Franzoni toppled Martin for Pro Mazda crown. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda title, hope achieved for Victor Franzoni after epic battle

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Victor Franzoni’s racing career in North America could make a great movie down the road. The 21-year-old Brazilian has, like a talented baseball prospect, always been on the fringe of making it full-time but been in dire need of that last-minute call-up to make it happen.

None of his four years in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have gone to plan. All saw late deals materialize – some even during the season – but his talent persisted regardless even if he didn’t have the funds to make such a season happen.

Now though, Franzoni’s a champion within the MRTI after his toughest in-season battle with a worthy adversary in Anthony Martin.

The two combined to make Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ final year with its venerable chassis, now in its 13th season, and Mazda Renesis rotary engine a memorable one.

Both drivers admitted at the season finale weekend they needed each other in pursuit of the title and the $790,000 Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship that came with it for the champion to move into Indy Lights.

“I think both as a driver and a person, I grew a lot. I had to push myself 100 percent without any mistakes,” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “I didn’t do more than 15 mistakes all year, all sessions. I knew if I did any, Anthony would win. I had to be perfect all season.

“I had to push myself for good feedback for the team. It’s not just sit and drive. You have to give good feedback. There’s so much work. I had to be perfect on everything. I had to learn the track fast and adapt without doing any mistakes. It was difficult. I learned so much.”

Martin agreed. Asked if there was anything he could do differently, the Australian had a deadpan answer on par with his countryman, Will Power.

“Yeah, won the championship,” he laughed. “But I don’t know. Every time I go out there I give it my all.

“In actuality, I don’t think so. Juncos and Victor just came out on top and congratulations to them. They’ve been super consistent. Consistency wins; that’s a motto I go by. And I wasn’t as consistent as Victor.

“Last year I learned about handling the pressure. It’s immense fighting for championships and the Mazda scholarships. I learned more from last year and it’s made me a lot better today.”

Both drivers gave it their all in pursuit of this year’s title and with finishes of first or second in every race, Franzoni prevailed.

Martin was left to rue missed opportunities on a handful of occasions. His two worst finishes were third (Watkins Glen) and fourth (Indianapolis race two), which wouldn’t stand out as bad under normal circumstances but did this year as Franzoni won both times. Just in those two races, Martin lost 24 points to Franzoni – and he lost the title overall by just 18 markers.

Team Pelfrey, which won the last two Pro Mazda titles with Aaron Telitz and Santiago Urrutia, failed to win a race or mount a serious challenge this year that interrupted the Franzoni-Martin battle.

The tense rivalry nearly boiled over into war at a pair of permanent road courses.

Franzoni, who smiles as frequently as Daniel Ricciardo in Formula 1, struggled to do so after race two at Road America when he believed Martin had blocked him and denied him a victory. The win there was Martin’s third of the year and stopped Franzoni’s three-race winning streak in its tracks.

The next event weekend at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, it was Martin’s turn to feel aggrieved. Attempting to lap Franzoni’s teammate Jeff Green in race two of three there, Martin tracked out wide when trying to pass him around the outside of the right-hand carousel. The gap on the inside left room for Franzoni to dart through while Green spun back across the road on corner exit, balking Martin’s pace. Martin felt the move was a dirty one when it had just been a mistake by Green, who was doing his best to get out of the way and not affect the title fight.

Heading to Gateway, Martin seemed poised to capture the momentum and had the pace in hand. But a last-minute setup gamble by Franzoni’s Juncos team – with no guarantee it would work – shifted the pendulum back to his corner once again. With the pass for the win achieved, Franzoni had the edge heading to Watkins Glen.

Then a peerless doubleheader win there followed, Franzoni first pulling a move to the outside of Martin in race one, then crushing it in the rain in race two.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

His team boss, Ricardo Juncos, was thrilled at how well Franzoni handled the pressure of championship weekend.

“He surprised me even more today. He held the pressure. Normally for South Americans that’s the hardest part!” Juncos, the Argentine, laughed. “We are more emotional, and that plays against us all the time.

“But the last two races and Gateway showed how confident he was. When you believe in yourself and the team and the setup, the driver will get it and it’s a combination. If there’s not the trust, you lose a bit.”

