Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda title tilt heats up at Road America

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ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – For the first time in the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season, the gloves are officially off between two title combatants, after an intense, high-pressure weekend split in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

For Victor Franzoni, a win and a second place served as a disappointing weekend for Juncos Racing, because even despite starting last in Saturday’s race two, he very nearly could have won.

Quite by contrast, second and first for Cape Motorsports’ Anthony Martin was even better than he might have hoped for, with a clear pace deficit to Franzoni this weekend but able to doggedly hold him off in race two.

Franzoni dominated Friday’s race one, which was pretty straightforward. Still though, after red flags caught Franzoni out before qualifying race two, he wasn’t as happy as he usually is.

“The quali was unlucky. We tried a strategy and it didn’t work!” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “But the whole team and I were like, ‘Let’s forget the quali. Let’s focus on what we can do today after quali one.’

“Juncos Racing gave me the great car. It was a big fight. After I got by Anthony, I could go away. It was good. Everything was fine. This was my first win in Road America. Tomorrow is gonna be fun, but I’m really confident. I think we can fight for the win tomorrow.”

Martin put up a valiant fight early in the race but was unable to hold onto it.

“I thought if I’d do anything it’d be the first few laps. as I gave that a red hot shot,” Martin told NBC Sports. “We battled quite hard. I knew he had a better and quicker car than me. I consolidated that I would be in second, looked after my tires. It’ll hurt your tires. I jumped into second and looked after the tires.”

Saturday’s race two, meanwhile, was a barnburner. The second 30-minute race of the weekend saw three yellow flags but Franzoni on a charge from 15th up to second.

Franzoni made it to third by Lap 4 of the eventual 11-lap race. But while the first yellow aided his charge and brought him just two car lengths away from Martin on the first restart, the next two yellows interrupted that process because he’d need to catch up Martin and attempt to pass him again.

“All the unlucky came together,” Franzoni said Saturday. “The race being 40 versus 30. Starting last. Three yellow flags! Everything came down to this not being my race.”

The Brazilian said he still could have hunted down Martin from last on the grid even without the aid of a yellow flag.

“I think with green the whole race, it was possible to do. The car was really really fast. When the first yellow came it was OK, and I thought, ‘Now it’s easier,’ but not the other ones!”

But it was after the restarts that Franzoni thought Martin drove over-aggressively, making his car wider to keep the faster Franzoni behind him.

At Turn 5 in particular, the two drivers had one moment where they both went in deep, overshot the corner entry, and Martin and Franzoni both ran wide on exit. There was another moment exiting Turn 5 where Franzoni got a run up the hill to the inside while Martin moved across to defend there.

The two drivers explained their respective vantage points.

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“I was almost four wheels in the grass. He didn’t give me space,” Franzoni alleged. “There were two times in Turn 5, and I tried outside. He threw the car on me. It was not so nice.”

Martin said, “Knowing that Race Control and everyone is watching, you don’t want to get caught out and make a mistake. So I tried to make it difficult for him to get past me. We both went extremely deep into Turn 5, and we both overshot it.

“We’ve raced each other a few years (in the Mazda Road to Indy). We’re not gonna do anything stupid to each other. I tried to keep him behind me. Things happen. But nothing happened that catastrophic. It was a tough race for both of us. It worked out well for both of us.”

Martin, who led the entirety of the second race, had to exert some key mental training to stay focused for the restarts. With caution laps being so long at the 4.014-mile circuit, Martin knew he had to keep his head in the game.

“It felt long. All the safety car laps take so long! I looked at the dash and thought, ‘It’s a 5-minute lap, we at Spa or something?’ It was pretty crazy the whole race. Mentally very difficult, but we were able to keep him behind.”

Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course comes next the end of July for Pro Mazda after another month break in this season’s condensed schedule.

And it’ll be an important weekend. With three races and Franzoni only seven points clear of Martin, 174-167, it will be imperative to maximize the mark.

Martin enters high on confidence having completed a triple-race sweep in USF2000 with Cape there last year, and with Cape having also delivered a weekend double in Pro Mazda with Nico Jamin driving.

“We know we have a great car at Mid-Ohio but Juncos does as well,” Martin said. “He’s had a half a championship of experience in Pro Mazda – this half – but the team are pushing me to my limit. They’ll implement the correct driving style.

“Mid-Ohio really suits me. I love that track. It suits my style a lot more than these last two tracks.”

Juncos, though, always fields a strong car at Mid-Ohio too and Franzoni will be hoping his car will be just as strong there.

“I had such good equipment. I could have won this race,” Franzoni said. “It’s OK. We’re still leading the championship. I’m disappointed because we had a really big gap and really good car.

“I thought we could use this weekend better to get all the points. It wasn’t so difficult. We’re in good shape but I’m sad because we didn’t win.”

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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