MILLVILLE - One of the nation's top open-wheel racing series was at New Jersey Motorsports Park on Sunday, but few people came to see it.
A sparse crowd that appeared to be only in the hundreds watched Tristan Vautier win the Star Mazda Championship's seventh race of the season and second in as many days at NJMP.
Officials from both the track and the Star Mazda series blamed the heat - temperatures were in the 90s. Still, it was difficult to ignore the absence of the Atlantic Championship, the higher-level series that headlined the Mazda Motorsports Festival of Racing weekend the past two years. The Atlantic series suspended its operations due to financial problems in March.
"Was the crowd good? No," said Dean Case, communications officer for Mazdaspeed Motorsports. "But there are a lot of reasons for low attendance."
The track does not release attendance figures, but only a few dozen people sat in the bleachers for the 45-minute race, the last of 10 during the two-day event. Several more were in the air-conditioned Officer's Club suites, which the track opened to the public due to the heat, but it was still a disappointing turnout. Tickets cost $22.
"With the heat, it's hard to get people to come out," track official Don Fauerbach said.
The Atlantic Championship features drivers who are a step closer to IndyCar, the United States' premier open-wheel series. Simona De Silvestro, a winner last year at NJMP, is now an IndyCar driver. The Star Mazda series also develops drivers with that goal, but it's unlikely that anyone would go straight from there to IndyCar.
But Star Mazda series president Gary Rodrigues said the attendance likely would have been the same even with Atlantic at NJMP on Sunday.
"I don't think Atlantic has anything to do with the crowd, honestly," he said. "(Fans) are just not around."
The heat is only partially to blame. Drawing fans from Philadelphia, New York and Washington is a challenge regardless because of the cost of advertising in those markets and the relative lack of racing tradition, Case said.
"We love being in this market, but we have to work with the track to figure out better ways to get to the fans," Case said. "The weather this year certainly didn't help. Anybody who was contemplating a walk-up probably got up this morning and said, 'No way am I going out there.' "
Rodrigues pointed out that the quality of racing has not dropped off much. While the drivers in the Star Mazda series are further from becoming IndyCar stars, they provided an intense race Sunday with plenty of passing.
"If you watched the races, the shows were great," Rodrigues said of the weekend.
Before this weekend, 18-year-old Conor Daly appeared to be running away with the series title, having won four of the first five races.
Daly won the pole for both races this weekend, but Caio Lara won Saturday's race before Vautier took the checkered flag Sunday.
"This means you never have to (give up)," Vautier said. "This series is very competitive."
Anders Krohn, who finished third on Sunday, said it had been frustrating watching Daly dominate the first five races.
"It seemed like they had an abnormally big gap to what this series normally has," Krohn said. "Always in this series, we've seen tenths (of seconds) swapped between the top five. He's been way ahead, and this weekend, luckily, we were able to take him."
That proved that, still, any driver can win in the Star Mazda series.
"The margin of error is very small in these cars," Rodrigues said. "So if another driver does a little better job on any given day or perhaps he and his crew coordinate a little better, then they're going to get the result."
The Star Mazda series doesn't appear to be having the troubles that Atlantic had. The drivers who earned spots on the podium Sunday posed for separate pictures wearing five different hats each for different sponsors. And Rodrigues said his organization puts a premium on "keeping the price down" for the drivers and their teams.
Despite the poor attendance, the Star Mazda series has no plans to stop coming to NJMP. It was one of the first series to race there in 2008, the track's inaugural season.
"I'm not in a position to guarantee we'll be here next year," Rodrigues said, "but I can tell you there's no really good reason I can think of that we won't."
Fauerbach said the track hopes to continue the partnership, as well.
"It's a great event," he said. "These are the stars. These are the drivers who are going to go up to Indy."
Notes: In Sunday's SCCA Pro Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup race, Michael Cooper won for the first time in his professional career. Cooper, a 20-year-old rookie, was in only the 18th race of his career, including amateur events. ... Patrick McKenna won the USF2000 National Championship race.
Contact Jason Mazda:
Drivers listed with time and or distance behind winner.
1. Tristan Vautier 35 laps
2. Joao Horto, -7.057
3. Anders Krohn, -9.575
4. Conor Daly, -14.193
5. Jorge Goncalvez, -16.848
6. Caio Lara, -19.308
7. David Ostella, -29.336
8. Connor De Phillippi, -35.256
9. Tatiana Calderon, -35.367
10. Rusty Mitchell, -53.034
11. Carlos Linares, -1:10.226
12. Nick Andries, -1:16.032
13. Juan Piedrahita, -1:18.410
14. Chris Miller, 1 lap
15. Patrick O'Neill, 1 lap
16. Larry Pegram, 1 lap
17. J.W. Roberts, 1 lap
18. Carlos Conde, 1 lap
19. Dom Bastien, 1 lap
20. Gerry Kraut, 2 laps
21. Mikael Grenier, 4 laps
22. Walt Bowlin, 7 laps
RESULTSSCCA Pro Racing Mazda MX-5 Cup28 laps (60.76 miles)(Starting position in parentheses)All cars Mazda MX-5