Hinchcliffe and Rzadzinski. Photos: Nissan

Stefan Rzadzinski dazzles as ROC Factor winner at Race of Champions

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Vettel. Kristensen. Solberg. Coulthard. Massa. Busch, twice. Speed. Rossi. Hunter-Reay. Montoya. Kanaan. Castroneves. Hinchcliffe. Rzadzinski.

Rzadzinski? Yes, Rzadzinski.

Last month’s Race of Champions, held in Miami for the first time, brought together an all-star list of drivers and champions from around the world, through various disciplines of motorsport. But the event also held the ROC Factor North America fan vote, allowing talented but under-the-radar drivers through to the race if they won the vote and gathered enough support with which to do so.

rzad1Stefan Rzadzinski was a name known to only the most diehard of Mazda Road to Indy observers prior to winning this competition, beating Conor Daly among others en route to capturing the opportunity to be James Hinchcliffe’s teammate at the race. The 24-year-old Edmontonian’s open-wheel career began in reverse – he’s the only driver in MRTI history to have done all three series “backwards,” starting in Indy Lights before moving to Pro Mazda, then to USF2000, owing to what was the right opportunity he could pursue with the necessary budget.

Last year, he took on the Nissan Micra Cup competition in his home country. He won several races and contended for the championship, and pioneered “reverse donuts.”

All the while, Rzadzinski never lost faith he’d have his shot on another worldwide stage, even as his day job comes with working at a software company called Frontech Solutions, Inc. in Edmonton, in their marketing and sales division.

“I always wanted to get to IndyCar but after Edmonton lost the Indy (after 2012), that made it tougher. But I’ve never given up faith that I could do it in motorsports,” Rzadzinski told NBC Sports.

“I’ve just not been satisfied leaving it. I want to open doors, make things happen still. I’m really happy life has taken me along the way it has… I got my university degree, I work another job as well, and that adds to my story. You think you may not make it, and I still don’t have a ton of money. But this experience was about trying to show that I really still care about this. I think people have been excited by the story – I want to take people for the ride!”

Indeed what followed from the time Rzadzinski was revealed as one of 10 finalists to win ROC Factor North America was a promotional blitz where he’d let everyone he knew, or close to it, of how close he was to winning the competition. Several Canadian media outlets picked up on it and once Rzadzinski got past the usual Canadian dose of humility, not wanting to feel guilty about promoting himself, it became easier.

“Part of what got me there was being uncomfortable, but I got more comfortable as time went on,” Rzadzinski said. “It resonated with people… even though I felt a bit bad about spamming feeds! I could write a book about those three-four days.

“But the big key for me in winning was to show I wasn’t just the Facebook winner. Once I got to Saturday night, the game face went on because you have to refocus and deliver.”

Rzadzinski wasn’t in the individual Race of Champions competition on Saturday, but took part in the Nations’ Cup on Sunday as Hinchcliffe’s teammate.

And that’s when the fun started.

Despite a loss to Kyle Busch first, Rzadzinski rebounded from there. Rzadzinski drew Indianapolis 500 champion Alexander Rossi with the two racing in NASCARs, and Rzadzinski won that heat. A last-minute shift to one of the RoC Buggies for his third race – this wasn’t the car he’d planned to race – saw Rzadzinski jump into that and beat Red Bull Global Rallycross champion Scott Speed, so he’d gone 2-3.

“The RoC Buggy was my favorite, by far, and I raced it against Scott Speed!” Rzadzinski said. “I’d only driven it once before. With each car, you only have two to three minutes in it once before. I drove the buggy once, and this thing is awesome… but I didn’t drive it until the race against Speed, because I’d been told I’d be racing the Ariel Atom.”

It speaks volumes of the competitor Rzadzinski is he was disappointed with only going 2-3 in his runs, with a gear level issues sidelining Hinchcliffe in his run to knock ROC Factor Canada out of the event. Rzadzinski reflected on the experience in the moment.

The thing that stood out though about Rzadzinski as much as his on-track performance, which was impressive beyond belief, was his pure, unfiltered joy at being part of the event.

It’s easy to get cynical, sidetracked or frustrated in racing and for Rzadzinski, losing sight of how cool this moment was was not an option.

