Meet the Contenders: Urrutia and Alberico
Part one of two
PALMETTO, Fla. – Six different drivers have stood on the top step of the podium to date in this year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Four of those drivers – rookies Santiago “Santi” Urrutia of Uruguay, Frenchman Timothé Buret and Malaysian Weiron Tan, along with sophomore American Neil Alberico – have a chance to take the title this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. On the line is a Mazda Scholarship of $590,300 to advance to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016.
Santiago “Santi” Urrutia
Team Pelfrey’s Santiago Urrutia made an immediate impact in Pro Mazda competition, finishing second and fourth at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and earning his first series victory two weeks later at NOLA Motorsports Park. The 19-year-old Uruguayan comes to the season finale with plans to take home the title – and to honor a fallen countryman.
Urrutia began his racing career riding motocross events at the age of 4. After winning the Latin American Motocross Championship for children aged 4-6, Urrutia moved into karts, earning five karting championships in eight years, including the 2010 Uruguayan Master Category Karting Championship. Switching to cars, Urrutia raced for two years in the Formula Abarth European and Italian series, followed by single seasons in European Formula 3 Open and, in 2014, the GP3 Series in support of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship.
Urrutia tested with Team Pelfrey mere weeks before the first race weekend of the year but wasted no time making his presence felt, adding a second victory at Indianapolis where he took the championship lead. With another win in the most recent event at Mid-Ohio giving him eight total podium finishes, Urrutia leads the championship by 29 points over Alberico, 47 over Buret and 51 over Tan. Despite the success, Urrutia admits this was not a position in which he expected to find himself.
“I didn’t think I would be fighting for the championship in my rookie year,” said Urrutia. “I did only two days of testing with Team Pelfrey before the first race at St. Pete, and I had never raced on a street circuit before. I finished second in my first race and that was good, to know I was competitive already! I knew I had to keep working hard, and I won the first race at NOLA. That was really good for me and for the team. The only big mistake for me was at Lucas Oil Raceway. It was a new experience for me, I’d never raced on an oval before. I touched the wall and didn’t finish the race, so that was my worst result.
“It would change so much to win the championship. I could take the scholarship to Indy Lights. I know the big teams are watching the Mazda Road to Indy, so maybe one of the big teams with IndyCar or Indy Lights will notice!”
Urrutia comes to the season finale at Mazda Raceway with thoughts of his countryman, Gonzalo Rodriguez, on his mind. Rodriguez was driving his second race weekend with Penske Racing in the CART FedEx Championship Series when he was killed in a crash during practice on September 11, 1999.
“As a Uruguayan, it is very special for me to come to Mazda Raceway. We lost our biggest driver, Gonzalo Rodriquez, at Mazda Raceway in 1999. I will race with a helmet in tribute to him. He is a hero in Uruguay; he’s my hero, too. I am grateful for everything he did for the sport in Uruguay. We are only three million people and he worked hard to get to IndyCar. I am giving the helmet to his Foundation in Uruguay and I hope to one day be the second driver from Uruguay to race in IndyCar.”
Neil Alberico is the very picture of California cool. The affable 22-year-old Los Gatos native enjoys surfing, golfing and racing cars. But on the inside burns a competitive fire that belies the cool exterior, a fire that earned Alberico last year’s Pro Mazda Spirit Award, presented to the driver or team that embodies the heart of a champion as they strive to reach their goals.
Like so many drivers, Alberico came up through the karting ranks, earning three junior championships and two senior titles. He contested Formula Ford championships in England and Europe in 2011 and earned a Team USA Scholarship which saw him score several pole positions and heat race victories in Formula Ford events in England. Alberico then moved to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, where he finished a close second to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Scott Hargrove in 2013 despite six wins, eight podium finishes and 11 front-row starting positions.
Heading up one more rung of the ladder last year with the Cape team, he finished third in Pro Mazda with four podiums and 11 top-six drives. 2014 also saw Alberico, Juncos Racing’s Spencer Pigot and IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden named as inaugural representatives for Rising Star Racing, a new organization designed to provide funding and support for select young drivers moving up the racing ladder.
Despite a late start that saw him miss the Cooper Tires Winterfest pre-season test sessions, Alberico came roaring out of the gate this year, sweeping two poles and two victories at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. After taking another victory at Barber Motorsports Park in April, Alberico endured mid-season misfortune, with mechanical issues and incidents costing him valuable points. Rebounding with a second-place finish and a victory at Mid-Ohio, Alberico knows that, once again, he goes into the season finale with a shot at the title – albeit from 29 points behind Urrutia.
“We are within striking distance of the championship, so we’ll go into the weekend with the plan of winning both races, and then whatever happens, happens. I can’t control what happens to anyone else, we just have to win some races and hope things work out for us. But I would love to get into an Indy Lights car next year. I think we’re ready to move on, regardless of what happens at the finale. The last two years, I’ve finished second or third. I’ve been really close and in the title fight coming to the last races. And it would mean so much to win this for the Cape guys. I’ve been so close with those guys the last several years. It would mean a lot to win the championship for them and for Rising Star, to take the financial burden off of them. It would be great to work with Mazda next year, to have the scholarship. It will be really exciting if we can pull it off.”
But the numbers don’t tell the whole story for Alberico.
“Racing is so competitive, and there are a lot of aspects to it that are more difficult when seen from the inside rather than from the outside. But my favorite part is just traveling and meeting people. You meet so many cool people in this sport. I love the behind-the-wheel driving part, but it’s the friendships that really last.”