Franzoni thanked Martin for pushing him all season, and reflected on his journey over these four years in the aftermath of Watkins Glen.

“Anthony was the best and worst guy to fight for championship,” he said. “As a driver he’s exactly like me, which is the problem! He’s so aggressive and fast. No mistakes. He’s good at setup. Fast all the time. It’s like competing with myself. It’s difficult. Any other driver would be easier for both of us to beat.”

As for making his dream come true in the Mazda Road to Indy?

“I had a big sponsor, then two terrible years in Europe, then I lost that. The Mazda Road to Indy was my only option, and my only place for hope,” he said. “In Europe, they don’t care for the drivers. They only care for the money. You pay; it’s done!

“But I’ve had help every year here. Afterburner was big help, M1 Racing was a big help, then ArmsUp was a huge help. But then Juncos gave me an amazing year.”

Franzoni and Juncos weren’t even meant to be in Pro Mazda this season.

Several months later, they’re champions after a surreal year, and an epic battle where they prevailed over worthy adversaries.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Supercross points leader Eli Tomac finds silver linings in interruption

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Though his Monster Energy AMA Supercross championship charge was put on hold, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic had a silver lining for Eli Tomac.

Off the road while the season was postponed for nearly three months, the points leader was able to be present as his girlfriend, Jessica, gave birth to their daughter, Lev, on April 26

“A huge blessing for us there,” Tomac told host Mike Tirico during a “Lunch Talk Live” interview (click on the video above) in which he also joked about becoming a pro at busting off diaper changes. “That was one good blessing for us as we had our daughter on a Sunday, that would have been on a travel day coming back from the race in Las Vegas.

NBCSN

“That was probably the only positive out of all this mess was being able to be there for the birth.”

But there also could be more good fortune for Tomac as the series resumes Sunday at Salt Lake City, Utah (3-4 p.m. ET on NBCSN, 4-6 p.m. on NBC).

The final seven events will be held over 22 days in Rice-Eccles Stadium, which sits at just over 4,000 feet.

The elevation could favor Tomac, who was born and lives in Colorado and is accustomed to riding and training at altitude, which is a departure for many Supercross riders (many of whom hail from California and Florida).

COVID-19 TESTING REQUIRED: Supercross outlines protocols for last seven races

“That’s going to be the test for us,” said the Kawasaki rider, who five of the first 10 races this season. “We’re at elevation in Salt Lake, so when you’re on a motorcycle, you have a little bit of a loss of power. That’s just what happens when you come up in elevation. And a lot of guys train at sea level, and we’re at 4,000 to 5,000 feet, so cardio-wise, we’ll be pushed to the limit.

“Most of our races are Saturday nights and back to back weeks, but this go around it’s Sunday and Wednesday, so recovery is going to be key.”

Supercross will race Sunday and Wednesday for the next three weeks, capping the season with the June 21 finale, which also will be shown on NBCSN from 3-4:30 p.m. ET and NBC from 4:30-6 p.m. ET.

Tomac, who holds a three-point lead over Ken Roczen (who also recently visited “Lunch Talk Live”), told Tirico he had been riding for 90 minutes Thursday morning on a track outside Salt Lake City.

“Most of us we can rely on our past riding pretty well,” Tomac said. “The question is if you can go the distance. That’s what a lot of guys have to train on is going the distance. We go 20 minutes plus a lap. That’s what you’ve got to keep sharp is your general muscles. Within two to three days, your brain starts warming up more if you take a few weeks off the motorcycle.”

Here is the schedule and TV information for the rest of the season:

  • Sunday, May 31 (3-4 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4-6 p.m. ET, NBC);
  • Wednesday, June 3 ( 10:00 pm – 1:00 am ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 7 (5-8:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 10 (7–10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 14 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Wednesday, June 17 (7-10 p.m. ET, NBCSN);
  • Sunday, June 21 (3-4:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; 4:30 – 6:00 p.m. ET, NBC).
Eli Tomac rides his No. 3 Kawasaki in the Feb. 29 race at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia (Charles Mitchell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images).