of the field with a blazing start.

O’Ward, on a limited planned schedule that was eventually extended through the year, won six of the first seven races, while Telitz left that seventh race some 55 points behind.

The Telitz family and friend brigade. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The Telitz family and friend brigade. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

At Road America, Telitz’s home race, the tide turned in a big way. A single-day sweep of two races was enough to get the ball rolling on a comeback, with the double win coming in front of a wealth of family, friends, partners and supporters.

Two more wins followed in Toronto, then two podiums in Mid-Ohio, and Telitz had turned the 55-point deficit into a 14-point lead over O’Ward, who went winless in this six-race stretch.

“After Lucas Oil I was super down. But I knew coming into Road America, that I can’t give up,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “It was my biggest race of the year. I had all my friends, fans, family, supporters, sponsors… it’s everyone who has ever seen your posts, friends from college. I knew I had to perform, so getting something done there really turned my season around.

“Toronto, winning again, that was huge. That was the turning point in the season. ‘Mr. Mid-Ohio,’ Nico Jamin, was awesome there. But being on the podium there both races got me out front.”

Even though Telitz only won one of the three races at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale, the last one, it was qualifying on pole for all three that positioned him to hang onto his points lead.

“Here, qualifying on pole won me the championship,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “Pato didn’t get to qualify on pole, and it’s tough to make passes here, so it’s hard to be on the outside of Turn 2.”

Indeed the only drama between the two all year came in the Sunday morning race, when Telitz collected a fast-charging O’Ward around the outside of Turn 2. O’Ward went up-and-over Telitz’s car and landed with suspension damage; Telitz was issued a drive-through for avoidable contact.

That left the pressure on Telitz to ensure he didn’t blow the lead in the final race and he didn’t, with a dominant win from pole enough to deliver the goods and secure the title. O’Ward fought valiantly but came up short with finishes of 10th and sixth in his last two races, after a terrific win in the first win of the tripleheader weekend.

“He raced awesome. I was really happy to be teammates with him. He really is a great driver,” Telitz said. “Yes we came together once, but over the course of 16 races, it was mostly us two racing for top spot. So to only have the one time coming together, I think was OK.”

The 24-year-old native of Birchwood, Wis., who now lives in Minnesota, isn’t your typical driver. He has a college degree, he caddies when he’s not driving, and he’s knitting when he’s not doing either of those. He’s also one of the funniest drivers you’ll get to meet.

But despite him adding a needed dose of personality to the Mazda Road to Indy, he’s still plenty serious and focused at the track. His relationship with Tom Knapp, the veteran engineer who suffers no fools and keeps everyone on task, helped bring out a more tenacious and determined side of Telitz this year after a tougher 2015 season in USF2000 with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.

“Having him there was huge,” Telitz reflected. “Even when Pato was winning, I never felt he got special treatment or had a faster car. Sure, I thought I might have been faster but things didn’t go my way. But there was no favoritism; I knew I had a fair crack every weekend.”

He had his first crack in an Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda at this weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He spent a day apiece with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Belardi Auto Racing, the latter of whom invited him to Watkins Glen as a guest.

Telitz hasn’t picked where he’ll be driving a Soul Red Mazda yet but said the caliber of team is such that any one of them can win.

“The big thing for me is picking a team where I’ll mesh,” he said. “That’s the important thing to me. Not just winning races or championships. I think every single team has won in Indy Lights? Yes. I think it’s possible to win with every team.”

Telitz made it through the year with a strong support team and he’ll look to add to that next year as he makes the step up to Indy Lights, thus adding his name to the list of those who’ve competed in all three Mazda Road to Indy series.

“I just tried to stay calm. I don’t get worked up,” Telitz said. “I have to thank my family and girlfriend (Maggie), and my driver coach Steve Welk, the team at Pelfrey, Anders (Krohn), Jonny (Baker), and (Tom) Knapp.

“They’d always call and say it’s fine. I have a huge support group that helps me not overthink it and it wasn’t that stressful.”

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.