MEET THE CONTENDERS: VICTOR FRANZONI

Victor Franzoni is third in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title chase as the series heads to its doubleheader season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this week.

PALMETTO, Fla. – For the three championship contenders, an entire season is on the line this week in the “Soul Red Finale” at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. At stake is the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title and the Mazda scholarship that will take the winner into the 2017 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

Victor Franzoni lies third in the title chase, 53 points behind Anthony Martin and 32 points behind Parker Thompson, with two races remaining. The personable young Brazilian, who always seems to have a smile on his face, jokingly vows to go from “easy guy” to “crazy guy” in order to eclipse his rivals and take the top spot for himself.

Admittedly, Franzoni has a good-sized mountain to climb in order to attain his goal. But given the twists and turns this championship has taken over the course of 14 races, a wild closing weekend is not only possible, but probable.

Franzoni, 20, burst on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scene two years ago, taking victory in his first USF2000 race at St. Petersburg. In 2015, he was the only driver to break the Nico Jamin-Aaron Telitz-Jake Eidson stranglehold on the top spot of the podium, and since the opening weekend at St. Pete this season, Franzoni is the only driver to win other than Martin or Thompson. He returned to USF2000 this season after a mid-season switch to Pro Mazda last year – which made for an interesting first weekend back in a USF2000 car.

Signing late with Gregg Borland’s Wisconsin-based ArmsUp Motorsports, Franzoni found the going difficult at first – though he eventually found that you can go home again.

“I finished 2015 in the Pro Mazda series but decided to go with USF2000 and ArmsUp this year,” said Franzoni. “We signed just two weeks before the season began. The first weekend was not so good for us, because I was getting used to being back in the USF2000 car. It’s easier to go from USF2000 to Pro Mazda because the Pro Mazda car has more grip and more power – but not too much. It drives easier, so you can brake later and feel more hold. Coming back to USF2000 was hard at first. St. Petersburg is not a racetrack, it’s a city street, so there really was no grip. So being my first race back in the car, it was hard to find the limit again.

“But since St. Pete, it has been an amazing season – really, the best season of my life. We have been really fast and have finished all the races up till now. ArmsUp has done a great job, and they were the right choice for me. They’re great to work with and they’re really fun!”

Franzoni is the only driver to finish every race this season and, since the opener, has finished on the podium in nine of 12 races, including a victory at Toronto. With teammate Max Hanratty splitting time between USF2000 and IMSA’s Mazda Prototype Lites Presented by Cooper Tires series, Franzoni and ArmsUp have been a one-car team for five of those races. The team has done, as they say, a lot with a little.

“Toronto was the best moment of the year for us. We didn’t have the money to go to Canada, but the vintage drivers who race with ArmsUp sponsored us, so it was so important for us to do well. We were fighting for the victory all season, starting second, third, fourth, but we weren’t able to break through. In Toronto, we took the win – I really needed that, and so did ArmsUp.
“We haven’t been able to do any testing so we have to fight with what we have; and what we have is a fast car,” continued Franzoni. “I knew I had to finish the races, because if I crashed, I’d be out of the championship. I had to be consistent, and I have been. ArmsUp has given me a good car all year so I just need to focus on not crashing, and making the opportunities work. I’ve taken everything that I’ve learned in all my years of motorsports and put it to work this year so even if I don’t win, I’m happy because I know we’ve done the best that we could do.”

With the ground he has to make up in the championship, Franzoni heads to Mazda Raceway knowing that only victories will do, as finishing behind Martin and Thompson will mean the end to his title hopes. Given his consistently positive attitude, Franzoni sees his road as almost easier than that of his rivals.

“I really think it’s easier for me than for Anthony and Parker, because I just have to go from ‘easy guy’ to ‘crazy guy’ while they still have to think a little bit more. I don’t have to think; I just need to go. All season, I have been thinking about not making any mistakes, not crashing, and finishing the race in the top three. Now, it’s first or nothing. I have to be aggressive, so if I see that I can go, I’m going. It’s an easy situation – much easier for me than for them.”

Simply put, Franzoni loves to drive. On any given weekend this summer, you could find him at the track, either racing himself or in his new calling as a driver coach. Since moving from Indianapolis to Florida last year, Franzoni has found himself in charge of a small cadre of young karting talent, which keeps him more than busy.

“I moved to Miami last year, where I have more friends from Brazil and there are more opportunities to race. I started racing karts again, and then some kids asked me to coach them. So now, I coach a lot of kids in karting, including Emerson Fittipaldi (son of Formula One and IndyCar legend of the same name). I’ve been coaching for a while. I have five kids in Micro karting and it’s really fun. It’s been really cool working with them on things like overtaking. The kids are great and they learn so easily. And they do what I say. I get to drive almost every day which is good for me since it means I’m always practicing.

“I think there have been only three or four weekends this year that I haven’t been at the racetrack. I have been racing the USF2000 car, karts and the vintage car, and when I haven’t been driving, I’ve been coaching. In the last month, I raced shifter karts in Mexico, I coached at Homestead, and I coached in Indiana. This weekend, I will just sit by the pool – and get ready for Monterey.”