With three ovals in a row on the 2011 Star Mazda Championship schedule, each of them dramatically different from each other, it's reasonable to expect that the different currents set up by a 5/8ths mile bullring, a 1-mile oval with virtually no banking and a 1-mile high-banked oval would see different drivers rising to the top…and so they have.
In a multi-hour Thursday practice session for Round 3 this weekend with IndyCar at the Iowa Speedway, it was Chilean racer Martin Scuncio who set the quick time of 22.028 (146.105mph) on lap 112 in his No. 60 Juncos Racing / Bia Comunicaciones / Cable Del Pacifico Mazda. Scuncio, with a good deal of open-wheel experience in South America and a season of USF2000 in 2010, made his Star Mazda debut in final race of the 2010 season at Road Atlanta and very nearly won the pole; he ultimately qualified fifth and finished fourth…and made all the experts along pit lane sit up and take notice.
In 2011, he has always been near the sharp end of the field in practice, qualifying and the race, but this is his first-ever visit to the very top of the time sheets and may well signal that he's finally got his Star Mazda racer figured out and is ready to make good on that brash promise he showed at last year's season, finale.
"The car was very good; it was a great day, and even though the weather wasn't that great, the car was perfect," said Scuncio. "I think we all did a great job, and I have to say a huge thank you to Juncos Racing for giving me such a great car. I hope we can continue to come in first place and be at the top again tomorrow and Saturday."
It might well be that the Juncos Racing team has finally re-discovered the form that took Conor Daly to a record-setting championship in 2010 with victories on road courses, street circuits…and ovals. Sitting in the second spot on the Thursday time sheet is Scuncio's Juncos Racing teammate Gustavo Menezes with a lap of 22.044 (145.999mph) on lap 107 in his No. 28 Juncos Racing / Truecar / Safety Park Mazda. Menezes is something of an unknown quantity at this point; he's shown flashes of speed, and his races are steady and lacking in either drama or mistakes. A top international karter with very little open-wheel experience before stepping into the thick of Star Mazda competition this season, Menezes is moving higher on the "drivers to watch" list.
"Today was really good. I was really happy with the car," said the native of Coto de Caza, Calif. "It surprised me that I was able to be flat-out after five laps, and as soon as I got comfortable, the car just got quicker and quicker. It was really consistent throughout day which is really good to know going into the race. We played around and got a lot of things tested out today, so we know where we are for the race. Tomorrow, we will work on fine tuning and keeping ourselves in P1 and P2 and hopefully P3 and P4!"
Third quick was no surprise: Connor De Phillippi with a lap of 22.065 (145.860mph) on lap 149 in his Team Pelfrey / Justice Brothers Products / Trademark Garage Floors Mazda. He's the only driver to have won two races so far this season, in Round 1 on the St. Petersburg street circuit and from the pole in Round 3 at the Night Before the 500 on the Lucas Oil Raceway oval. He currently sits second in the championship and is always a threat. He provided one of two dramatic moments during the test when a mechanical problem put him into the wall in Turn 1. The other was a much larger hit by the lone female driver in the series, Colombian racer Tatiana Calderon who hit gearbox first and thoroughly scrambled the back half of the car. The driver is OK , if sore, and the team will be pulling an all-nighter to get her back on track tomorrow.
Fourth on the sheet is Nazareth, Pa., native Sage Karam, winner of Round 4 with a dominant performance at the Milwaukee Mile. He turned a lap of 22.071 (145.820mph) on lap 116 in his No. 88 Andretti Autosport / MAZDASPEED / Comfort Revolution Mazda. He was actually quickest throughout most of the session, but when everyone else came in for new tires at the end of the run, his team elected to conserve a fresh set for future use.
Rounding out the top-5 is De Phillippi's Team Pelfrey teammate, and pole winner at Milwaukee, Florida racer Nick Andries, who turned a lap of 22.078 (145.774mph) in hisNo. 81 Team Pelfrey / Lithionics Battery / GS610 Brake Fluid / Trademark Garage Floors Mazda.