The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires concluded its best season to date with thrilling championship battles punctuated by off-track initiatives that position the INDYCAR-sanctioned ladder series for future growth and global presence.
The relevance of the Mazda Road to Indy in assisting drivers to the pinnacle of the sport was highlighted in the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500 where 24 of the 33 starters were graduates of the program. 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion Ed Jones finished an impressive third and 2015 Indy Lights race winner Max Chilton fourth. The season-ending Verizon IndyCar Series finale witnessed 16 of 22 starters as graduates including newly crowned champion Josef Newgarden, who claimed the 2011 Indy Lights title.
“The Mazda Road to Indy from an IndyCar and, frankly, from an Indianapolis 500 perspective is priceless,” said Mark Miles, CEO of Hulman & Company, the parent company of INDYCAR. “It is THE way for us to develop talent that supports the IndyCar series and the 500-mile race in Indianapolis. And it’s working.”
"You have all these young kids who race go-karts and want to race professionally and specifically look to IndyCar racing,” said Newgarden. “They need a system, they need a ladder that they can climb up and hopefully make it to the top — that's the structure that the Mazda Road to Indy provides."
Spencer Pigot, who won consecutive championships in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights, and multiple Indy Lights race winner Zach Veach further cemented their footprints as IndyCar drivers following recently announced full-time campaigns for 2018. Since 2013, 16 drivers have graduated from the Mazda Road to Indy into IndyCar.
Premier Competition and Over $3.5M in Prize Money and Awards
Drivers representing 17 nations and five continents made up the grids for Indy Lights, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in one of the most competitive seasons on record. Across the three series, 13 drivers claimed race wins and 26 different drivers finished on the podium. Over $3.5 million in prize money and awards was distributed.
Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing captured the Indy Lights crown and will use his Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million to contest a minimum of three races in the 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series including the 102nd running of the Indianapolis 500. Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni of Juncos Racing will take his $790,300 Mazda Scholarship to Indy Lights while Oliver Askew of Cape Motorsports – who claimed his second consecutive Mazda Scholarship with the USF2000 title – will advance to Pro Mazda via his $325,000 champion’s pay day.
“There are a lot of great drivers out there that never got the opportunity to compete at the top level,” said Ed Jones. “The Mazda Road to Indy allows you to prove yourself and when you prove yourself, it gives you the opportunity to move up. Without the Mazda Road to Indy, I wouldn’t be in IndyCar today.”
“The competition level is through the roof (and) you get to race people from around the world, but you have a good platform to start from that you can move up the ladder and eventually get to the pinnacle which is IndyCar racing, which I think is the best racing in the world,” said Scott Dixon, four-time IndyCar champion, Indianapolis 500 race winner and 2000 Indy Lights champion.
Series Revitalization Concludes
With the prototype testing debut of the Mazda-powered Tatuus PM-18, which will enter competition next year, the revitalization of all three levels is now complete. State-of-the-art chassis are in service across the board meeting the highest safety standards, including the Dallara IL-15, which debuted in Indy Lights in 2015, and the Tatuus USF-17 that was introduced to rave reviews this season. The price point for a new rolling chassis in USF2000 is $55,800 and $61,800 for Pro Mazda. In Indy Lights and USF2000, 20 track records were broken this year.
To guarantee parity in a very competitive field which saw seven different race winners in 2017, Indy Lights next season will introduce a higher quality turbocharger and wastegate for the 2.0-liter turbocharged Mazda MZR-R engine developed in conjunction with Advanced Engine Research (AER). The addition of at least six torque sensors, which will be rotated between teams, will monitor engine equivalency providing instant results that will be managed by a third-party analysis of the data to further ensure performance equality.
Mazda Road to Indy Team Expansion
The Mazda Road to Indy paddock continued to grow this year with the addition of new teams Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, BN Racing, DEForce Racing, FatBoy Racing!, Exclusive Autosport, Team Benik and the return of Newman Wachs Racing. As teams await the 2018 schedule, which will be announced in the coming weeks, Andersen Promotions and Green Savoree Racing Promotions confirmed a new three-year partnership which will see all three series compete on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, through 2020 in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series headline event.
