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MRTI Observations: Pro Mazda Watkins Glen Grand Prix Race 1

Picking up his second straight Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires victory at Watkins Glen, Victor Franzoni extends his advantage over Anthony Martin heading into the final event of the season.

Here are the observations from the first event of the weekend.

Doing It Right

Over the past couple of months, Franzoni and Martin have traded wins back and forth, along with the points lead, as they battle it out for the scholarship to move up to the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires full-time in 2018.

Following his victory at Gateway Motorsports Park, Franzoni entered Watkins Glen with a two-point lead over Martin.

Initially, it looked as though the advantage would shift to Martin as he took the advantage on Lap 1 with a move on the outside off of turn three, and pass through the bus stop. If Martin had won, it would put him up by two points entering Sunday’s Soul Red Finale.

But Franzoni did what he needed to do, making the same move back on Martin on Lap 12 to take back the lead, before holding serve the rest of the way. Now going into tomorrow, Franzoni has a cushion being eight markers up on Martin.

Problematic Pelfrey

Team Pelfrey entered four drivers into the finale, hoping to end off the campaign in victory lane. However, it did not play out as warranted.

Two of their competitors saw their races end on Lap 2 when Robert Meginnis, from contact or by himself, got sideways while battling for fourth in turn nine, and collected his teammate Nikita Lastochkin.

Then on the restart, T.J. Fischer did not get going as he wanted, dropping back to seventh from fourth, before contact with Kris Wright sent him off track, and ending his race with a flat tire.

The only good news was Carlos Cunha, who rounded out the podium to give them a top-five.

Competitive Racing

Although some races this year have been snooze fests with an inability to pass, this wasn’t one of those. The leaders traded the top spot twice, and positions fourth to seventh were on everyone’s mind through the second half with position changes throughout.

With this in mind, tomorrow’s setting looks to be the perfect place to cap off the year, with the possibility for an exciting close to a great campaign.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI Observations: Friday at Road America

In the first of three days of competition for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, a new face graced victory lane while another kept his streak rolling.

Rinus Veekay broke through for his first career Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda win to start the day, followed by Victor Franzoni scoring his third straight Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires victory.

Here are some observations from all the on-track action.

Victorious Veekay

After coming close to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month, Rinus Veekay made it happen on Friday afternoon as he led 11 laps en route to scoring his first career win. The Pabst Racing driver didn’t have it easy, though, as he had to out-battle David Malukas as the pair went back and forth throughout the course of the event.

The key for Veekay in winning was his ability to get stronger as the race went on, building on his knowledge with each lap around Road America.

“I learned to be very patient in this race,” he said. “I was behind Oliver and David early and sometimes when I made a move, it worked, and sometimes I made a little mistake. But I learned from it. It was a great battle – we touched wheels but it was very fair, a real fight like you want to have. I love this track, it reminds me of Spa, with the long straights with very technical corners. It brings the driving part of you out. I can’t wait for tomorrow!”

Veekay’s success is nothing of a surprise, though, as he has been impressive in his rookie campaign so far this year with only one finish outside of top-five in seven events. Now having closed the gap in the standings down to just 34 points behind Oliver Askew, a hot streak could very well allow him to become a champion this year.

Freaky Fast Franzoni

Franzoni is having a dream season right now in Pro Mazda if you look at the statistics alone. After starting off the year with a pair of runner-ups, he has now scored three straight victories. His event came to him easier than Veekay’s, though, as he was able to get the lead on Lap 3 from Anthony Martin, extending his advantage from there on to the checkered flag.

The success right now means everything for the Juncos Racing driver as he knows what is at stake should he win the championship – a scholarship to compete in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires full-time in 2018,

“This championship is the only chance I have to move up in my career, so I have to win,” he said. “I don’t have too many options.”

While he had everything go his way on Friday, the second event of the weekend on Saturday will be more challenging. He was unable to complete a full quick lap in time trials as a result of two ill-timed red flags in the session, resulting in him qualifying last on the grid. He has the speed, so the question now is can he make up the ground?

Problems for Askew

Since winning the scholarship to compete in USF2000 full-time with the Mazda Soul Red livery, Oliver Askew has been just spectacular. After posting a runner-up in the season opener at St. Petersburg, he followed it up with five straight wins entering this weekend.

Unfortunately, bad luck struck for him as he would have to pit on Lap 9 due to a loose wheel, causing him to finish 17th. While he entered the weekend just 60 points ahead of the field, he is now just 34 markers ahead of Veekay.

