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MRTI: Thompson, Exclusive Autosport on the rise in Pro Mazda

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Other drivers may be dominating their championships or garnering more headlines for their driving flare, but few have had a more impressive start to their season than Parker Thompson in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Thompson is the only Pro Mazda driver without a bad finish to his name – his worst finish in 2018 is fifth (on two occasions) and he has five podiums already in the first seven races, highlighted by three wins. Everyone else has at least one finish of 10th or worse.

His most recent triumph, at Lucas Oil Raceway in the Cooper Tires Freedom 90, may be his most impressive, as he sprinted away from the pole and led all 90 laps, taking a thoroughly authoritative win.

Parker Thompson was unstoppable in the Freedom 90 at Lucas Oil Raceway. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

It was a display of pure dominance, but it wasn’t exactly easy. Thompson had to fight hard with lapped traffic at the end, which allowed Juncos Racing teammates Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis, running second and third, to close in.

Thompson explained that the lapped cars produced a unique challenge, in that he had to play it somewhat safe, but had to balance that with the knowledge that his rivals were fast approaching, as he detailed to NBC Sports.

“It seems like lapped cars are always going to fight the leader harder than when they fight second or third place. So as you approach lapped cars, they don’t want to go a lap down, because if a caution comes out, they have chance to get their spot back. At the same time, it always seems like they fight the leader harder than they’re going to fight second or third, because once they’re lapped, it doesn’t really matter anymore. So, it was really about feeling it out,” Thompson said of handling lapped traffic.

But, he navigated the traffic flawlessly to take the victory that night, his first win on an oval, and one that was a bit of redemption. In 2016, while competing in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, Thompson led at Lucas Oil Raceway, but ultimately lost out to then teammate Anthony Martin (both ran with Cape Motorsports that year) because of traffic.

Thompson explained that getting such redemption was a nice personal hurdle to overcome.

“I think you saw a more aggressive Parker Thompson than you normally would in lapped traffic, and we got the job done. In terms of a mental hurdle, it was pretty huge not only to get my first (oval) win, but to also bury the hatchet and get some redemption from the 2016 championship when I lost out at Lucas Oil,” said the native of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada.

The win is the second in a row for Thompson, and the third of the 2018 season, and it all comes with a team that is very new to the Mazda Road to Indy.

Exclusive Autosport, which like Thompson is based in Canada, has a slew of F1600 championships in Canada, but only joined the MRTI last year, running in USF2000 with Thompson as one of their drivers.

The combination moved up to Pro Mazda together for 2018, and fields a team car for Antonio Serravalle, while continuing a USF2000 effort with Manual Cabrera, Igor Fraga, and Jayson Clunie.

Despite their relative inexperience in the MRTI, the team has quickly become a regular frontrunner, and Thompson asserts their history in Canadian F1600 as a strong foundation on which they’ve been able to build.

“It’s a very interesting question: How does a team adapt (to a new series)? I think overall there’s a winning formula, and I think Exclusive Autosport knows the winning formula. They’ve exemplified that in F1600, they’ve dominated Canadian F1600 for the last decade really.”

Further, Thompson highlighted exemplary efforts from the team’s crew members, all of whom have completed their jobs impeccably so far and are driven by a common goal: winning.

“I don’t think there’s a group of guys in the paddock that want to win races more than that group of guys, and then myself included. And when you put five or six guys that want to win more than anyone else together, we find a way to win and I think that’s what you really see this year.”

Their 2018 success is made all the more impressive considering the program came together somewhat late. While Thompson’s Pro Mazda effort were confirmed back in February, he explained that dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s of their budget took all the way up until the start of the season.

“It took all the way up to St. Pete, and it’s still taking time,” Thompson quipped. “There’s expenses in racing that come up that are unforeseen, so I’m constantly working behind the scenes to still try and raise money so that we can compete for the championship. It takes a lot of money to compete at the top level. You look at all the expenses, and tires, and just unexpected costs. But, at the same time, we’ve got a pretty solid program, and I’m just happy to be where I’m at with Exclusive Autosport.”

Fortunately, everything looks good for them to run a full season without issue. In this area, Thompson added that team owner Michael Duncalfe has been an enormous resource to help bring more money into their budget, and Thompson feels he’s gone above and beyond what you typically see from a team owner.

