Teams and drivers from all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will converge this week at Florida's Homestead-Miami Speedway for the INDYCAR development ladder's official spring training test.
The four-day outing will comprise more than six hours of testing for Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires competitors on the 1.5-mile oval later today, followed by two days of running on the 2.21-mile road course for the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, then one final day on the road course for Indy Lights on Thursday.
The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires offers scholarships at every level for talented drivers to make their way from the grassroots of the sport to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. A total of 23 of the 33 drivers who qualified for last year’s historic 100th Indianapolis 500 were graduates of one or more of the three open-wheel development series. More than $3.5 million in scholarships and awards are up for grabs during the 2017 season which will commence – in conjunction with the Verizon IndyCar Series – on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 10-12.
2016 title contenders Urrutia, Kaiser head Indy Lights contingent
An intriguing mix of veterans and rookies are among a high-quality Indy Lights field, headed by Uruguay's Santiago Urrutia and Kyle Kaiser, from Santa Clara, Calif., who finished second and third in the 2016 title-chase.
Urrutia, 20, sprung to prominence in 2015 when he claimed the Pro Mazda championship as a rookie, then, carrying the distinctive Soul Red Mazda colors last year, put himself in contention to emulate Spencer Pigot’s feat of claiming back-to-back Mazda scholarships. Urrutia fell agonizingly short, by just two points, but now returns with a vengeance after joining Belardi Auto Racing which won more races (six) in 2016 than any other team.
Fellow veteran Shelby Blackstock, from Nashville, Tenn., will join Urrutia at the Indianapolis-based squad.
Kaiser, who will celebrate his 21st birthday on March 5, also has his sights set firmly on the championship – and a prize valued at $1 million which will guarantee a minimum of three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2018, including the Indy 500. Kaiser won twice last year for Juncos Racing. Rookie teammate Nicolas Dapero, from Argentina, doesn’t have much experience but did claim a maiden Pro Mazda win at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca last fall to round out an impressive debut campaign.
The Carlin team, which last year added to its remarkable sequence of open-wheel feeder series championships in Europe by claiming a maiden Indy Lights crown with Ed Jones, will field a quartet of 450 hp Dallara-Mazda IL-15s for Californian Neil Alberico; Canadian Zachary Claman De Melo, who posted two fastest race laps during a promising debut Indy Lights campaign; Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist, from Brazil, who won the 2016 BRDC British Formula 3 Championship; and Pennsylvanian Garth Rickards, who steps up after two years in USF2000.
Andretti Autosport also will oversee four young chargers. Canadian Dalton Kellett, who finished on the podium last year in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is the only one with prior Indy Lights experience but his three rookie teammates are all proven winners. Frenchman Nico Jamin was a dominant USF2000 champion in 2015, while Ryan Norman, from Cleveland, Ohio, romped to last year’s Atlantic Championship and Colton Herta, 16, whose father Bryan claimed the Indy Lights crown in 1993, won races last year in the EuroFormula Open series. Herta’s car will be run under the banner of Andretti Steinbrenner Racing following a new link between Michael Andretti and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of long-time New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
Wisconsin rookie Aaron Telitz, who steps up to Indy Lights after following Urrutia’s lead by winning the Pro Mazda title in 2016, will fly the Soul Red Mazda colors with a team announcement expected shortly. Likable Colombian Juan Piedrahita will round out the field with Florida-based Team Pelfrey.
Aussie Martin seeks back-to-back MRTI crowns
Pro Mazda is in the midst of a transition with a brand-new car, the Tatuus PM-18, to be introduced next year to the middle step on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires development ladder. Fields are expected to remain fairly slim, although a great deal is at stake with the champion’s Mazda Scholarship increased in size to $790,300 to assist in the graduation to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2018, and additional entries are expected for the season-opener.
One of the hot favorites for honors will be reigning USF2000 champion Anthony Martin, 22, from Perth, Australia, who is stepping up and will carry the traditional Mazda scholarship Soul Red color scheme.
“Winning the USF2000 championship meant everything, not only for me but my family, sponsors and friends that have been with me from the start,” said Martin. “Knowing that I would be racing in Pro Mazda this year was such a relief and I am really looking forward to this transition in my career.”
Martin now seeks to follow in the footsteps of countryman Matthew Brabham, who claimed back-to-back Mazda scholarships in USF2000 and Pro Mazda in 2012 and 2013 and made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in 2016.
