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MRTI: Road America kicks off hectic six-week stretch of action

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The full Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder is on display this weekend at Road America for six more races that kick off a busy six-week stretch of action. The three series race four times in the next six weekends.

After Road America this weekend, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series also race at Iowa and Toronto back-to-back weekends in July; these two and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires are all in action at Mid-Ohio.

In total, there are 19 races to run over the next six weeks (7 Indy Lights, 7 USF2000, 5 Pro Mazda) that will go a long ways towards determining the champions who will receive the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships to the next level at year’s end.

INDY LIGHTS

With the top six drivers separated by only 30 points and the top eight by only 49 points, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title is fully wide open.

Thus far Kyle Kaiser has used consistency to move to the top for Juncos Racing, with finishes between first and ninth in all seven races thus far. His first win of the year came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course; he enters Road America, where he finished sixth both races last year, with a 14-point lead over Nico Jamin (151-137).

Jamin may have concerns over ultimate power this weekend, having been hamstrung a bit on top-end both at last month’s Freedom 100 and at a recent Road America test. Still, the Andretti Autosport driver has both his wins this year on permanent road courses – at Barber and IMS – and will be keen to add to that this weekend.

Colton Herta sits third in points with 129, 22 back of Kaiser, after a roller coaster debut season with Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing. The talented teenager has alternated between booms and bust with two wins, a second, and four finishes of 10th or worse. Some issues haven’t been of his own doing, but he needs a consistent weekend here.

Two more Americans, Aaron Telitz and Neil Alberico, are tied for fourth with 122 points. Telitz, the Birchwood, Wis. native, enters looking for another home race high after sweeping this weekend in Pro Mazda last year. He’s also with a team, Belardi Auto Racing, which won the first race here last year with Zach Veach. Alberico’s parlayed consistent finishes into a top-five spot in his sophomore season. The cool Californian looks to join teammate Matheus Leist as a winner for Carlin this season.

Leist comes to Road America sixth in points with 121 and with a lot of track time in the last month-plus. He made his IndyCar test debut last week, fresh off winning the Freedom 100 at Indy last month, and also has tested here in a Lights car. Another good weekend here could pay distinct dividends for his longer-term prospects.

At 46 and 49 points back, respectively, Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM) and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) have outside chances to keep their title hopes alive – but must get rolling here. Both have runner-up finishes on their scorecard this year but have been dogged by inconsistency.

Of the remaining six drivers entered, all bar rookie Ryan Norman have prior MRTI race experience at Road America. Norman and Herta have tested here though ahead of the weekend.

The pair of Indy Lights races are at 12 p.m. Saturday and 8:45 a.m. Sunday; Indy Lights TV coverage from Road America airs at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sunday on NBCSN, as the lead-in to the Verizon IndyCar Series race.

PRO MAZDA

The two-horse race for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championship heats up this weekend at Road America. Anthony Martin (Cape Motorsports) swept St. Petersburg while Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) responded with a sweep at the Indy road course. Franzoni holds a six-point lead, 116-110, heading into this weekend’s action.

Team Pelfrey’s TJ Fischer is the only other driver with a realistic title shot. The Californian has finished on the podium in all four races with three third places and a second. At 25 points back, he’s not out of it; Telitz overcame a 55-point deficit last year starting with a Road America sweep, but he’ll need a bit of help from the two drivers in front of him to make it happen.

A further 20 points back of Fischer, 10 points cover fourth-placed Carlos Cunha to seventh-placed Phillippe Denes. Cunha, Denes, Nikita Lastochkin and Sting Ray Robb have been consistent top-five finishers but not threatened the leaders thus far.

There’s 10 other drivers in an enhanced 17-car field. Noteworthy there is the return of Max Hanratty, a Milwaukee native, with ArmsUp Motorsports while Kris Wright makes his series debut with JDC Motorsports, moving on after parting ways with John Cummiskey Racing in USF2000.

Pro Mazda races at 1:35 p.m. on Friday and 2:05 p.m. on Saturday.

USF2000

With a 60-point lead and a five-race win streak, the only questions for Team USA Scholarship winner and thus far USF2000’s most dominant driver Oliver Askew are how soon can he clinch the title and how many races he can win consecutively. The talented Floridian has been a cut above the rest this year with Cape Motorsports in all aspects, and will look to add to his season long tour de force this weekend. Only Robert Megennis has defeated him this season, doing so at the season opener in St. Petersburg.