“I’m very proud to work with Michael, he’s treated me extremely well as a race car driver and he treats all of the Exclusive Autosport drivers well,” Thompson revealed. “He works with us and even sometimes when the money gets tight, he’s always there to help out. And he’s been able to find sponsors to help me out this year. You don’t find too many team owners in the paddock helping drivers find money to race.”

Thompson’s driving success is also down to how he and the team have meshed with the new Tatuus PM-18 Pro Mazda chassis. Based on the USF-17 in USF2000 – the two share the same base chassis – the PM-18 has more sophisticated aero, a more powerful engine, and other modifications.

It is a big step up from the USF-17, but one that Thompson says fits him very well.

“With more downforce and more horsepower, you’re trying to get into the corners harder and you’re getting on the throttle sooner and more aggressive, with more power. So, I think that has really played to my advantage,” he detailed. “In USF2000, you really have to be polite to the car. You had to roll the speed, you had to drive it smooth in a certain way. In Pro Mazda, you can really get aggressive. And I think that suits my driving style that much more.”

As it stands, Thompson heads to next weekend’s double-header at Road America with a 40-point lead over Carlos Cunha. And while Thompson admitted that his primary focus is on winning races, he is acutely aware of his championship standing and isn’t going to take any undue chances.

“Obviously, I don’t want to crash the car, so I’m not going to take unnecessary risks that are just going to end up costing myself and my sponsors more money. But I’m definitely going to take risks that have the reward of a race win, and if I think that I can get a race win, I’m definitely going to take it.”

Further, Thompson may ultimately need the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship the Pro Mazda champion gets if he is to keep his career going and move on to the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

While it’s possible a team could have the budget to sign him without the need for extra funding, the Canadian driver does not have a limitless budget, and the $790,000+ scholarship prize borders on a necessity.

“As it stands right now, the only way I will be racing Indy Lights next year is if I win the Pro Mazda championship, so that is 100% my goal,” he revealed. “And to be completely honest, I’m in a very similar situation as I was last year in that I don’t know my plans for next year (at the moment). I don’t want to think about finishing second, because that’s not an option for me at this point.”

Thompson had a pair of fifth place efforts last year at Road America, while competing in USF2000, and will look to improve upon them in Pro Mazda next weekend.

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INDYCAR’S contract at Laguna Seca not affected by new track management

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INDYCAR CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports.com that INDYCAR’s season-ending race at WeatherTech Raceway in Monterey, California is not in any type of jeopardy after Monterey County officials sought a new management company for the Laguna Seca facility.

After 62 years of continuous management of the Laguna Seca Raceway, the Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula (SCRAMP) was advised via email by County of Monterey Assistant County Administrative Officer (ACAO) Dewayne Woods last month. The email said, “…the County is now in negotiations with another proposer for management services at Laguna Seca Recreational Area.”

At a November 19 Board of Supervisor’s meeting, a proposal centered on Monterey County’s direct management of the Raceway and Recreation Area.  The Monterey County Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to have a management group led by Monterey businessman John Narigi take over for SCRAMP.

The NTT IndyCar Series returned to Laguna Seca in September for the season-ending Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey. It was the first time IndyCar had competed at Laguna Seca since September 12, 2004 after it had been a regular on the CART schedule from 1983 to 2004.

NBC Sports.com asked Miles if the new management group would impact the multi-year contract at the picturesque road course near Monterey, California.

“I’m happy to answer that,” Miles told NBC Sports.com. “We have following the situation closely for several months. At this point, we don’t have any concerns. Our sanctioning agreement is with the county and not was not with SCRAMP. The county is excited about the event and looking forward to the next edition in 2020.

“The county has appointed a new management team for the operation of the facility. There is plenty of work to do on their part and on our part to make sure they understand the requirements for the event and to make sure they execute well.

“The event is certainly going on. The financial underpinnings and the contractual obligations are between us and the county. They think they have selected the best possible management team and we look forward to working with them.”

Miles said INDYCAR vice president of promoter and media partner relations Stephen Starks has been working directly with the new management group at WeatherTech Raceway at Laguna Seca.

“The agreement is between us and the county and the county is absolutely comitted and excited about the future, they have appointed a new management team at Laguna Seca, and we look forward to working with them,” Miles said.

INDYCAR officials believe the series return to Laguna Seca was very successful in terms of promotion and spectator turnout.

“We were really pleased,” Miles said. “I think we under-estimated how outstanding it is both for the race and for the venue and the region. I thought it was better than we expected but it bodes well for the future.

“We’re going to be looking at how to take better advantage of it in the promotion of the series.

