After a grueling two-day competition featuring 17 participants, 6 judges, 4 on-track practice sessions an a highly-scrutinized race, 20-year-old Keith Donegan was the driver to come out on top of the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout. As a reward, the Dublin, Ireland native will receive a $200,000 scholarship to compete in the 2018 USF2000 championship, the first step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder series.
The weekend began on Friday evening as the drivers got to mingle with the Shootout’s assigned judges. On hand for the weekend on behalf of Mazda’s judging panel were Mazda factory drivers Jonathan Bomartio, Andrew Carbonell and Tom Long, 2017 Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni, IndyCar multi-race winner Scott Goodyear, and Oliver Askew, the 2017 USF2000 championship winner. Askew joined the judging panel this fall after winning the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout in 2016, using that $200,000 prize to propel him above the competition during his 2017 USF2000 championship campaign.
Starting the day bright and early on Saturday morning, drivers met in a classroom-like environment as respected instructor Andy Lee gave the competitors a walk through of the 1.65-mile Bondurant Road Course at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park. Following the whiteboard session, drivers loaded up in vans for a couple quick laps around the track before strapping into their Formula Mazda machines.
On-track activities for Saturday consisted of three practice-like sessions in which drivers would be allotted 2 hours of track time, followed by 30 minutes of instructor feedback immediately following each session. An interesting quirk for the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, drivers were forced to switch cars after each session, highlighting the competitors’ abilities to adapt their driving to slightly different handling machines each time.
At the end of the day, drivers met their instructors one final time before departing the facility for a private dinner with the judging panel. Lap times or standings from the event were not released to the public or the competitors, so this left all of those involved in the dark – with the exception of the judges.
Naturally the most pressure-packed day, Sunday lived up to the hype.
After a final two-hour on-track session for all drivers, the judges made their way to the bunker in preparation for competitor cuts. The field of 17 competitors would be whittled down to just five drivers at the conclusion of this round, with those remaining to compete in a 30-minute qualification session and then an event-ending 45-minute race.
Noting one of the closest competitions in the Shootout’s history, the panel emerged from their conference room to announce the five finalists: karting ace Jake Craig, Formula Ford Festival runner-up Keith Donegan, Brazilian karting driver Olin Galli, Team USA scholarship driver Aaron Jeansonne, and 15-year old Liam Lawson from New Zealand’s F1600 series.
Pushing the Bondurant Racing School Formula Mazda machines to their limit, this group of five rising stars put on a phenomenal show. Jeansonne, one of the five finalists, was very pleased with the performance of the race cars and had high praise for the opportunity. “They were fabulous, fun to drive cars. I found them capable of showing our potential, especially since we were placed in a different Formula Mazda car each session.”
After the intense qualification period, there was one final lunch break before the 45-minute “mock” race. Prior to the race, drivers were instructed that there would be no passing allowed on the narrow 15-turn course, and that competitors would be released from the pit lane in 10-second intervals to start. If a driver eliminated that gap to his competitor ahead, the leading driver would be shown the blue flag allowing the faster wheelman to pass.
While catching a driver ahead shows pace, judges additionally made mention that average lap time would bear the greatest weight in the decision process. Consistent, tightly-bunched lap times would be rewarded and mistakes would be penalized heavily.
As TrackSide Online’s Steve Wittich noted, the course is composed of varying corner types such as double apex, late apex and off-camber turns. This tests a driver’s overall skill set and lap times on this particular course generally tend to be lower for the more well-rounded racer.
When the dust settled on the weekend’s final session, the judges headed for cover to deliberate once more. Emerging after an hour of anxiety for the competitors, it was announced that Ireland’s Keith Donegan would be the winner of the $200,000 prize.
Donegan, 20, received a bid to compete in the Shootout by finishing runner-up in the Formula Ford Festival in a car that he built with his father. After taking a three-year break from motorsport to focus on his studies, Donegan’s raw display of talent following a long departure from the sport speaks volumes. Now with an opportunity to continue his career stateside, the Dublin native’s excitement was palpable.
