Mazda to end sponsorship of Road to Indy program after nine years

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The Mazda Road to Indy (MTRI) racing program will continue to go forward despite Tuesday’s announcement that Mazda will end its affiliation with all three of IndyCar’s developmental series, effective at the end of this season.

Those series are: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

“The time has come for Mazda to focus our resources into other areas of our motorsports footprint,” John Doonan, Director of Mazda Motorsports, said in a statement. “We have truly enjoyed our role in developing young racers into Indy 500 hopefuls, and we look forward to continuing our relationship with Andersen Promotions through the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup.

“The 2018 USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights champions will receive Mazda Advancement Scholarships for the 2019 season and the annual $200,000 Mazda Road to Indy Global shootout will also be held in December of this season.

“Motorsports is at the core of Mazda’s DNA and the company remains committed to its variety of motorsports programs in the coming years including our grassroots club racing initiatives, the Battery Tender Global MX-5 Cup presented by BF Goodrich, the Mazda Road to 24, and Mazda Team Joest.”

Dan Anderson, owner and CEO of Anderson Promotions, chief promoter of MRTI, issued the following statement:

“We would like to thank Mazda for nine tremendous years in supporting and headlining the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. They have been a great partner and their scholarships have helped so many drivers achieve their dream of progressing to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Mazda has been a key player in establishing and helping to grow our driver development system into the unparalleled program it is today. They remain with us through the end of this season and will once again be awarding each of our series’ champions a scholarship to move up to the next step in 2019 as well as the winner of the USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in December.

“As their marketing objectives pursue new horizons, we at Andersen Promotions are committed to maintaining the outstanding ladder structure we have in place for 2019 and beyond. We are currently in discussions with several potential companies as we actively pursue a new partner.”

The big question now is who will step in to fill the sponsorship void left by Mazda’s departure.

One thing is certain: The three-pronged Road to Indy program will continue forward, according to IndyCar.

“The Road to Indy program has staged great racing over the years while developing teams and drivers for the Verizon IndyCar Series, and that will continue with plans soon to be announced,” the series said in a statement. “Mazda has been a transformative partner, and IndyCar is appreciative of its many contributions.”

The MRTI was established in 2010 and provided a platform for young up-and-coming racers to earn scholarships – and notoriety – as they worked their way up the ladder of the various series in hopes of eventually culminating with an IndyCar or Indianapolis 500 ride.

Last season, the scholarship program provided over $3.5 million to drivers across all three developmental series.

The MRTI ladder system was particularly popular because it attracted drivers during its nine-year existence from nearly two dozen countries, including the U.S., Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, France, Mexico, Spain, the United Kingdom and Venezuela.

In essence, the three series are microcosms of the IndyCar Series, racing on the same racetracks and at many of the same events that IndyCar competes upon, including permanent road courses like this past weekend’s racing action at Mid-Ohio, temporary street courses like Long Beach and Toronto, and ovals such as Indianapolis and Texas.

Among notables who have graduated through the program and went on to the IndyCar Series include Josef Newgarden (2011 Indy Lights champion), Sage Karam (2013 Indy Lights and 2010 U.S. F2000) Gabby Chaves (2014 Indy Lights), Spencer Pigot (2015 Indy Lights and 2014 Pro Mazda), Ed Jones (2016 Indy Lights), Mathew Brabham (2013 Pro Mazda champ and 2012 U.S. F2000)), Conor Daly (2010 Pro Mazda) and Jack Hawksworth (2012 Pro Mazda). Another notable that also graduated from the program was current IndyCar star James Hinchcliffe.

Newgarden became the first MRTI series graduate to win the IndyCar Series championship in 2017.

Tuesday’s announcement came as somewhat of a surprise.

For example, 19-year-old Kyle Kirkwood won the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda last Friday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Kyle Kimball, Mazda Motorsports operations manager said after Kirkwood’s championship-winning run: “The Mazda Road to Indy is not only about training inside the car, but also outside the car.

“We tell the young men and women that their behavior and attitude and the way they conduct themselves outside of the car is more important than what they do inside the car and on the track.

“We saw his shining personality in 2016 (at the shootout) and to look forward to 2019 and know that Kyle Kirkwood will be representing the Mazda brand puts us very much at ease.”

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Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”