Franzoni Completes Mazda Road to Indy Hat Trick
 June 29, 2018| 
  • Series News
Victor Franzoni entered the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires history books on Sunday, becoming only the sixth driver (along with Matthew Brabham, Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot, Nico Jamin and Aaron Telitz) to win on all three rungs of the development series ladder when he earned his first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory at Road America.

Franzoni took that first win on an emotion-filled weekend that also saw the young Brazilian score his first series pole position on Saturday. He returned to the track after finishing third in Indy Lights Race One to lead the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires pace lap in tribute to his late teammate and good friend, Jeff Green, driving his Dallara IL-15 at the front of the field. It was Green who had made it possible for Franzoni to compete in the 2017 Pro Mazda series, win the championship and enter Indy Lights, bringing Franzoni that much closer to his dream of racing in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Behind the wheel of a kart at the age of 4, Franzoni won his first karting title at age 10, then became the youngest driver to win the Brazilian Karting Championships (at 14) and earned entry into Formula One driver Felipe Massa’s formula car series. Franzoni progressed into the European junior formula ranks but, after a difficult 2013 season in Formula Renault Eurocup, he made the decision to head to America and the Mazda Road to Indy. He transferred to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2014 – and made an immediate impact, earning the pole and the victory in his first race on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.

“When I got to St. Petersburg, I didn’t know what to expect,” Franzoni remembers. “I think all drivers go through this sometimes, thinking that you’re not driving well. But I won my first race in the United States, so I forgot my bad season. I felt sad a lot in Europe but in the U.S., I was always happy, even when I was not getting the results I wanted. I always felt good in the battle and that was most important. Everyone works very hard but everyone is so friendly here.”

Splitting his 2015 season between USF2000 and Pro Mazda, Franzoni returned to USF2000 in earnest in 2016, finishing third in the title chase with ArmsUp Motorsports, the only driver besides championship contenders Anthony Martin and Parker Thompson to win a race. Before last year’s championship run, Franzoni would refer to 2016 as “the best season of my life,” earning three victories and 11 podiums in 16 races. Testing a Pro Mazda car with Juncos Racing at the post-season Chris Griffis Memorial Test, a graduation to the next step on the ladder seemed to be the logical move. But for Franzoni, budget had always been an issue, and the money just wasn’t there. Another season of USF2000 seemed to be in the cards – until Green stepped in.

“Ricardo Juncos wasn’t going to do the season, but Jeff wanted to run with the team and that enabled me to run the whole season, since Jeff wanted to have someone to work with on data and video. That made everything work out. Without Jeff, I would not have been there – and I would not be here now.”

The story of Franzoni’s 2017 Pro Mazda story is well known: with a limited budget that precluded testing or crash damage, Franzoni worked with several karting teams and USF2000 newcomers BN Racing to earn entry fees and Cooper tires. In one of the classic duels in Mazda Road to Indy history, Franzoni traded victories with Martin throughout the season, with the title chase coming down to the Watkins Glen finale. Scoring two poles and two victories at WGI, Franzoni took the championship – and in Victory Lane, with the scholarship in hand, thanked Mazda, saying “you not only give drivers money, you give us hope.”

“I had to win to have a chance to go into Indy Lights: it was that simple. That was the biggest thing last year and it was in my mind all season long. To get to Watkins Glen and win was so special and it really was all because of Jeff – and of course, the help from Mazda!”

Franzoni returned to Juncos Racing this season for his rookie Indy Lights campaign, driving the No. 23 Dallara sheathed in Mazda’s iconic Soul Red colors. For Franzoni, it’s the realization of a dream that finds him just one step away from the ultimate prize: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I came from such a good season in Pro Mazda to… well, not a bad first part of the season in Indy Lights, but I wasn’t winning. The team and I were worried, to get almost halfway with no wins. But to win last weekend felt really good, like 500 lbs off my back! And it came at just the right time, to do it for Jeff and for the team. It took too long I think, because to fight for the championship we had to win right away. But we knew it would be difficult, competing against drivers in their second or third year. So, it wasn’t a good start to the year, but now it’s better. And I think it’s easier to win more races once you win that first one.”

With Juncos Racing now competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Franzoni has a ready-made path onto that final step. Each race weekend, Franzoni can be found on the team’s timing stand, absorbing everything he can in typical Franzoni style – always learning.

“Ricardo has an IndyCar team now, so we would love to be together there. It won’t be easy: I have to win the championship. But it’s a good experience for me now – I’m always around the IndyCar team and I’m learning a lot.”

No one, least of all Franzoni, knows what the second half of the Indy Lights season will bring. But he appreciates the help from Mazda, both on and off the track, and maintains hope that the championship is still within his grasp.

“It’s not just about the money: it’s about the hope, to keep you going. And with all the Mazda support behind me, everything’s better. To have a big brand like that behind you, you’re not by yourself. It makes all the difference.

“It’s been so nice, these five years of learning a lot. I’ve had difficult times but after 2016, everything has been going so much better. That year with ArmsUp, I was fighting for the championship and that really started everything. The time with the Mazda Road to Indy has taught me so much, starting with those three years in USF2000. I can only hope to see it through all the way to that final step!”
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