“The Mazda Road to Indy is like no other development program,” Martin said. “It was the sole reason I moved halfway around the world from Australia and it continues to be. To me, the Mazda Road to Indy is one big family – something that motorsport misses everywhere else. What the Mazda Road to Indy family has done with all of the sponsors is incredible and it gives motivation for drivers to come from all around the world and compete against the best.”
Among Martin’s rivals will be Californian TJ Fischer, who contested a partial campaign with Team Pelfrey in 2016 and will return for a full-season attack on the championship with the organization that has won the past two Pro Mazda crowns with Urrutia and Telitz. Los Angeles-based Russian and USF2000 veteran Nikita Lastochkin also will step up with Team Pelfrey alongside teenaged Brazilian F3 racer Carlos Cunha.
World Speed Motorsports also will be back with a two-car team for veteran Bobby Eberle and up-and-comer Sting Ray Robb. Eberle, 48, from Houston, Texas, is a four-time National Class champion who fully intends to challenge for overall honors this year – and is aimed at becoming the oldest rookie to compete in the Indianapolis 500 – while Robb, from Boise, Idaho, has packed a great deal of racing (and winning) experience into his 15 years after competing in karts, Corvettes, paved and dirt Modified cars, NASCAR stock cars and a partial campaign in the West Coast-based Formula Car Challenge in 2016.
Quality USF2000 field to debut new Tatuus USF-17
The new season marks a fresh start for USF2000 with the exciting Tatuus USF-17 chassis replacing the venerable Van Diemen which has provided the backbone of the series since 1999. The USF-17 features a full carbon composite and aluminum honeycomb monocoque which meets the current FIA F4 safety standards and has attracted new teams such as Benik, DEForce Racing, Exclusive Autosport and Newman Wachs Racing to take on the established might of Cape Motorsports, Pabst Racing, ArmsUp Motorsports and Team Pelfrey.
The St. Petersburg,Fla.-based Cape brothers, Dominic and Nicholas, remain as the benchmark having guided their charges to no fewer than 10 championships since the turn of the century, including the last six USF2000 championships in a row. Ricky Donison is the newest young charger seeking to follow in their footsteps. Donison, from Bangalore, India, has raced karts extensively and made a solid car racing debut last fall when he finished on the podium in each of his first three Formula 4 races at the F1 Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.
Four USF2000 veterans are among the entries, headed by Canadian Parker Thompson who has joined Exclusive Autosport (front-runners in F1600 competition in Canada for the past several years) after finishing a close second in 2016. He will be joined by U.S.-based Australian Luke Gabin, who notched a quartet of podium appearances en route to fifth in the standings, while last year’s top two USF2000 rookies, Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., and Dakota Dickerson, from San Diego, Calif., will represent Team Pelfrey and Newman Wachs respectively.
New York-based Andre Castro, a standout last year in the Skip Barber Racing Championship, and Dutch karting standout Rinus VeeKay will join Dickerson at Newman Wachs, which is making a welcome return to the sport seven years after winning the Atlantic Championship with Floridian Jonathan Summerton.
Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., who finished third in last year’s F4 championship and shone in England as a Team USA Scholarship winner, seems set to shake down the new Benik team’s USF-17.
Pabst Racing will field at least two cars – for Brazilian Lucas Kohl, who claimed a best finish of sixth during his debut campaign, and Guyanan rookie Calvin Ming, who excelled last year both in F1600 and F4 – while ArmsUp Motorsports, which guided Brazilian Victor Franzoni to third place in the 2016 standings, will run Skip Barber graduate Devin Wojcik, from Syracuse, N.Y., who dipped his toes in the water with a one-off outing with the team last year at Road America. Another returning team, RJB Motorsports, has snapped up teenager Horton Chandler, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to drive its new Tatuus. John Cummiskey Racing also will be present with two cars and drivers yet to be named.
DEForce Racing, a new entity headed by former Indy car racer David Martinez, has entered two cars for Kory Enders, from Warwick, N.Y., who has been sharpening his skills already this year in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand, and F4 veteran Moises de la Vara, from Guadalajara, Mexico.
Acknowledged karting star Oliver Askew, 20, from Jupiter, Fla., burst upon the scene last year in England after he won a Team USA Scholarship, then secured the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, earning himself a ride in USF2000 this year and the right to carry the prestigious Soul Red colors on a brand-new Tatuus.
Live timing of all sessions will be available on the respective series websites, indylights.com, promazda.com and usf2000.com, as well as on indycar.com and the Road To Indy TV App.