Being the first time this year he has faced adversity, it will be critical for him to turn around and post a solid finish on Saturday to prove he is not giving up his advantage quite yet.

Fischer Places Last

After posting only one top-five last year, T.J. Fischer came into this season as one of the front-runners with three third-place finishes and a runner-up, leaving him poised as to break through to victory lane.

However, mechanical problems saw him go two laps down on Friday at Road America, leaving him last on the grid on 15th.

Set to start in second for race number two on Saturday, a victory would allow Fischer to gain valuable back points in the championship with Franzoni starting last.

Nice Rebound, Frederick

The sixth-place finish for Kaylen Frederick gives him only his second finish this year outside of the top-five, but that does not tell the whole story.

The Team Pelfrey driver had to work hard as he qualified 12th, and failed to make up ground in the first half of the race due to going off-track on a couple of occasions. Through the second half, though, he posted some of the quickest lap times, allowing him to make moves and pull off a solid finish.

Frederick admitted when speaking with Popular Speed earlier this past week that the start of the events was his weak point, with a focus on minimizing mistakes moving forward.

He has proven he can be fast – as evidenced by qualifying in the runner-up spot for four races this year. Now if he can do that in Saturday’s morning session, and build on what he showed during the second half of Friday, his fourth podium could be right around the corner.

First Podium Finish

Shout-out to Nikita Lastochkin for scoring his first career Pro Mazda podium finish with a third on Friday afternoon. Starting the event in fourth, he made his way forward in the early stages past Carlos Cunha and remained up front as the field spread out around the road course.

Now with four top-fives in five races, Lastochkin is an excellent choice for a darkhorse as someone that could sneak in for a win before the year is over if the improvement continues on a weekly basis.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI Observations: Pro Mazda Indianapolis Race No. 1

After taking the lead on Lap 5, Victor Franzoni led the rest of the way at Indianapolis Motor Speedway to score his first career Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires victory.

Here are some observations from the first race of two this weekend.

Freaky Fast Franzoni

When Popular Speed caught up with Franzoni a month ago, the confidence was evident entering this weekend.

“I think this one we’re going to be really strong because the first test that I did with Juncos was there, and the car was fast,” he said in April. “Everything was really good there. It’s a track that I like a lot, so I think we’ll be fast there. I think that’ll be a good track for us.”

He backed up his words as he started on pole, and consistently posted the quickest lap times through the second half of the event, leading 17 of 22 laps en route to his first career victory.

Surrounded by drivers who have never driven one of the Pro Mazda cars before, the Juncos Racing driver has experience as he ran the second half of 2016 with a best finish of fourth, twice. Now with a pair of runner-ups and a win, along with the pole for tomorrow, he could very well leave Indianapolis in the points lead.

No Podium Change

While a new face was in victory lane, his fellow mates on the podium did not change as Anthony Martin, and TJ Fischer joined him once again.

Martin jumped up to Pro Mazda after winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Presented by Mazda last season and came out with a bang as he won both events to kick-off 2017 at St. Petersburg. He jumped from third to first on the opening lap on Friday at Indianapolis, leading five laps before finishing second.

Fischer put together a solid effort, running third solidly throughout the entire event, as he held off his Team Pelfrey teammates in a close battle with them. He ran the second half of 2016, scoring two top-fives in eight starts. Now he sits three races into 2017, with three third-place finishes.

Double Spinners

The race did not go without incident as Kevin Davis, and Charles Finelli both spun around on Lap 2 but were able to keep it going to prevent a full course yellow. As a result, the pair finished 12th and 14th, respectively.

It continues the struggles this year for both drivers as they didn’t fare well in St. Petersburg either, as Davis failed to post a top-10 in either event, while Finelli finished 10th and 14th.

Denes Continues Improving

Phillippe Denes made the jump to Pro Mazda this season after a stellar karting career and finishing third in the F1600 Championship last season with two victories. With each race, he has continued to get better.

After starting off the year with a seventh and sixth at St. Petersburg, he ran solidly in the top-five all day on Friday en route to a career-best fifth finish. If the progress can continue weekly, he could become the next driver to visit victory lane.

Masterful Competition

Everybody knew entering this season that the car counts would be low with teams and drivers holding out as they await the release of the series’ brand new car in 2018 – the PM-18, which is in the beginning stages of testing. With just 15 cars in the field, the fans were still entertained.

