FAIRFIELD, N.J., Feb. 25 - Thanks to an aggressive off-season testing schedule, all four of Andersen Walko Racing's Star Mazda drivers say they've never felt so prepared for the start of any racing season.
The team completed its pre-season testing program last Monday with a two-day session at Road Atlanta Motorsports Park in Braselton, Ga. That was preceded by tests at the team's home track, BeaveRun Motorsport Complex near Pittsburgh in November; Carolina Motorsport Park in Kershaw, S.C. in December; and two days on the long course at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla. in January.
Team owners Dan Andersen and John Walko are excited too, because they know their four drivers - Jonathan Klein, Robbie Pecorari, Graham Rahal and Pablo Donoso - are very, very good. Two other drivers who plan to run selected Star Mazda events with the team this year - driver coach Mike Andersen and Doug Prendeville - are certainly no slouches behind the wheel either.
"It's clear to me that we're going to have a battle among all four of our guys at just about every event, because they're all very good," Dan Andersen said. "All four of the regular drivers were very close in times at all of the test days. They ran times which would have put them at the front of the grid at Road Atlanta and Sebring last year."
Klein was the series' most improved driver of the year for 2004. Pecorari, a Skip Barber Pro Series grad and one of the hottest things going in go-karts; Rahal, a Formula BMW driver and the son of racing legend Bobby Rahal; and Donoso, the protege of Eliseo Salazar, will all be rookies this year in the Star Mazda series. Rahal just turned 16; Klein and Pecorari are 17, and Donoso is 20.
In addition to its hot driver line-up, another reason AWR is optimistic about its chances this year has to do with the continuity of the team's personnel. Although racing is a very fluid business, virtually all of AWR's team members will return in 2005, and the team has even added a few more people too.
AWR is one of only a few teams that will have an experienced engineer dedicated solely to each of its race cars.
"In addition to John Walko, our team's chief engineer who will oversee everything, each of our four cars will have its own engineer this year," Andersen explained. "Mark Glenwood, who was one of the Star Mazda factory team's engineers last year, will concentrate on Klein's car. Highly respected veteran open-wheel engineer Glenn Phillips will be the engineer for Robbie Pecorari. Steve Dreizler and Eric Langbein, both of who have been with us for two years, will each be responsible for a car too. Dreizler will concentrate on Rahal's car, while Langbein will work on Donoso's car."
Each engineer will have faster access to data generated by the team's Pi data acquisition system too, thanks to a new wireless computer network in the team transporter that will speed up downloads and the entire data acquisition process. "Kate Gundlach, an engineering student at the University of Pittsburgh who has been with us for two years now, will download all the data and help each engineer and driver compare the results," Andersen explained. "This will help us save time, which is very important on any race weekend."
Andersen added that the team spent "at least $50,000" on additional pit equipment over the winter.
"We've made a lot of capital improvements, which should make us more efficient," he said. "We're serious!"
All four drivers echoed his enthusiasm and attitude.
"I've tested this winter more than any in the past," Klein said. "The team has had time to go through the cars completely and refine them nicely, which will pay off as the season progresses. Given all the testing and experience from last year, I look to finish in the top five throughout the year, and obviously I want to spend as much time on the podium as possible."
"The competition will be even stiffer than it was last year, so running up front consistently will be the key," Klein noted. "Qualifying well will continue to be important, and it was one of the things we concentrated on improving this winter."
"I'm happy to be starting my second year in the Star Mazda series because I believe it's the top junior formula in North America. Andersen Walko Racing should be quite a presence in the series."
"I'll be going into the new season with a new engineer, Mark Glenwood, who proved at the Atlanta test that he'll be a big help throughout the season. He brings lots of knowledge and experience with Pro Formula Mazda to the table. I enjoy working with him a lot, and look forward to the entire year with Mark, Scott Gates, John Walko and everyone else on the team. Dan Andersen and John Walko have put together a potent program this year."
Pecorari was very upbeat about the things the team accomplished in its pre-season testing too.
"Pre-season testing went very well," Pecorari said. "Last year in the Skip Barber series there was a lot of track time but not too much time to test the cars. I've only driven in two Star Mazda races before, so it was nice to be able to actually test and try some new things out for this upcoming season."
"This year I believe that AWR will be able to bring home a championship," Pecorari added. "My three teammates have been fast in pre-season testing, and I think any one of us can win a race. As for me, I'll be trying to win as much as possible, but if not, then to stay consistently up front and eventually win the championship."
Rahal is excited about his prospects too. "Going into the 2005 season, I have never felt so prepared, excited and confident that our team as a whole can accomplish what I believe we can this year," he said. "I've learned so much in pre-season testing with the help of my fellow teammates. Our team will push each other harder than any other team, and the results should show."
"My goal this year is to win the championship," Rahal added. "This won't be an easy task. I have had one year in cars total, which isn't many hours, but because I've been fast in testing I believe I have a chance to win this year. If I can't win the championship, someone else on our team should win it. The drivers push each other, the engineers work together, and there are no owners possibly better. We have the team to beat in 2005!"
Donoso said he learned a lot over the winter too.
"The most important thing I learned in pre-season testing was to get acclimated with the car set-up and to get familiarized with the team," he said. "They did a great job, giving me a car capable of doing fast times. You always want to do more testing, but I feel I'm ready to win at the season opener at Sebring."
"My primary goals this year are to win races and to be in the top five in the championship," Donoso added. "My biggest challenge this year personally will be to adapt to racing in the United States for the first time. The Star Mazda series is a great series; by far it's promoted the best of any series I've seen. I think Andersen Walko Racing has to be one of the favorites to win the championship, hopefully with me! I will have the help of Eliseo Salazar, who has won races in many different series, including Indy cars. His knowledge of American racing and the different circuits will help me a lot."
The 11-race Star Mazda series, which is presented by Goodyear, will begin with a 45-minute contest on Friday afternoon, March 18 that is a support event to the prestigious Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, the keystone of the American Le Mans Series and the event that historically attracts the largest crowd of any road race in America each year.
All of the Star Mazda races will be televised on SPEED, which will double its air time for the series by producing one-hour shows rather than the half-hour shows it broadcast in the past.
AWR is based in Fairfield, N.J. and North Versailles, Pa. Klein resides in Long Grove, Ill.; Pecorari is from Aston, Pa.; Rahal lives in New Albany, Ohio and Donoso hails from Santiago, Chile.
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