“What I like about the (USF2000) series is that it is always in front of the IndyCar series so all the people that are involved – the managers, the bosses, the driver coaches. If you are good then they will notice you and I think it is a very big advantage compared to many other series in the world,” said The Netherlands’ Marijn van Kalmthout, father of USF2000 championship runner-up Rinus VeeKay.
Coverage of the Mazda Road to Indy has continued to expand. After becoming the first American racing series with a dedicated broadcast channel on demand via Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku last April, the Mazda Road to Indy became the first open-wheel racing series to feature an Official App on Xbox One. It also entered the gaming world with a new arcade-style game available for free download to mobile devices via the Apple App Store and on Google Play.
In addition to Indy Lights race broadcasts on NBCSN, the Mazda Road to Indy was featured on Road to Indy TV with behind-the-scenes episodes earning more than 420,000 video views this year. The Road to Indy TV App continued to expand its presence reaching 50,000 users. The Road to Indy TV Facebook followers grew to more than 300,000.
Worldwide live streaming and live timing on the series’ respective websites and indycar.com was available for the majority of on-track racing action in all series. Indy Lights was also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.
Educational Aspects Continue
Education to provide competitors with the tools they need off the track continues to be paramount. Highlights of this year’s Mazda Road to Indy Summit program included media training by NBCSN’s IndyCar and Formula One play-by-play announcer Leigh Diffey, an Oval Clinic featuring Al Unser Jr., Johnny Unser, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach and business presentations by series’ partners Mazda and Cooper Tires.
Drivers also participated in autograph sessions at every event hosted by the INDYCAR Fan Village plus Q&A sessions on the Cooper Tires stage and meet-and-greets/tours with children and their mentors from the Hi-Tide Kids On Track program which hosted groups from Big Brothers Big Sisters, Ronald McDonald House Charities and Boys and Girls Clubs of America amongst many others as well as Racing For Kids hospital visits.
Social Media Initiatives Emphasized
The Cooper Tires Hashtag program – which utilizes the hashtags #TeamCooperTire and #MRTI in a series of social media challenges – witnessed its best year since its launch in 2014. Ninety-five percent of teams and drivers participated in the program which ran from February 27 to September 4 accounting for over 5,250 original posts. The #TeamCooperTire hashtag reached 6,770,909 users on Twitter and was tweeted 22,918 times. Of those, it was paired with the #MRTI hashtag on 20,264 occasions or 88 percent.
Proof is in the Pudding with New Video-Based Site
The new RoadToIndy.Info website was launched recently to assist in educating new drivers about the Mazda Road to Indy. Entirely video-based, the website covers key areas in the ladder system from racing, cars and tracks and safety to education, exposure, awards and support highlighted by input from industry insiders including team principals, IndyCar drivers and key personnel, media representatives, parents of current drivers and series’ partners.
Still to Come
Two key events remain on the 2017 schedule. The first is the Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test, now in its seventh year, which provides teams the opportunity to audition new talent and jumpstart their campaigns, and new drivers the chance to sample the waters. This year’s test will see competitors return to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course for a weekend outing at the iconic Brickyard on October 21/22. The test will mark the first time that the complete revitalization of the Mazda Road to Indy will be on display with all three series’ new chassis in action.
The second is the Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout which will bring 20 champions from series around the globe to the Valley of the Sun as the Bondurant Racing School near Phoenix, Ariz., will host the second annual event on December 9/10. The winner will receive a $200,000 prize from Mazda to assist in graduation to the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. In 2017, nearly 400 drivers from 20 open-wheel racing championships on five continents will have competed for an entry ticket to the Shootout. Oliver Askew was the inaugural winner.
“This has been a terrific season on so many fronts but, as always, we will seek to make improvements,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “We are all about driver training and advancement and whatever we can add to ease the career paths of all these talented drivers, we will do. This program is the result of tremendous support from INDYCAR, Mazda, Cooper Tires and our other fine partners, and it works because of the talented staff we've assembled along the way. Building a career in racing is very challenging but it's safe to say the Mazda Road to Indy has made it less so. There's nothing like it in the world!”