Second place could be up for grabs as Rinus VeeKay, Kaylen Frederick and Parker Thompson are separated by just 28 points. None has won yet this year although all have been regular podium finishers; Dutch rookie VeeKay leading Pabst Racing’s charge, Baltimore teenager Frederick impressing regularly with Team Pelfrey despite a disqualification at Indy that was devastating from a title standpoint, and Canadian veteran Thompson looking to break through for Exclusive Autosport’s first USF2000 win. Thompson won in F1600 competition at the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, which was a huge confidence booster for him and the Exclusive team.

Elsewhere there’s a bit of disappointment this weekend with a reduced, 18-car grid, including the absences of three drivers in the top-10 in points owing to financial straits.

All of Dakota Dickerson (fifth, Newman Wachs Racing), Luke Gabin (seventh, Exclusive Autosport) and Ayla Agren (ninth, Team Pelfrey) are no-shows for the weekend and only NWR, with Darren Keane moving over from BENIK, answers the bell among those cars this weekend.

The field hit a high of 24 cars at the Barber weekend but cars not present this weekend include Gabin’s No. 91 car, Agren’s No. 82 car, the two BENIK entries (Nos. 31 and 32), the two John Cummiskey Racing entries (Nos. 33 and 34), and the remaining Newman Wachs cars (Nos. 37 and 38) which have all run in earlier events this season. David Malukas (No. 79 BN Racing) and Jayson Clunie (No. 93 Exclusive Autosport) continue for a second weekend after making their season debuts at Indy.

USF2000 races at 11:45 a.m. on Friday and 1:10 p.m. on Saturday.

EXCLUSIVE: NHRA’s Don Schumacher, all 7 of his drivers to donate brains for concussion research

From left, DSR Top Fuel drivers Leah Pritchett, Antron Brown and Tony Schumacher. Photos courtesy Auto Imagery.
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In a collective large-scale move never before seen in motorsports or any other form of professional sports, NHRA drag racing team owner Don Schumacher and all seven of his drivers have pledged in writing to donate their brains upon death to the Concussion Legacy Foundation (CLF), NBCSports.com’s MotorSportsTalk has learned exclusively.

The pledges were all signed this afternoon at suburban Denver’s Bandimere Speedway, site of this weekend’s Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals.

Team owner Don Schumacher (in red shirt) and his seven Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers sign written pledges to donate their brains for concussion research Friday at Bandimere Speedway in suburban Denver.

Don Schumacher Racing is the second-most successful team overall in NHRA history, with 11 Top Fuel and five Funny Car championships, as well as over 300 combined nitro national event wins by all seven of its drivers (as well as retired driver Gary Scelzi).

This is the first time an NHRA driver, owner or team has announced they will donate their brains to science for further study on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which can only be detected and diagnosed after death.

However, more than 3,000 current and former athletes in other sports have already pledged their brains to research post-mortem, including NASCAR’s Dale Earnhardt Jr., U.S. Women’s Soccer Team star Brandi Chastain, and several former NFL Pro Bowlers including Randy Cross, Keith Sims, Shawn Springs and Gary Fencik.

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr. plans to donate his brain to CTE research

MORE: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s decision inspires NASCAR Hall of Famer to donate brain for CTE research

While concussions are not a widespread problem in the NHRA as in, for example, the NFL, they still happen from time to time.

With the g-forces, high-speed explosions and crashes and intense vibrations Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers endure while exceeding 330 mph in 1,000 feet, concussions are always a threat, but that threat is usually mitigated by the safety equipment found in the race cars.

Don Schumacher Racing’s Funny Car drivers, from left, Jack Beckman, Tommy Johnson Jr., Ron Capps and Matt Hagan.

In pledging their brains, Schumacher and his seven drivers will also “immediately begin a comprehensive brain monitoring process to ensure an in-depth brain profile upon donation,” according to a team statement.

DSR’s pledges coincide with CLF Project Enlist, a new program launched this week by CLF and Infinite Hero Foundation (IHF) a non-profit organization (and a partner of DSR) that assists military veterans returning from battle and their families. IHF’s main goal is to “accelerate research on traumatic brain injury (TBI), CTE and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in military veterans.”

