My Mazda Road to Indy: Victor Franzoni
 December 1, 2015| 
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A weekly series providing an inside look at drivers involved in the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.

PALMETTO, Fla. – If one searches for photos of Victor Franzoni, something stands out: there are almost none of the affable young Brazilian without a smile on his face. Whether it’s winning a race on the Mazda Road to Indy, building a stock car with his father or recovering from a devastating racing injury, Franzoni always has a positive outlook.

“I really live my life,” says Franzoni. “If there’s something I want to do, whether it’s racing or playing basketball, I go do it. I’m really short so I’m pretty bad at basketball, but I like it. That’s how I am. If I want to do something, I just go do it. I try to learn everything and not be afraid of anything.” 

Growing up near Sao Paolo, Brazil, Franzoni began karting almost as soon as he could walk, racing against youngsters much older than him.

“My dad raced karts on the weekends, not professionally but as a hobby,” says Franzoni. “He gave me an electric kart when I was 3 that I could run on the street in front of my house. When I was 4, he made a real kart for me. When I started, I never stopped! I raced when I was really little and they had to explain everything to me, like when I saw the blue flag I should let everyone pass. Most of the kids I raced against were 10 or 11 years old, so I finished last in every race – I don’t remember much, but I remember crying because I was last.” 

Franzoni spent very little time at the back of the field as he got older, winning his first Brazilian karting title in 2010 at age 10. With his parents as his mechanics, he won numerous karting championships over the next few years, earning the Casco d’Oro (Golden Helmet) in 2008 (“It’s like the Brazilian Oscar for drivers” says Franzoni). He moved into senior level karting at age 14 and became the youngest driver to win the class at the Brazilian Karting Championships. The title earned him entry into Formula One driver Felipe Massa’s formula car series – and Franzoni’s racing car career began. 

Franzoni began his climb of the international formula ladder by moving to Formula Renault 2.0 ALPS in France, Italy and Switzerland (and learning English from his Finnish teammates). But an accident in the rain at Spa-Francorchamps sidelined him for three months. Yet, Franzoni believes the accident made him a better driver. 

“It was raining so hard. I was full on the gas on the straight and a guy spun in front of me but I couldn’t see him, so I hit him. I flew in the air and when I came down, another guy hit me, which broke my car in half. It didn’t break my femur but it badly damaged my muscles. I went to the hospital every day for physical therapy and I was out of the car for three months. 

“After I came back, I think I was a better driver. I earned two pole positions and two podiums after the accident. I think after a big accident, you have two options: you can keep driving and you drive well, or you stop. When you choose to keep going, you start to drive better. By overcoming something like that, you end up driving better and driving faster.”

After a disappointing 2013 season in Formula Renault Eurocup, Franzoni knew it was time to make a change. He looked at every country in the world, and decided the best way to progress his career forward was in the Mazda Road to Indy.

“It was the best choice I could have made, to come here. I really enjoy the atmosphere in having IndyCar and the Mazda Road to Indy all together. You feel more important, because you’re with the good guys, the guys you want to be. You can talk with them and learn from them. If you don’t know how to do a corner, you can watch the IndyCar drivers doing it.”

Signing with Afterburner Autosport for the 2014 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, Franzoni won the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, Fla. He would earn four podiums and two pole positions on his way to a fifth-place finish in the championship. For Franzoni, the experience was everything his years in Europe had not been.

“When I got to St. Petersburg, I didn’t know what to expect. I think all drivers go through this sometimes, thinking that you’re not driving well. But I won my first race in the United States, so I forgot my bad season. I felt sad a lot in Europe but in the U.S., I was always happy, even when I was not getting the results I wanted. I always felt good in the battle and that was most important. Everyone works very hard but everyone is so friendly here.”

With two wins at the pre-season Cooper Tires Winterfest, Franzoni entered the 2015 season as one of the USF2000 series title favorites. He was the only driver to crack the Nico Jamin-Jake Eidson-Aaron Telitz lock on the top step of the podium with a victory at New Orleans. But Franzoni was looking for a ride when his Afterburner team was sidelined after the Barber race. Jay Horak and M1 Racing stepped in to help and Franzoni climbed one rung of the ladder into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – just in time for one of the marquee events of the season, the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

“It was a big change and it happened so fast. Indianapolis was my first race in Pro Mazda and everything worked. Jay and the guys at M1 helped me so much and I’m so thankful for that. They made a dream come true for me. You always want to move up to the next series so I was happy to drive the faster Pro Mazda car. I had to learn fast.” 

Franzoni has returned home for the holidays, hoping to secure sponsorship to return to the States in 2016. In the meantime, he’ll return to his roots. He and his father are restoring a 1979 Chevrolet Opala and will race in the Brazilian Old Stock Race. This time, it’s the younger Franzoni who will lead the team.

“I want to race in the USA again and stay on the Mazda Road to Indy. But for now I am racing a vintage stock car with my dad. It’s been fun, doing the project with my dad. We worked together in go karts and now we’re working together here. He’ll race with me in a couple of the races, so I can coach him. All my life, he was teaching me, so now I can teach him!”
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