Star Mazda Championship at Mazda Raceway

The crazy train that is Star Mazda rolled into Monterey, California for a frenzied doubleheader that constituted the 15th and 16th Rounds of the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear. To add to the drama the championship was up for grabs at scenic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

Round 15

Team Pelfrey’s talented young English racer Jack Hawksworth and his #82 Team Pelfrey/TORGOEN Swiss Watches/EXA Networks Mazda ended the drama dramatically on Saturday securing the championship crown with his eighth victory of the season. The team fought off some bad karma at the event as Gustavo Menezes was taken out by a spinning car very early in the first practice session on Thursday. Indeed all three drivers struggled to find pace on the opening day. Come qualifying, however, Hawksworth rebounded to snatch his record-extending 11th PEAK Performance Pole Award of the season. He then led throughout the 30-minute race, holding off a determined late challenge from Gabby Chaves. The drivers providing what has been called a 'Zanardi moment' in the Mazda Raceway corkscrew on the last lap when Chaves, running hard on Hawksworth's tail for the entire race in the #19 JDC Motorsports / CLARO / Marca Colombia / Tecpro Mazda initiated a desparate last-lap pass attempt that nearly collected them both, but survived to finish second. Rounding out the podium was 3rd-place finisher Connor De Phillippi, who won this race from the pole last year and remains fourth in the championship points driving the #2 Juncos Racing / ModSpace Racing / One24 Mazda.

"I reckon this is about the best day of my life so far... and I can't begin to tell you how relieved I am," said Hawksworth. "Gabby Chaves was right behind me the whole race and I couldn't shake him, but he couldn't get by either, so I was surprised when he suddenly appeared alongside me in the corkscrew and there wasn't room for both of us. I knew I either had to let him by and win the race or go off in the dirt and keep my foot in it like Alex Zanardi did years ago. At that point I was determined to win, and so was he, so we were both off in the dirt, but we managed to keep the cars pointed straight and I stayed in the lead. It was a heart-stopping moment, but we got through it and this is just a tremendous victory for the Pelfrey team. We might celebrate a bit tonight, but we still have another race tomorrow, and the season finale after that, so we can't let our hair down too far... there's still a season left to finish."

Four drivers were in contention for the championship at the start of the race, and three of them finished on the podium. The remaining driver, Sage Karam, second in the championship driving the #88 Andretti Autosport / Comfort Revolution Mazda, had an off-course excursion in Turn 6 on two consecutive laps and dropped from his 2nd-place starting spot to finish 7th in the race. "We started the race on used tires and they were fine for the first part of the race; we were able to stay with Jack and Gabby, but they started going off in the middle of the race and I slid off track... and then did it again on the next lap," said a chastened Karam. "That was pretty much my race right there, but I learned a valuable lesson about keeping my head and focusing even when your race is coming apart around you. Andretti Autosport is a great team and we'll have a good car for tomorrow's race and I'll focus on winning, just like I always do."

In addition to winning the race and setting a new Star Mazda record for the most number of wins and poles in a season, Hawksworth's championship comes with the most coveted prize of any open-wheel driver development series - scholarship funding from the Mazda Road to Indy worth more than $600,000 to move up and compete in the 2013 Indy Lights series - the very series where last year's Star Mazda champion, Tristan Vautier, is leading the championship battle. “It’s a fantastic feeling. I came into this season knowing I needed to win the championship if I was going to have any chance of continuing my racing career,” said Hawksworth, “and I’m just so happy to have had Team Pelfrey helping me and supporting me all the way. They’ve given me fantastic equipment all year so it’s just a fantastic feeling to wrap it all up and achieve everything we set out to achieve at the start of the year. I haven't driven an Indy Lights car yet; I wanted to focus on getting the job done in Star Mazda and not tempt fate by dividing my attention," observed Hawksworth. "Perhaps between the end of the race tomorrow and the finale at Petit Le Mans I'll have a bit of a think about what I want to do next year, maybe talk to some people. But right now I just got off the phone telling my family in England, where its three in the morning, that I'd won, and I'm off to be with my team."

Round 16

Colombian racer Gabriel 'Gabby' Chaves scored his first-ever victory in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear in weekend’s second race at Mazda Raceway. Starting from the pole and leading every lap in the #19 JDC Motorsports / CLARO / Marca Colombia / Tecpro Mazda, he took the checkered 15 seconds ahead of series champion Jack Hawksworth in the #82 Team Pelfrey / TORGOEN Swiss Watches / EXA Networks Mazda. With his victory, Chaves became the sixth race winner of the season, including Hawksworth, Sage Karam, Connor De Phillippi, Martin Scuncio and Camilo Schmidt.

Finishing third and scoring his second podium of the weekend was Connor De Phillippi, driving the #2 Juncos Racing / ModSpace Racing / One24 Mazda. Walt Bowlin won the Expert Series race-within-a-race for drivers 30 and older, finishing 16th overall in his #23 AIM Autosport / Tampa Bay Jaw Surgery Mazda.

"This win is a great victory for me personally, for the JDC Motorsports team and my sponsors, CLARO and Marca Colombia," said a jubilant Chaves, who also set the fastest race lap. "I had a very fast car yesterday even though I finished second to Jack, and today, as soon as the race started, I felt very much in control and was able to pull out a good gap and work on driving each lap as perfectly as possible. We have had a very consistent season, with nine podium finishes, but now that I know what a Star Mazda victory tastes like, I'll go to the final race at Petit Le Mans hungry for another one."

Of the other battles being fought this weekend, Hawksworth, a rookie in the series, clinched the Rookie of the Year title as well as the series championship, and his team, Team Pelfrey, clinched the team championship. And with six in-class victories, Walt Bowlin also won the Expert Series championship.

Suffering most from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune this weekend was Sage Karam and the Andretti Autosport team. A pair of off-course excursions in yesterday's Race 1 put an end to his hopes of snatching the championship away from Hawksworth, and today, after starting 4th and running with the leaders, had a suspension failure put an end to his day and dropped him to a 19th-place finish. Adding insult to injury, his Andretti teammate, Zach Veach, went off in the closing laps, damaging his suspension and forcing him to retire just two laps from the end. He was credited with a 17th-place finish.

Notable drives include Camilo Schmidt, surprise race winner at Edmonton in the #21 Linares Racing Mazda who started 15th and raced his way up to 6th. His teammate, Carlos Linares, however, never made it to the start/finish line; a coming-together with two other cars during the starting scramble put his #20 Linares Racing / Mindeporte Mazda into the wall fifty yards shy of the starter's stand. And Lloyd Read, the 2011 West Coast Formula Car Challenge Champion who made his debut in the Star Mazda Championship this weekend, qualified an excellent 10th in the #16 JDC Motorsports / Flextronics Mazda and worked his way up to 7th by the finish. And Venezuelan racer Bruno Palli, who started 17th in the #15 Juncos Racing / Team Viso Venezuela Mazda ran a smart race to finish 10th.