Two youngsters who have honed their skills in Europe in recent years staged a fine battle for the lead in this afternoon’s opening round of the Cooper Tires Winterfest, with Briton Jack Aitken (Team Pelfrey) narrowly holding off Andretti Autosport’s Weiron Tan at NOLA Motorsports Park.
Aitken, 19, from London, England, returned to the Pro Mazda ranks following an impressive debut performance in last year’s season finale at Sonoma Raceway, where he finished fourth. His focus this year will be on a return to the Formula Renault Eurocup, but he used the opportunity to gain some racing mileage during the Winterfest to excellent effect as he qualified on the pole and then led throughout the 19-lap race. But there was barely a moment to relax.
Tan, who won the final two rounds of last year’s German Formula 3 championship, will race full-time in Pro Mazda this year and was equally anxious to make his mark early. Tan completed the opening lap a full 1.5 seconds adrift of Aitken, due to a mini fracas at the first corner, then immediately put his head down and charged onto the leader’s tail. He tried to overtake on several occasions, but each time Aitken was up to the challenge. The Englishman finally crossed the finishing line a scant 0.3387 second ahead of his rival.
Will Owen, stepping up from USF2000 and making his debut with defending champion team Juncos Racing, held onto the two leaders for the first few laps but didn’t quite have the pace to stay in touch. He nevertheless remained ahead of Englishman Raoul Owens, who also made a solid debut for JDC MotorSports.
Canadian Garett Grist, who won twice in Pro Mazda competition during his rookie campaign in 2014, had to be content with fifth place for Juncos Racing. Teammate Jose Gutierrez fared much worse, falling from third on the opening lap and making a couple of pit stops before finishing a few laps in arrears.
The Pro Mazda contenders will have two more races tomorrow. Race 2 will start at 11:15 am and Race 3 at 3:30 am (all times local). Live timing and scoring will be available on the series website, www.promazdachampionship.com.
Jack Aitken (#82 Team Pelfrey): “Weiron pushed me pretty hard there and definitely had me worried. He started with new tires and we started on scrubs, so I’m happy I managed to hold him off – and we can use our new tires later this weekend. The track only allowed us a couple of passing places and he was a lot quicker than me around the infield, but as long as I could keep some distance before the straight, I knew I could defend it. He surprised me a couple of times but he was never fully alongside so I was able to drive around the outside or shut the door on him. It was a good race and I hope for more of the same tomorrow!”
Weiron Tan (#22 Andretti Autosport): “Under braking, I had to avoid a car that came in pretty hard, so hopefully tomorrow I don’t have to do the hard part of chasing Jack down! It was really fun, actually, until Jack started weaving. I’m not sure you’re allowed to do that. But the race was good. Jack defended well and we learned a lot from Race One. This track doesn’t give you much opportunity to pass but hopefully I learned something today that I can apply to tomorrow.”
Will Owen (#23 Juncos Racing): “I got to the inside in Turn One and everybody broke really deep – I don’t think there was any contact but I came out of it in third position. I was alongside Weiron but I got pushed into the grass. After that, it was smooth sailing; I was just trying not to make any mistakes. I wish I’d been a little bit closer to the battle up front, but hopefully tomorrow! Today gives me so much confidence. I had no idea of where I was going to stand before this weekend. I knew it was going pretty well, but everything is different at the race, so I can’t wait for tomorrow.”