“I want to be an ambassador. I’m proud of this sport, and I grew up in love with it,” he said. “I want to represent it well and this sport is awesome… with all the personalities. It’s a special world. It’s just not normal. The excitement is still there, whether it’s F1, IndyCar, NASCAR, WEC, or Le Mans.

“It’s really cool stuff and I don’t think we tell the story well enough. This is really cool with what we’re doing. I won the vote because people saw it mattered to me. You can’t be nonchalant about it, it’s important to have passion and emotions about what we do. Meeting those guys at the weekend, they’re the best at what they do, but they are regular guys.”

Rzadzinski admitted to having one “fanboy” moment when he and a couple friends were delayed getting to the track on Saturday and needed a lift, and got one in the form of four-time Formula 1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel.

“It was one of many surreal moments – but the inner fanboy in me was like, it’s Sebastian Vettel!” Rzadzinski exclaimed. “We missed our shuttle from the hotel to the track, and one of the RoC organizers says he could take us. So he comes by, no problem, and we jumped in the car with him and (Pascal) Wehrlein. My friend Dennis and I rode to the track with Sebastian. We’re back there and that was the one guy where it’s like, just play cool, be normal!

“But they all are normal. He was fantastic. There’s a whole new level of respect for a guy like him. He took this event seriously… he wanted to win. Seeing how he operated, but also chatting about non-racing stuff. You can’t take it away.”

Rzadzinski was quick to praise not just Vettel but all his peers at the event, including his teammate Hinchcliffe who’d been there for him in 2011 as an 18-year-old Indy Lights debutante in Edmonton.

“It started at the Edmonton Lights race… I said, ‘Hey I’m doing this race, and I know you won here the year before, if you’re around the track lemme know.’ We connected, did the track walk, and went for dinner. He’s a really genuine dude. Even on Dancing With The Stars, everyone sent him a note… I’m sure you get swamped. But I was super pumped for him. He took the time to respond. I can’t say enough good things about him. Behind the scenes, there’s much more to him.

“(Tom) Kristensen said ‘I think, you were quiet, respectful, asking questions… but deep down you knew you could do it and deliver.’ Getting that little bit of respect from guys like TK that I’ve looked up to, that’s a cool moment.

“I just want to hang out with them and learn… there’s so much more to learn! But so much more to the craft than just this. Pick their brains and be around them. Take a piece of that, and have a successful career in this sport.”

Rzadzinski, who is set for another season in Nissan Micra Cup this year with Groupe Touchette support but who arrived on the world stage via this event, said this whole experience wouldn’t have been possible without the people around him. More of his story is chronicled via his social channels (@RzadRacing on Twitter and Instagram).

“When you have time to give back, people appreciate it – they appreciate it coming from you. That’s how they get invested. We want more fans in the sport. For me, I don’t see it as a distraction at all. They’re the people who got me there.”

Alexander Rossi hopes to dodge oncoming traffic in second Baja 1000

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Honda Photo
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One of the great viral videos of last year’s offseason was the sight of Alexander Rossi’s Honda Ridgeline off-road vehicle and its near head-on collision with a passenger SUV coming in the wrong direction of last year’s Baja 1000.

The video of the incident overshadowed an outstanding debut for Rossi in the SCORE OFF Road Desert race.

Rossi (pictured above on the right along with fellow driver Jeff Proctor) told NBCSports.com that driving down the same roads still used by passenger traffic is one of the unique challenges of the Baja 1000.

“The most demanding form of racing is IndyCar racing,” Rossi told NBC Sports.com. “But the big thing for me in the Baja 1000 is mentally being able to understand the terrain that is coming at you at 120 miles an hour in the dust and pedestrians and other cars, people and cattle that come along with this race.”

Rossi is becoming a modern-day Parnelli Jones, A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. He wants to race anything on wheels and win.

Since the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season concluded with the Sept. 22 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey, Rossi competed in the Bathurst 1000 in Australia on Oct. 13. Earlier this year, Rossi drove for Acura Team Penske in the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.

This weekend, the winner of the 100th Indianapolis 500 in 2016 and a perennial contender for the NTT IndyCar Series championship will compete in the Baja 1000 for the second straight year.

Rossi will be driving for the Honda Ridgeline Racing team and is the sixth Indy 500 winner to compete in the Baja 1000.