DSR and Project Enlist are conducting recruiting and outreach to military and veteran communities to increase participation in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs-Boston University-Concussion Legacy Foundation (VA-BU-CLF) Brain Bank brain donation registry.

The VA-BU-CLF Brain Bank is the world’s largest CTE brain bank specializing in research into concussions, ALS, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

Schumacher, who was one of the sport’s most successful drivers in the 1960s and 1970s, has since gone on to build a vast business and racing empire that employs over 2,000 individuals. He is also regarded as one of the top innovators in performance and safety in drag racing.

“Donating my brain for research to help other individuals in this world is something that I’m more than willing to do,” said Don Schumacher, who was recently named to the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America’s Class of 2019. “It surprised my wife, Sarah, but she also agreed to me doing this based on its potential to help drivers, soldiers, business people and the population of the world.

Team owner Don Schumacher.

“I support (the CLF) 100 percent and was thrilled that my seven drivers agreed to donate their brains.”

Here are comments from all of Schumacher’s seven drivers who have pledged to donate their brains to research post-mortem:

Tony Schumacher, driver of the U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “I think any athlete donating their brain is a great idea once you’re done with it here on earth. If people can come up with a better system, and a better way to keep future drivers safer, that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to improve our world. The doctors and the technology with all athletes right now, they’re diving in deep to come up with concussion research, and as a driver that goes through 11,000-horsepower, 2.5-Richter scale shaking every single run, I think we’re good candidates to research.”

“Fast Jack” Beckman, driver of the Infinite Hero Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “My wife didn’t take the news that I was pledging my brain quite the way I thought. Apparently, she wants to have me stuffed and put in the corner of our living room (he said with a laugh), but (growing serious) I’ve been an organ donor since I was 16. My thought is, if it can help somebody else, that’s fantastic. When you see these veterans coming back with traumatic brain injuries and PTS, and there’s no one cure for this, it makes you realize how much more we still need to learn about the human brain to have effective treatments for the majority of the injured vets. To be a part of that in some small way; well, I can’t take my brain with me, haven’t used it since I started driving a Funny Car (he said with another laugh), so someone else might as well take advantage.”

Ron Capps, driver of the NAPA AUTO PARTS Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “When approached with the chance to help the Concussion Legacy Foundation and have an opportunity to help with advancing the study, treatment, and prevention of the effects of brain trauma in athletes as well as other at-risk groups, we said ‘yes’ without hesitation. The Concussion Legacy Foundation is a group of dedicated people doing great things to help the next generations to come, and we’re proud to help in any way we can.”

Antron Brown, driver of the Matco Tools/U.S. Army Top Fuel dragster: “We always want to do whatever we can to help elevate the safety in our sport, and be proactive in bettering the safety for all.”

Matt Hagan, driver of the Mopar Express Lane Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat Funny Car: “I think it’s pretty cool to donate anything to science. My brain is kind of mush anyways (jokes). Anytime we can do something to help is a good thing and being able to have research off of how your brain is affected by g-force and things like that, is interesting. Driving a nitro Funny Car is not something just anybody gets to do. There are only maybe 50 people in the world that really, truly experience the g-forces we do on a regular basis. These cars are extreme, we put on a show, and we put our bodies through elements that most people will never even understand. If we can help with the research of concussions and saving lives, that’s a great thing, and I’m all about it.”

Tommy Johnson Jr., driver of the Make-A-Wish Foundation Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car: “I elected to donate my brain because of all of my years of racing, suffering explosions and experiencing tire shake. If the Concussion Legacy Foundation can learn something that would help the next generation, I would be very proud to be a part of that. Tying it in with the soldiers who experience traumatic brain injuries, if we can work together and help one another, I think it’s a great opportunity for the road to recovery for everyone.”

Leah Pritchett, driver of the Mopar Dodge Top Fuel dragster: “When I was first asked if I would be open to donating my brain for future research, there wasn’t even a question in my mind at all. All of us are safer in our passenger cars and safer in our race cars because of what we’ve been able to learn from the past. We get to do what we do and are safe because of technology and science. If I have a legacy to leave behind, and it can benefit anybody in any way, from the sports community to the military to a child that wants to play football, whatever it may be, once I’m gone, I won’t need my brain so I’m proud to know that it will benefit others.”

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