WATKINS GLEN, New York – It was a battle for the ages and, in the end, Victor Franzoni taking the crown today in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.
By winning the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the 21-year-old Brazilian earned an $800,000 Mazda scholarship to race in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires next season, the final step before reaching the Verizon IndyCar Series.
One could call it a Cinderella story, as Franzoni was a late addition to the series, with Juncos Racing providing the glass slipper just one week before the season started.
The pressure was on Franzoni. Team owner Ricardo Juncos would take nothing less than Franzoni’s best.
“When we made the deal, he was like, ‘You have to win this championship,’” Franzoni said. “I was like, ‘OK, I’ll try,’ and he goes, ‘No try. You’re going to do it and you have to win because I want you in Indy Lights with me and I want to go to INDYCAR with you.’
“So I said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The demands of his newest role added its fair share of pressure, but it’s also what allowed Franzoni to grow as he faced off against rival Anthony Martin from Cape Motorsports.
“I think both as a driver and personally, I’ve grown a lot,” Franzoni said. “As a driver, I had to push myself every time 100 percent and without any mistakes. I think if I take in the year, I didn’t do more than 15 mistakes in all the laps and everything.
“That was really difficult because I knew if I did some mistake that Anthony wouldn’t make and he would win. So I had to be perfect the whole season.”
Franzoni was certainly close to perfect, capturing seven wins and five runner-up finishes in the 12 races this season.
In perhaps the fiercest championship battle throughout the three-tier ladder series, Franzoni believes competing against the Martin, the 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda champion, was like going up against a clone.
Martin won the five races Franzoni did not, and their battle came down to the final race won Sunday at Watkins Glen by Franzoni.
“I think the he was the best and the worst guy to fight for the championship, because as a driver, he’s exactly like me – and that’s a problem," Franzoni said. "He’s really aggressive, he’s really fast, he doesn’t make any mistakes. He knows what he’s doing. He’s good at setup because they were fast all the time.
“It was like competing against myself. It was really difficult. I think if it was any other driver, this season would be easy for both of us. If it wasn’t me, he would win and I think if it was another guy, I could win the season easier.”
Franzoni, in fact, believes he and Martin will see each other again on the track soon.
“I think both us are ready for everything,” he said.
For Juncos, the opportunity to put together a Pro Mazda effort was a last-minute deal that aided by Jeff Green, who also mentored Franzoni while driving in Pro Mazda himself. The move to bring on Franzoni was a no-brainer for the Argentinean team owner.
“We know Victor, he tested with us at the open test,” Juncos said. “He was really good and I knew how good he was. He was actually better than I thought he was going to be and he earned an amazing championship because Cape is a good team and Anthony Martin is a great driver as well. We knew it was going to be so hard for both of us. We did it.
“We also did the Indy Lights championship again and we did the Indy 500, so this is a great year and it’s a good, huge effort from everybody on the team at Juncos Racing.”