Two hours. That’s the amount of track time allotted each driver during the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout and the amount of intense deliberation required by the six judges who chose Keith Donegan as this year’s winner.
Donegan, a 20-year-old Irishman, received his ticket to the shootout by finishing second at the prestigious Formula Ford Festival at the Brands Hatch Circuit in England in October. The $200,000 prize allows Donegan to compete in the upcoming season of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder guiding aspiring drivers and teams to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Donegan said after being selected by the judges following the two-day competition at the Bondurant Racing School at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park in Chandler, Arizona. “The weekend was really good and I enjoyed it. I have to say a huge thanks to Mazda and Cooper Tires and everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy. I enjoyed every moment.”
Donegan outlasted 16 other young drivers to earn the scholarship.
“You see all these champions here today that will go on to great things in the future and I’m sure the names you see here today aren’t going to disappear,” he said. “They will be back up there and I’m sure I will be racing them again someday. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be given and for Mazda to provide that for any young driver. It just gives that bit of motivation that you need because the (U.S.) is where you need to go to become a professional these days. It is such a boost to my career.”
Donavan finished second in the 2013 Ginetta Junior Championship, but took the next three racing seasons off to concentrate on his education at the prestigious Trinity College in Dublin, before building his own Formula Ford and returning to racing action in April.
From the shootout’s opening dinner on Friday night through the final drivers meeting Sunday afternoon, the drivers were regularly reminded that they were being judged on how they will represent Mazda at all times.
“This was really difficult. Almost two hours deliberating over razor-thin margins on the track and razor-thin margins off the track," explained Kyle Kimball, manager of operations for Mazda Motorsports. “It was incredibly difficult for the six judges to come to a decision, but at the end of the day, we feel really confident with our pick of Keith Donegan and he is going to be a wonderful representative for the Mazda brand, the Cooper brand and entirety of the Mazda Road to Indy in USF2000 next year.”
The dozen series champions and five at-large entries were broken into four groups for three 20-minute practice sessions on Saturday and a 12-minute practice Sunday morning on the 1.6-mile, 15-turn road course. The drivers randomly rotated through the Bondurant school’s Formula Mazda fleet. After each session, they received feedback from the judges. The panel included former Indy car driver Scott Goodyear, former USF2000 champion and current Mazda sports-car driver Jonathan Bomarito, reigning Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires champion Victor Franzoni and reigning USF2000 champion Oliver Askew, who won the inaugural $200K shootout a year ago.
Following the final 12-minute practice on Sunday, the field was narrowed to five drivers for a mock qualifying session and mock race. In addition to Donegan, the final five consisted of:
- Jake Craig, 20, from Mission Viejo, California, an at-large bid from eKartingNews
- Olin Galli, 21, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, representing Selectiva de Kart Petrobras
- Aaron Jeansonne, 19, from Sulphur, Louisiana, representing Team USA Scholarship
- Liam Lawson, 15, from Pukekohe, New Zealand, representing the New Zealand Formula Ford Championship
The five drivers were randomly assigned the Formula Mazda machines for the mock race. On-track passing without the assistance of a blue flag from the race director was not allowed, so the drivers were judged on running consistent race-pace laps. Following the race, Kimball announced Donegan as the winner, and he was immediately mobbed by family and friends who made the trip from Ireland to support him.
“I kept my head down all weekend and did all the simple things right and it all paid off in the end,” Donegan said. “We had good pace all through testing as well. Obviously, the judges liked that. They are great drivers, so they know what they are talking about. I took on a lot of what they said. The advice they gave me really helped.”
Because the contestants were so evenly matched and the final decision so tough, the judges met individually with the other four finalists to explain their selection.
“I think that he (Donegan) was the best candidate for everything on track and the best candidate for everything off track,” said Goodyear, who was judging the shootout for the second time. “Speaking to him, he certainly understands the off-track responsibilities that go with not only racing a car, but also representing a company like Mazda. He seems to be technically inclined. He built his own Formula Ford and works on his own Formula Ford. Working a little bit from an engineering perspective, that certainly helps.
“What we’re looking for is somebody that can go and drop into USF2000 next year and be successful. There was a whole host of people here today that could do that, especially the final five.”
All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy, including USF2000, open their seasons with doubleheader race weekends at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg that kicks off the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series campaign from March 9-11.