The 2016 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires has been a tale of two halves. It comes to a climax this weekend with two teammates scrapping for the Mazda scholarship that will launch one into Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires competition in 2017.
Team Pelfrey’s Aaron Telitz leads Pato O’Ward by 14 points heading into the tripleheader finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Pro Mazda will run one race Saturday and two on Sunday.
Telitz (left) and O’Ward have combined to win 11 of the 13 races heading into the Soul Red Finale for the middle rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires developmental stepladder.
O’Ward tore out of the gates by winning six of the first seven races, including five straight through the Freedom 90 at Indianapolis’ Lucas Oil Raceway Park in May. The 17-year-old Mexican native now living in San Antonio seemed poised to run off with the championship, but with just one podium finish in the six races since, he has fallen 14 points behind his teammate in the standings.
Telitz, of Rice Lake, Wis., claimed four runner-up finishes to O’Ward and one win in the first seven races. The 24-year-old then put on his own four-race win streak, with doubleheader sweeps at Road America and Toronto, that vaulted him back into the championship fight.
With the pair tied heading into the most recent doubleheader round at Mid-Ohio in July, Telitz scored two podium finishes while O’Ward had finishes of seventh and fourth. It gave the advantage to Telitz as the Mazda Road to Indy heads to Northern California this weekend to conclude the 2016 season for all three levels of the stepladder.
With three races on tap and 99 points up for grabs, the title fight is anything but done.
“It (14 points) is not very much,” said Telitz, a Pro Mazda rookie. “That can change in one race, so I’m going into the races with the same mindset I’ve had all year. Do the best I can, try to win races.”
O’Ward (right), on the other hand, is bullish about his chances, despite his second-half struggles.
“My plan is to win everything at Mazda Raceway and earn the Mazda scholarship,” he said with a nod. “The mindset is pretty simple. If I win all three races, I win the championship, so that’s what I’m going for.”
Following Santiago Urrutia’s Pro Mazda championship with the team in 2015, Dale Pelfrey’s Florida-based operation has all but sealed its second consecutive Pro Mazda title. Nico Jamin from Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing (74 points behind Telitz) and Will Owen of Juncos Racing (91 back) are also mathematically alive heading into the weekend, but the title figures to come down to the Pelfrey duo.
“With Pato, we’re racing extremely hard,” said Telitz who said he played it somewhat conservatively at Mid-Ohio, “but we know we can’t crash into each other. That’s not good for the team or us, either.”
O’Ward, however, is unafraid to take chances, especially if it makes a difference between winning and losing.
“I think at the end of the race, he’s my competitor,” O’Ward said. “So I’m going to treat him like anybody else. When it comes to the Mazda scholarship to go to Indy Lights, I will do anything to get that championship.”
All Mazda Road to Indy sessions at the Soul Red Finale set to stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com. Practice takes place Friday, beginning with Pro Mazda at 11:45 a.m. ET and running through the conclusion of Indy Lights practice at 7:55 p.m. Qualifying for all three series runs from 11:35 a.m. to 1:35 p.m. ET Saturday, with the first race for each later that afternoon (Pro Mazda 5:05 p.m., Indy Lights 6 p.m., USF2000 7:05 p.m.). Pro Mazda’s second race will be at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, followed by USF2000 at 2:20 p.m., Indy Lights at 4:10 p.m. and the third Pro Mazda race concluding action at 5:35 p.m.