“There is plenty of room for growth and they will find ways to manage that from a traffic perspective,” Miles said. “We thought it was a great success. We think it can be even bigger. We have the commitment of the county and look forward to working with the new management team.”

Miles and INDYCAR are optimistic of continued success at WeatherTech Raceway with new management. However, the decision to end a 62-year relationship with SCRAMP was a surprise.

“This news comes as a surprise to the SCRAMP organization,” said Tim McGrane, CEO of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and SCRAMP, who took over the position in June 2018. “We were starting to make real progress on getting the facility and the raceway operations turned around and poised for the future, but it appears at this time we may not have the opportunity to see these plans through.”

SCRAMP believed the Monterey County Board of Supervisors denied the chance for it to continue with its plan.

“As the existing facility operator, we were stunned by the fact that we were not provided the opportunity to discuss our proposal with the ACAO,” McGrane said. “The entire process has been unconventional, ranging from the bypassing of the County’s usual Request For Proposal (RFP) process, the announcement in mid-October requesting proposals from any interested parties with only two weeks’ notice, and complaints that SCRAMP had not met deadlines to submit a proposal when in fact a submission date had been agreed upon in May, and subsequently met, has been challenging.

“We have been in this position before with the County administration, but we, our fans, racing series and teams, do have to look at the possibility of the era of SCRAMP operating Laguna Seca Raceway coming to an end.”

In 2015, Monterey County began private talks with International Speedway Corporation (ISC) who, after a careful review of the operational parameters of the facility, determined not to submit a formal proposal for management of the track. In 2016, the Monterey County Administrators Office entered into negotiations with another group to replace SCRAMP for 2017 but were unable to agree to terms that were mutually acceptable. The County then reverted back to a three-year agreement with SCRAMP to continue running Laguna Seca.

According to a statement from SCRAMP, in 2018, the SCRAMP-run Laguna Seca Raceway attracted 263,888 attendees and generated $84.4 million in direct spending generated by event attendees over 26 days of the seven major events. 2019 saw SCRAMP orchestrate the long-awaited and highly successful return of IndyCars to Laguna Seca, with a larger than anticipated spectator count for the weekend.

2019 Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey

“We’ve delivered an extensive, forward-looking proposal to the County for a new, long-term 20-year management and operating agreement that incorporates solid plans for revenue generation and expense reduction, expansion of the use of existing facilities, and development of Laguna Seca into a world-class destination,” said CEO McGrane. “We are building the right team, both paid staff and volunteers, with extensive motorsports experience, institutional knowledge, and the dedication to lead this important Monterey County asset into a successful future. We hope we still have the opportunity to present our plans directly to the County Board of Supervisors and we would be proud to continue SCRAMP’s 62-year stewardship of Laguna Seca on behalf of Monterey County.”

The Sports Car Racing Association of the Monterey Peninsula, a 501(c)4 not-for-profit, was formed in 1957 by local business owners and civic leaders. SCRAMP’s goal was to raise the funds needed to construct a permanent motor racing circuit to maintain the tradition of sports car racing on the Monterey Peninsula which had begun in 1950 in the Del Monte Forest at Pebble Beach. SCRAMP is comprised of a Board of Governors, Race and Events Committees, and hundreds of loyal volunteers who donate thousands of hours each year to ensure the successful operation of events here.

The SCRAMP organization acquired leased land from the US Army at Fort Ord on August 7, 1957, and the now-legendary track, built with funds raised by SCRAMP, held its first race, the 8th Annual Pebble Beach at Laguna Seca SCCA National Championship Sports Car Road Races, on November 9 & 10, 1957. In 1974 the site was transferred from the Army to Monterey County, who together with SCRAMP, have managed the facility through this year.

SCRAMP’s current three-year management and operating agreement with Monterey County ends on December 31, 2019. SCRAMP currently employs a full-time professional staff of just over 40 team members.

INDYCAR, itself, is about to have an ownership change as racing and business icon Roger Penske and the Penske Corporation completes its acquisition of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500, INDYCAR and IMS Productions sometime after January 1. Miles and the INDYCAR staff as well as the staffs at IMS and IMS Productions will be retained.

Miles will become CEO of Penske Entertainment and will continue his duties that he currently has. Since the sale was announced on November 4, Miles and key officials have met with Penske and his top officials on a weekly basis.

“It’s been great,” Miles said. “We are covering tons of ground. Roger and his team are all about adding value.

“It’s a very focused effort that is making great progress.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500