Other Indy 500 winners who have raced in the SCORE Baja 1000 include Jones, the 1963 Indianapolis winner and a two-time Baja 1000 race winner (1971 72); fellow Honda IndyCar Series driver and Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay, the Indy winner in 2014; Rick Mears, who won the Indianapolis 500 four times, 1985 Indy 500 champion Danny Sullivan and 2004 Indy winner Buddy Rice.

NTT IndyCar season champions who have raced in the Baja 1000 include Mears, Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Jimmy Vasser and Paul Tracy.

Rossi has a better understanding of what to expect in this year’s Baja 1000 after last year’s rookie experience.

How valuable was last years’ experience?

“It’s hugely valuable,” Rossi said. “The course changes each year. There will be some elements that are the same, but it’s a new route from start to finish this year. That is why we go down a week early. We do pre-running in a similar type of vehicle and take course notes and analyze each individual section of the course, find the danger areas and what you need to do come race day.

“Ultimately, the biggest thing is having the knowledge of how to prepare for the race and what to expect once you roll off the starting line. That is something I will have going for me this year that I didn’t have last year.”

As an off-road rookie, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“I don’t know that I can pinpoint any highlights other than just the whole experience,” Rossi said of last years’ experience. “The whole week and a half I had down there in 2018 was phenomenal. The team made me feel part of the family from Day One. I just love driving a desert truck through Baja California. It’s an experience unlike any other.

“The entire event was a highlight more than one specific moment.”

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Driving an off-road Honda Ridgeline through the desert of Baja California in Mexico is vastly different than Rossi’s regular ride in the No. 27 NAPA Honda in the NTT IndyCar Series. But Rossi believes there are many similarities, also.

“It’s very different, for obvious reasons, but ultimately, a race car is a race car,” Rossi said. “It has four wheels, and you are trying to get it from Point A to Point B quicker than other people. The general underlying techniques of getting a car through the corner efficiently is all the same; it’s just a different style.

“Everyone here is very talented at what they do and very good so in order to win this race, you have to be at the top of your game.”

The Baja 1000, like most forms of off-road racing, is more against the clock than a wheel-to-wheel competition such as IndyCar. Rossi believes it is a different form of endurance racing, similar to IMSA in many ways.

“You have to compare it like an endurance race,” Rossi said. “It’s a race where the first part of it, you are trying to get through and not take chances and stay in touch with the people you are trying to stay in touch with.

“When you get down to the final 20 to 30 percent, that is when you try to either close the lead of extend the lead of whatever position you are in. That is similar to the Rolex 24 at Daytona. It comes down to the last three or four hours, and we take a mentality closer to that.

“The only difference is if you get it wrong at Daytona, you spin in the grass. Here, it can be more dramatic than that.”

As an off-road rookie in 2018, Rossi acclimated to the demands of desert racing as the Jeff Proctor-led Honda Off-Road Racing Team finished second in Class 7. It was the fourth consecutive time the team finished first or second in the Ridgeline Baja Race Truck at the Baja 1000.

“The Honda off-road guys and my co-driver/navigator Evan Weller make it so easy for me to just jump right in and go to work,” Rossi said. “I can’t wait to share the seat with Jeff [Proctor] and Pat [Dailey] once again, and hopefully, bring home a win.”

The Honda Off-Road Racing Team has had an outstanding 2019 season, including class wins for the Baja Ridgeline Race Truck at the Parker 425, the Mint 400 and the Baja 500; where the team successfully debuted the second-generation “TSCO” chassis; and a second-place Class 7 finish at the Vegas-to-Reno event.

Proctor won his class in the Baja 1000 in both 2015 and 2016 with the Ridgeline, finished second in class in 2017 and 2018; and won the companion SCORE Baja 500 race both in 2016, 2018 and again earlier this year. The Ridgeline competes in Class 7, for unlimited six-cylinder production-appearing trucks and SUVs.

“We are stoked to have Alexander back racing with us in Mexico for his sophomore attempt at this iconic off-road race,” Proctor said. “This year’s 52nd annual Baja 1000 course covers ALL of the toughest terrain and areas in Baja Norte….as always, it will be tough.

“Alex is one of the brightest motorsports minds I’ve worked with, and he is a great asset to our team.”

The Baja 1000 begins Friday and runs through the weekend along the Baja Peninsula of Mexico.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500