Two levels of the three-step Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder will be in action this weekend, April 21-23, in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala.
Young American drivers lead the way following the opening races of the season last month on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., although fifteen different nations and five distinct continents (North and South America, Asia, Australasia and Europe) will be represented as competitors in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda prepare for battle on the scenic and challenging, 2.3-mile, 17-turn road course.
A high-quality field will be chasing the honor of winning the 400th race in Indy Lights history dating back to 1986. The milestone will be attained on Sunday in the second of two races that will comprise the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires. James Hinchcliffe, who won the 300th Indy Lights race at Long Beach in 2010 and, coincidentally, triumphed in the most recent IndyCar race at Long Beach two weeks ago, will be on hand to present a special winner’s trophy.
Colton Herta, driving for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, currently holds the championship points lead following a sensational debut in Florida where he finished second in Race One and then the following day eclipsed the record for the youngest ever winner. The son of 1993 Indy Lights champion Bryan Herta surprised even himself with his form but has every intention of building upon his championship lead.
“It’s amazing the success we had at St. Pete and it was really unexpected as well. I think we are still on a high from it,” admitted Herta, who celebrated his 17th birthday on March 30. “So coming into Barber as the championship leader feels amazing and I’m full speed ahead.
“Because we have the championship lead it’s going to be all about defense and maintaining a good position without compromising any risk,” he continued. “We need to finish both races with strong points finishes – preferably on top of the podium.”
Fellow rookies Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward expect to be hot on Herta’s heels. Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., won the opening race of the season for Belardi Auto Racing, carrying the distinctive Soul Red colors after winning last year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – as well as a Mazda Scholarship to assist in the graduation to Indy Lights – while O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, who pushed Telitz to the limit last year in Pro Mazda (and won both races at Barber), claimed a pair of top-five finishes on his Indy Lights debut with Team Pelfrey.
Series veterans Shelby Blackstock, from Nashville, Tenn., in a second Belardi entry, and Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing), from Santa Clara, Calif., currently share fourth in the points table, chased by Uruguay’s Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), who began the year as a favorite for top honors after finishing a close second in the 2016 title-chase, and Californian Neil Alberico (Carlin). Urrutia won one of the corresponding races at Barber last year.
Other contenders will include Frenchman Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), who won a USF2000 race at Barber en route to the championship in 2015, and Brazilian Matheus Leist, the reigning BRDC British Formula 3 Champion who is looking to bounce back from a disappointing first North American race weekend at St. Petersburg with the Carlin team.
On-track activities will commence with a 45-minute practice session on Friday afternoon. The weekend will comprise a 30-lap/45-minute race on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. EDT and a 35-lap/60-minute “feature” race on Sunday at 11:45 a.m. – immediately prior to the IndyCar headline event. Both races will be preceded earlier in the day by a 30-minute qualifying session.