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Victor Franzoni seals Pro Mazda title; delivers Juncos a double

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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Victor Franzoni has completed a weekend sweep in the pair of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Watkins Glen International, and secured the 2017 Pro Mazda title in the process.

The Brazilian driver led flag-to-flag from pole in tricky conditions with mist peppering the 3.37-mile circuit, and the track damp from earlier rain, for his seventh win of the year in the No. 23 Juncos Racing entry. His win Saturday came following a pivotal pass of title rival Anthony Martin for the lead on the outside into the Bus Stop.

This capped off the run for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine and the existing chassis before the new Tatuus PM-18 enters the series next year, the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

More to the point, Franzoni has now secured the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at more than $790,000, to move into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2018.

“I am so happy, but there are so many things in my mind right now. It’s unbelievable. So many people helped me to get into Pro Mazda this season,” Franzoni said. “I grew up five or 10 years in my career this season. The difference for me was Juncos Racing this year, they gave me such a great car. The fight with Anthony was incredible. He’s really, really good. I had to push so hard to stay with him. We were so close in every single race and pushed to the limit all the time. This was the hardest season of my life, because I knew I could not make a mistake. We both did a great job and I think we both deserve to move forward. I want to thank everyone at Mazda, Cooper Tires and Andersen Promotions.

“There were so many things on my mind on that last lap that I couldn’t focus. The team told me to be careful when the white flag came out, and suddenly, I couldn’t drive! When I saw the checkered, it was so great. To know where I will be next year now is the best thing in the world. I didn’t get just prize money today, I got hope.”

With this win, Franzoni will join Kyle Kaiser in winning a title for Juncos Racing this year, giving Ricardo Juncos bragging rights as the first team owner and first team to win two MRTI titles in the same season. Kaiser will only need to start today’s Indy Lights season finale to score enough points to secure that title.

Franzoni entered the day with an eight-point lead over his closest title rival, Martin, and with Martin needing to win and hope Franzoni finished off the podium to realistically be able move ahead to bring the title back within his grasp.

Martin, however, was hamstrung as it was by starting fifth in his No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry after being assessed a two-spot grid penalty for running the checkered flag during qualifying late Saturday afternoon.

While he made it up to third place on the opening lap, Martin’s title hopes evaporated when he spun off at Turn 1 trying to pass Carlos Cunha’s No. 81 Team Pelfrey car for second place. Martin lost several seconds to fall more than 11 back of Franzoni in the lead, and resumed on track just ahead of Nikita Lastochkin’s No. 80 Pelfrey car, repaired after yesterday’s accident with teammate Robert Megennis.

Although Martin gained five seconds over the next three laps, he was unable to get any closer to Cunha for second, and was forced to settle into third.

“I was pushing 150 percent out there with the championship on the line. It sucks to be the first loser, as I call it, but I gave it my all,” Martin said.

“I didn’t leave anything out there. I’m very disappointed not to take the championship but I had a great time this year. I was a Mazda Scholarship driver, which is something I never thought I would be when I first arrived in America.

“To come this far and to not take the championship is bittersweet. The season has been one big bumpy rollercoaster. Victor and I traded the lead I don’t know how many times, and we had some intense battles. Congratulations to Victor and to Juncos Racing. Consistency wins and they were just a little more consistent than me.”

Up front though Franzoni enjoyed a comfortable drive to the win by 1.5903 seconds over Cunha, who scored his fifth straight podium to end the year, and his first runner-up result of the season with the race’s fastest lap of 1:59.8161 set on the final lap. All of his five prior podiums were third places. The 20-lap, 40-minute race ran to the checkered flag without a caution flag.

Martin’s third place, was, fittingly, his first third place of the year and only the second race where he didn’t finish first or second.

But with Franzoni having won seven races and finished second in the other five, the Brazilian is now the one who will don a Soul Red Mazda in Indy Lights next season.

Graham Rahal’s ‘Weighty Issue’

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MONTEREY, California – Graham Rahal admits that he can’t wait until the day he doesn’t have to worry about his weight. Being a 6-foot-2, big-boned individual can have its advantages, but not when it comes to fitting into an IndyCar.

That is why the son of 1986 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time CART IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal has begun a body shaping therapy known as “Sculpting” that uses lasers to trim away body fat.

“Honestly, it is no secret, I’m not shy about this, that I’ve struggled with my weight,” the 201-pound Rahal told a group of reporters during INDYCAR’s Open Test at Laguna Seca on Thursday. “I can guarantee you that from a strength perspective and a stamina perspective, there’s very few guys out here that can keep up with me. I’m just not a super skinny build. It’s never been my thing.