Martin and Franzoni delivered a show at the front of the grid as Franzoni chased down the Australian for the lead. The pair then ran side-by-side through three corners on Lap 4 without any contact, with Martin initially holding off his competitor. As they began the next lap, a run by Franzoni down the frontstretch was all he needed to get the lead in turn one.

Typically, the road courses present a single-file affair for the Mazda Road to Indy cars, as showcased at Barber Motorsports Park last month. However, this group proved it’s possible to make some action happen.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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TJ Fischer Looks to Continue Pelfrey’s Winning Ways

Last year, it seemed Team Pelfrey was unbeatable in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, with their drivers finishing one-two in points. The team is back again in hopes of repeating the success with TJ Fischer driving one of their entries.

“The overall goal is to come away with the title and really, it’s maximizing myself, my understanding of the car, balance and really on a technical level the track,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “If I can do that and get ahead of it, understand it quicker than the others, then the rest of the season will take care of itself. I mean, it’s racing so there’s a certain amount of things you can’t predict but overall, if we do our best and do some of what we’ve been doing consistently and small little gains here and there.”

Fischer kicked off the season well at St. Petersburg, scoring a pair of third place finishes.

“St. Pete was all around a really good weekend,” he said. “For myself, we knew over winter testing that we had the speed and everything and got dialed in over the off-season. So St. Pete was really there to finally bring to light all the work we’d put into it. I think we did just that. Getting on the podium was a good effort, but there’s still much more to work on, two more spots to get up to the top step. So still going to take a little bit more effort and tweaking minor things now.”

“Overall, it’s really a big testament to the Team Pelfrey guys. They helped me out a ton and then my coach Chuck West. He’s been kind of in my camp over the off-season getting me prepared. So it’s all been good.”

Now Fischer will hope to continue the success at Indianapolis Motor Speedway next month when Pro Mazda returns to the track.

“It’s going to be a great event, and personally, I like the track a lot,” he said. “It offers a lot of different passing opportunities like turn one and seven, and then turn 10 as well. There’s unique places to pass, and I think overall it’s a great event, too. You get a lot of different people coming out to the event, and obviously, in Indy, you get a good fan base. It’ll be cool for that.”

For this season, the series has released a schedule that’s quite spread out, as a result of being in a transition year with a lack of teams and a new car on deck for 2018.

“It’s definitely a different mindset,” he said. “The biggest thing for me is trying to keep my mental component of it in my routine every day because it’s very easy when you’re outside of the track to get away from it. You want to try and be involved in racing all the time. So that’s what we’ve been trying to do.”

Once Indy gets here, though, excitement will be high as an important weekend for Fischer’s Project 02 Initiative, which is about spreading awareness about asthma based on his own experience.

“Through the GP of Indy, we’re debuting a #Race2TheRescue booth at the event, which is an initiative from Project O2,” he said. “So that’s really exciting because we’ve been planning on doing this for awhile now and it finally the opportunity arose. So you have a lot going on and potentially have some potential sponsors that will be out there, as well.”

Outside of Indy, Fischer admits he’s looking forward to Road America later this season, where he made his Pro Mazda debut in 2016 with two top-six finishes.

“That was a cool event, and the track is awesome,” he said. “Just seems like that is one of the classic American iconic road courses. There’s something about it. It’s very high speed and technical. Every corner matters because you have a big long straight after it, so there’s always the compromise between how much downforce you want to run, so it’s got that technical element which is great, and there’s passing there, big time. That was my debut weekend in Pro Mazda last year when we hopped up to Pro Mazda, and right away we were like in the thick of things, passing and everything, and even getting a toe down the straights which isn’t that common in Pro Mazda. That was fun.”

He adds Watkins Glen is also on his radar, with this year being the first time Pro Mazda has raced there in a long time.

Set to enter these events with the defending champions, Fischer doesn’t see it as extra pressure on his shoulders, but rather looks at the benefit of knowledge around him.

“They have a very good understanding of this car and the series in general, so it’s really not so much about pressure, but being able to capitalize the knowledge they have and applying it,” he said. “Every season is different. There’s always a different aspect to it. The year before that when Santi won the championship, it’s not like he led the championship the whole year. There were times he was fifth, sixth, seventh and then times he was getting a win; it was never like he dominated. You can also go back years past.

“Like anything, there will be a fight, and it’s not going to be straight forward 1-2s. We would love for that happen; I think it’s totally possible, and now for me, it’s getting that next little bit.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER: @ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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MRTI OBSERVATIONS: Rookies are Here to Play, and More

This past weekend, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off their season, with doubleheaders for each of the three divisions on the streets of St. Petersburg. With new faces alongside familiar faces, it was certainly a memorable weekend for some rookies.