“Racing in the states was my dreams with with this scholarship they help make dreams a reality,” said Donegan. “The MRTI Shootout was an amazing experience… competing against 17 champions from around the world was insane. Mazda Motorsports does a fantastic job putting together a scholarship that can really boost a young drivers career and help them take it to the next step!
“I have to thank them, Cooper Tire, Bondurant Racing School and Andersen Promotions for providing me with this surreal opportunity.”
What They’re Saying
After a phenomenal, intense and exciting weekend of competition, many drivers spoke with Open-Wheels or made note of their experience on social media. Hear what the rest of the field had to say about this year’s edition of the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, and see who plans to be back in 2018.
Spencer Brockman, 17, Westport, Connecticut
After day one of the Mazda Road to Indy Shooutout: “Today was absolutely amazing… I could not of asked for a better first day at the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. The day consisted of introductions to the Formula Mazda and Bondurant course as well as three on-track sessions followed by coach feedback. It was my first time on the Cooper Tire and I loved it. The tire came in nicely and stayed consistent throughout the day. It was very cool to work alongside everyone at Mazda and Cooper Tire. The judges were very helpful and I’m looking forward to taking all of their great feedback into Sunday’s sessions.”
Even though I did not walk away with the 200k scholarship, I walked away with a lot more knowledge & a smile on my face.
I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with everyone involved in this event. Thank you @MazdaRacing @USF2000 @TeamCooperTire #MRTIShootout #MRTI pic.twitter.com/PtzW2PLFpn
— Spencer E. Brockman (@SpenceBrockman) December 11, 2017
Matt Cowley, 20, Manchester, England
“It was great meeting up with some talented drivers to take part in the Shootout and being in Arizona with great weather. Obviously disappointed not to be selected for the final five after producing consistently quick times in the four heats, (but) onwards and upward to my next challenge.”
Jake Craig, 20, Mission Viejo, California
Huge thank you to @MazdaRacing and @TeamCooperTire for everything the past few days! I would also like to thank the judges/coaches for all their input, I've learned a ton and look forward to using everything I learned in the near future!
— Jake Craig (@jakecraigracing) December 11, 2017
Aaron Jeansonne, 19, Sulphur, Louisiana
“It was a great opportunity to showcase my abilities in front of such a great judging panel against some of the 16 best young talent in the world… The judges gave great insight after the sessions and having the chance to learn from the experience, they have calmed me down and definitely made me a better driver.
“To make the cut to the final five is an accomplishment among itself. The event was put on very professionally and I can’t thank Mazda enough for putting it on, and Team USA Scholarship for getting me the ticket here. I’ll do everything in my power to return stronger next year.”
Liam Lawson, 15, Pukekohne, New Zealand
Gutted to miss out on the Scholarship today. I had the fastest and most consistent laps in the mock race, proud that I put in the drive of my career but it obviously wasn’t enough. Thanks to BGW, Cumulo 9 and Pukekohe Toyota and everyone else who helped get me to the USA #Liam30 pic.twitter.com/68ymVUvXWv
— Liam Lawson (@LiamLawson30) December 11, 2017
Ross Martin, 16, Kilmarnock, Scotland
— Ross Martin Racing (@ross_racing) December 11, 2017
Jamie Thorburn, 19, Duns, Scotland
“The weekend as a whole was pretty awesome; to meet all the guys from around the world and get to share a track with them and learn all about their series that they raced in this season was also very cool. Also the judges were so helpful over the two days in the car and certainly helped me improve as a driver.
“It was my first ever time running slick tires and in a car with aero so it was a whole new experience and one I hope to get again in the near future. Overall I walk away from the experience a better driver and with a much deeper understanding of the sport, which was my aim going into the weekend so I feel it was well worth the journey whether I came away with the Scholarship or not.”
Carter Williams, 19, Clovis, California
Images courtesy of Mazda Motorsports