“I’ve tried. We’ve kind of looked around. There was some mutual interest from them to look into trying this, see if it works. I’ll be honest. I was always very skeptical of the stuff. Where I’m at, I’ve done one treatment. I can’t even tell you today if it’s something that really works or not.”

That led Rahal to try out the sculpting process that was invented by a doctor who found it with swelling in kid’s cheeks. The “Sculpture” process uses a laser that kills the fatty cells.

“It takes a long time, I think,” Rahal said. “It’s going to take multiple I think to get there.”

Watch Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey on NBC at 3 p.m.

A race driver needs to be thin, yet very strong to have the physical strength and stamina to compete at a high level in the race car. When it comes to the NTT IndyCar Series, it’s even more important because of the size of the cars and tight cockpit.

Additionally, the extra weight can impact the performance of the race car. The lighter the driver, the less weight inside of the car. In INDYCAR, drivers are weighed and for the lighter drivers, lead weight is added to the car to meet a requirement.

But in Rahal’s case, the lead weight ballast has to be reduced and that sometimes throws off the center of gravity in the car.

“The facts are it’s not going to work if you don’t work out, too, and eat well,” Rahal said. “It doesn’t do anything. But earlier this year, man, I had given up drinking completely for three, four months. I was working out every day, twice a day on most occasions. I went to a nutritionist, doing everything. I literally was not losing an ounce. It was the most frustrating period of time for me.

“I am the biggest guy here. Is it ever going to be equal for me? No matter what these guys talk about with driver ballast, it’s a whole different thing, where my center of gravity is.”

That is what led the 30-year-old driver from Ohio to study the “Sculpting” procedure. He realizes he is never going to have the metabolism of some of the thinner drivers, but he needs to maintain a weight that minimizes his disadvantage.

“It is a challenge,” he admitted. “Ricky Taylor and Helio Castroneves (on Penske Team Acura in IMSA) weigh 60 pounds less than me or something. There is no ballast there. That’s a big swing, a lot of weight to be carrying around.

“We have to try anything we can. If you’re going to be serious, try to find the performance advantage and the edge, you’ve got to look outside of the box.

“It is something new for me. But the fight I guess against being an ultra-skinny guy.

“I fly home with most of these guys after races, I see most of these guys a lot of times, they’re sitting there eating In-N-Out Burger, whatever else. Literally I cannot do it. If I do it, it immediately reflects for me. These guys you see them the next weekend, they’re like this big.

“It’s like, (crap), it’s not my build.”

Because of Rahal’s height and size, he chose to step away from the endurance races for Team Penske in IMSA at the end of last season. He was replaced at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring by fellow IndyCar driver Alexander Rossi.

Rahal complained that the steering wheel actually hit his legs inside of the Acura, making it difficult for him to drive on the challenging road courses. Since that time, Acura Team Penske has moved the steering column up by a few inches, and it no longer impacts a driver the size of Rahal.

For the IMSA season-ending Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on Oct. 12, Rahal will be back in the Team Penske Acura.

“Back in the (Team Penske) shop three weeks ago, I could actually turn the steering wheel, which I was shocked about,” Rahal said. “My head touched the roof, whatever, I’m used to that. Physically being able to steer, which I now should be able to do better.

“So I’m excited about it. It’s another great opportunity obviously with Penske. But more importantly for me is Acura, Honda. It’s a great thing to be back in.

“But that wasn’t a weight thing. It’s purely size. They just don’t build cars for guys my size. I used to talk to J.W. (Justin Wilson) about that. It’s the facts of life. Even the GT cars. You would think a GT car would be big. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a GT car, I was comfortable in either. They’re built for small guys. That’s the way it goes.”

Rahal is taller than his father, Bobby, who is also his IndyCar team owner along with David Letterman and Michael Lanigan.

“I blame my dad,” Rahal said. “I do. You can tell him I said that. I told him, ‘It’s a genetic thing. I got good genes in some ways.’

“I told my wife this the other day, I’m very excited for someday when my career ends just to have a ‘Dad Bod,’ be able to let go for a minute, see how things turn out, because this is getting a little bit exhausting.

“We’re going to stay committed through the winter. I try my hardest every year, but I never tried harder this year to be thin. I weigh about the same as last year, but it took so much effort to get there, I just have to think outside the box.”