Here are some observations from the weekend of action.

 

Rookies are Here to Play

When new talent joins the fray, questions are always asked as to whether they will succeed, or fumble. Thus far, it appears the new talent is going to impress all season.

Fresh off winning the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout, Oliver Askew was able to duck to the inside on a restart in the second Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race and pass Parker Thompson for the lead, never looking back the rest of the way.

Anthony Martin proved that he’s ready for Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires competition after winning the USF2000 Championship last year, sweeping the weekend’s events. He also did it in dominating fashion, as he led flag-to-flag in both races.

Another graduate, 2016 Pro Mazda Champion Aaron Telitz, proved that he was ready for the next jump in his career. He dominated the first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event by leading right from the start of the race. Meanwhile, MRTI newcomer Colton Herta was able to lead flag-to-flag in the second race, despite the massive number of restarts, to become the youngest series winner.

 

The Highs and Lows of Racing

Robert Meginnis entered the season hoping to do well after partaking in the second half of the schedule last year with some success. This weekend was a mix of two worlds, though.

The first race went well as the Team Pelfrey driver started on the pole, and led every single lap in route to his first career USF2000 victory. The second race, though, was a bit of a different story. He started off strong, moving into third on an early race restart, only to make a mistake on Lap 18. He was credited with a 19th place finish.

While both races didn’t go as planned, it appears as though he’s still in high spirits based on the driveability of the series’ new chassis.

“I can’t say enough about the Tatuus USF-17,” he said. “It’s comfortable to drive; it’s consistent throughout the sessions; you can push it harder. It’s fun and exciting to drive, so I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season.”

 

Pelfrey Strangle on Pro Mazda Broken

Last year, Team Pelfrey won all of the races in Pro Mazda, except for a single event. This year, though, they currently stand zero for two.

It isn’t for lack of speed, though, as the group showed they were fast in the first event, with their drivers finishing third through fifth. Using his experience from last year, TJ Fischer led the team in third, followed by rookies Carlos Cunha and Nikita Lastochkin.

The second event didn’t see the threesome all have success, though. Fischer continued to lead the charge, once again posting a third place finish after posting a best finish of fifth last year in his partial schedule. Lastochkin was also able to put in another solid run, finishing fifth, while Cunha finished 12th following mechanical issues.

With the team showing speed already, it’s only a matter of time before the drivers gain enough experience to find their way to victory lane like Telitz and Pato O’Ward did last year.

 

Rough Start for Carlin

After winning the Indy Lights Championship last year with Ed Jones and having multiple drivers up front throughout the season, this year began strongly as Carlin Racing would’ve hoped. Each of their drivers appeared to have a good race and a bad race this past weekend.

Neil Alberico proved the team is still fast and one to watch this season, posting a third place finish in the first race of the weekend, with teammate Zachary Claman De Melo eighth. Meanwhile, the other half of the team didn’t do as well with Garth Rickards 11th and Matteus Leist in 15th following mechanical issues.

On the flip side, Claman De Melo was the only driver for Carlin in the top-10 at the end of the second event, finishing seventh. Leist completed all the laps this time, finishing 11th; Rickards and Alberico found themselves at the bottom of the charts behind Leist after being involved in an incident during the race.

For Carlin, it’s right now a balance as both Rickards and Leist are entering the series for the first time, as Leist comes from an international background while Rickards is making the jump from USF2000 to Indy Lights, versus running Pro Mazda in between. However, the rookies should learn and improve with having the experience of Alberico and Claman De Melo alongside them. There’s also a good possibility Alberico will be in victory lane before the season’s over.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Team Pelfrey Still Leading The Way in Pro Mazda

After having their drivers finish one-two in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last year, Team Pelfrey continued to show their speed even with a fresh  driver line-up as they swept each of the three test sessions on Tuesday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

After just announcing his plans for the season, Nikita Lastochkin topped the first session with a lap of one minute and 24.4710 seconds. The 26-year-old spent last year with Cape Motorsports, posting 11 top-10 finishes over the course of the USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.  Previously, he competed with Pelfrey, racing in F1600 in 2014 followed by USF2000 in 2015.

