The 2017 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires is in a transition year. Some potential competitors are waiting for the 2018 debut of the Tatuus PM-18 chassis.
That shouldn’t, however, take away from the fireworks this season. The 12-round schedule will play host to some fresh faces, but also returns some of the highest quality teams in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
Team Pelfrey is coming off back-to-back series titles, having collected 13 of 16 victories last season with series champion and Mazda scholarship award winner Aaron Telitz and runner-up Pato O’Ward. Telitz has taken his award to the next top step on the INDYCAR-sanctioned MRTI ladder – Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. O’Ward has since gone on to claim a Rolex 24 At Daytona class win in Prototype Challenge and will compete in the Indy Lights opening doubleheader this weekend at St. Petersburg.
Despite the departure of two standout drivers, Team Pelfrey sees the return to the No. 82 Mazda of TJ Fischer, who raced for the team for half of 2016. A pair of Pro Mazda rookies, Brazilian Carlos Cunha and Russian Nikita Lastochkin, will pilot the Nos. 81 and 80 cars, respectively.
Cape Motorsports will feature just one driver to its Pro Mazda lineup, but it comes in the form of reigning Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda champion Anthony Martin. The 22-year-old Aussie is hoping to follow countryman, driver coach and 2016 Indianapolis 500 rookie Matt Brabham in claiming back-to-back USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles.
“Matt is a great driver, a quality driver,” said Martin, driver of the No. 8 Cape Motorsports Mazda. “He helped me last year in USF – he was actually driver coaching us at Cape. He was doing a really good job there. He’s taught me a few things and I’m sure he’ll be back again this year to teach me even more.”
An eventful time testing during spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway’s 2.21-mile road course last week gave a preview of the battle to come. Martin led two of the six sessions over two days and Team Pelfrey drivers captured the other four.
Martin knows that the Pelfrey trio will provide a stiff challenge.
“Pelfrey does a great job with their cars and they always have some quality drivers,” said Martin. “It’s always going to be tough to beat them.
Dan Andersen, owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions that operates the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, believes that the “quality” of racing in Pro Mazda will continue, even with potentially smaller fields.
“Pro Mazda is going through a challenging year because it’s a transition year,” Andersen said. “It’s the last year of the current car. The new USF2000 car (Tatuus USF-17) is so strong and so attractive that we’ve actually had kids decide stay in USF2000 instead of going there (to Pro Mazda). It’s not attractive to bring new kids in the old (car). They all want to wait until the new PM-18 car comes in.
“So we’ll have about a dozen cars, maybe more, at St. Pete. It’s a little bit challenging, but the quality is still going to be good. It’s still great racing.”
Pro Mazda takes to the track Friday in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg for practice and Race 1 qualifying. Race 2 qualifying and the first race of the weekend (and season) are set for Saturday, with the second race slated following the Verizon IndyCar Series race on Sunday. The St. Pete doubleheader will be the only Pro Mazda races contested on a temporary street course this year. One oval event is scheduled for Gateway Motorsports Park, with nine races on permanent road circuits.