Team Pelfrey’s pair square off in Pro Mazda tripleheader
Similar to the first rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder (USF2000), the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires has seen a square-off between teammates for the 2016 title, and it’s again set to culminate with only one of the two taking the championship and the Mazda Advancement scholarship that goes with it.
And again, similar to USF2000, Pro Mazda season 2016 turned on its head after Lucas Oil Raceway in May and then with the trip north to Road America in June.
Mexican 17-year-old teenager Patricio “Pato” O’Ward entered as a series sophomore on only an eleventh hour deal for a weekend-to-weekend contract with Team Pelfrey. O’Ward responded to the early season pressure to perform with a storming start to the season, six wins in seven races including five in a row from Barber Motorsports Park through both Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course races and the 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway oval.
Aaron Telitz needed to respond when the schedule turned to the land of brats, cheese and Spotted Cow at Road America. After finishing fifth at Lucas Oil, he trailed O’Ward by 55 points - 221-166 - and was on the verge of seeing the title slip away. But with a huge amount of pressure that came with a home race, in terms of extra family and friends on site, sponsors to impress, and media commitments to uphold, the Birchwood, Wis. native responded in a big way on home soil.
A double race win there re-established Telitz’s title hopes; two more wins followed in Toronto and a pair of podiums in Mid-Ohio have now seen Telitz take a 14-point lead (345-331) heading into what is now a tripleheader weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The tripleheader weekend comes with a makeup race added to the weekend slate, following the cancellation of the Iowa Speedway round owing to a low car count.
Telitz has outscored O’Ward 179-110 (so by 69 points) in the last six races, with four wins and the two other podiums in that stint. O’Ward, whose runner-up to Telitz in Round 2 at St. Petersburg was his only non-win in the first seven races, has finished off the podium in every race but one since.
At a track where passing is difficult, it’s going to be important for either driver to get ahead in qualifying, and in O’Ward’s case, to get ahead of Telitz. Yes, he’ll only need to make up five points per race to overcome the 14-point gap and would accomplish that with three wins.
But the momentum is fully on Telitz’s side heading into the finale. If he can win at least once in the final three races, that would make the points gap harder for O’Ward to overcome.
Racing is but only one element that makes up the life of Telitz, the 24-year-old who drives the No. 82 Rice Lake Weighing Systems entry. When he’s not driving, he works as a caddie at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis, helps out at his family’s resort and, when he has time, enjoys spending his leisure hours with activities that are pretty much the opposite of racing. Additionally, he does puzzles and knitting in his spare time.
With a high percentage of Mazda Road to Indy drivers in their teen years, Telitz is certainly a few years older, but no less determined to secure the title (see his Meet the Contenders piece here).
“I never got down when Pato was winning a bunch of races,” said Telitz, “because we weren’t even halfway through the season at that point. I thought that anything Pato had done in the first half of the season, I could do in the second half.
“I think it helps that I’m a little bit older, because I’m not intimidated that some of the other drivers have more experience in the car than I do – and I knew I would be quick at my home track of Road America to start the second half of the season.
“It’s an awesome, sort of mindless way to unwind. When you’re away from the track and you’re stressing about the team, sponsors and getting ready for the next race, a good way to take your mind off those shenanigans that drivers have to do is knitting or puzzling.”
O’Ward, meanwhile, has already risen to the pressure of the struggle to even make it this far in the No. 80 Topo Chico/Buy Gap Guard entry from earlier this year (see his Meet the Contenders piece here).
“It was hard. I knew I had just one shot and tried to make the most of it,” he explained. “I was really happy with how things went at St. Pete and I left there thinking that I would have to make the next race weekend just that much better. Up to the race at Lucas Oil Raceway, I pretty much did. I won almost every race but the transition to the second half of the year has been difficult for both me and the team.”
Despite the second half struggles, O’Ward has the potential to match his teammate of a year ago - Santiago Urrutia - in winning the Pro Mazda title for Pelfrey at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Urrutia won the title in front of a wave of his countrymen from Uruguay, who all made the pilgrimage to Monterey for the occasion.
O’Ward now lives in Texas but has his Mexican roots, and would be keen to become the next Mexican star in North American open-wheel racing. The series has been devoid of one for quite a while, since the heyday of Adrian Fernandez, Michel Jourdain Jr. and Mario Dominguez.
Either one would be the candidate to succeed Urrutia as the next Pro Mazda champion and step into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires with the Mazda Advancement scholarship that goes with it. Technically, 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda champion Nico Jamin is still mathematically eligible, but he’d be eliminated within the Mazda Raceway weekend provided both drivers ahead of him score points.
Jamin can play spoiler, though, and considering his pace and double win at Mid-Ohio last time out, don’t rule him out from taking more wins to end his year on a high note.
But it’s most likely going to be one of the two Team Pelfrey drivers who figure to give team owner Dale Pelfrey another Pro Mazda crown.