“I was a little concerned going into today because I’d never even sat in the car before,” the Russian said. “To be able to do some good times gives me a lot of confidence. The morning was great but I got a little tired by the end of the day because the car is a lot more physical than the USF2000 car. It has more downforce and more grip and it’s more lively to drive. To be honest, I’m a bit overwhelmed after the first day! But I couldn’t be happier to be back at Team Pelfrey. I worked with them for the first two years of my racing career and I love the atmosphere and the way they go about doing their thing.”

Anthony Martin was second quickest driving for Cape Motorsports, 0.1813 seconds behind Lastochkin. Martin won the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda Championship last year driving for Cape. Notably, he has yet to officially announce his plans for this season.

Pelfrey’s TJ Fischer was third quickest on the charts after running the second half of the Pro Mazda schedule last year with Pelfrey, scoring eight top-10s, including a pair of fifths, in nine starts.

World Speed Motorsports rounded out the top-five with their pair of entries in Bobby Eberle and Sting Ray Robb. Eberle knows what it takes to win in Pro Mazda, having won the National Championship in Pro Mazda last season after winning the Expert Class Championship the previous two years. Meanwhile, Robb enters Pro Mazda after winning the Skip Barber Rookie of the Year Award, as well as the Bryan Herta Career Advancement Scholarship. Going into the year, he told POPULAR SPEED, “We’re going to go into each race with goals depending where we are at in the field, and see where they go. I just want to keep developing my skills.”

Pelfrey’s Carlos Cunha and Green Racing’s Jeff Green rounded out the field.

The afternoon session saw Team Pelfrey sweep the top three spots, with Fischer posting the quickest time at one minute and 24.4417 seconds.

“We were constantly working at it today, pushing the whole time because everyone is going to be quick in this field,” Fischer said. “We worked a lot on brake zones and making sure everything is there, rather than being quick on one part of the track but losing time somewhere else. We did qualifying runs and race runs so we had the whole spectrum. There’s still a ton for me to learn – how to manage the car, how to manage the tires. It’s night and day compared to last year. Being in just one series this year is good: I can build a foundation and use this as a springboard. I’m actually getting a footing under me this year. The whole team is meshing well and all the drivers at Team Pelfrey are really quick.”

Cunha was second quickest, after only announcing a day before Spring Training that he’ll drive the No. 81 Team Pelfrey Pro Mazda machine this year. The 17-year-old has spent the past eight years racing across South America, including Formula 3 Brazil where he collected wins and multiple podiums.

Lastochkin was third quickest, followed by Martin, Eberle,  Robb and Green.

The last session saw Team Pelfrey once again sweep the top-three spots with Cunha leading the way at one minute and 25.1641 seconds. Lastochkin was second, followed by Fischer, Eberle, Martin, Robb and Green.

The Pro Mazda drivers will get one more day of testing on Wednesday.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Fischer Returns with Pelfrey

After having their drivers finish one-two in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires Standings, Team Pelfrey is putting together the pieces for their title defense. The organization announced on Tuesday that TJ Fischer has resigned with the team, and will run the full 2017 schedule.

“It is with great excitement that we welcome TJ back to Team Pelfrey. Not only is he great to have around, but the progress he made after the switch to Pro Mazda mid-season last year, in addition to winter testing, is extremely encouraging,” said Team Pelfrey’s General Manager Jonathan Baker. “I am looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in what will be an exciting year for the Pro Mazda Championship.”

The 23-year-old ran the second half of the Pro Mazda schedule last year with Pelfrey, scoring eight top-10s, including a pair of fifths, in nine starts.

“I’m excited to be returning with the Team Pelfrey squad in the Pro Mazda Championship,” Fischer said. “It’s clear, they have won the past two Pro Mazda titles, and the demeanor within the team shows why they’ve been so successful. Last year, I got a taste of what racing in the Pro Mazda Championship was like and now I am able to learn from the 2016 season and apply it to a full proper year.”

This past year, Pelfrey drivers Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward finished one-two in the standings after winning the majority of the races.

On top of his commitments behind the wheel, Fischer is also focused on continuing to spread awareness about asthma through his Project O2 initiative.

“I was diagnosed with asthma as a kid and have lived through 23 years of sporting, dealing with the difficulties asthma presents. In 2015, I had an asthma attack during a race at the 74th GP de Pau, forcing me to rethink my asthma condition and how to deal with it,” said Fischer. “From that experience, I created Project O2. It’s exciting to be able to try and make a difference and I hope Project O2 can become a beacon for all those who are pursing sports, dreams in their lives, and dealing with asthma along the way.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.