Americans Pigot, Alberico and Eidson lead the way to Indianapolis
No fewer than 16 different nationalities will be represented when all three levels of the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy development ladder continue their campaigns this week in support of the Angie's List Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
Perhaps it is appropriate as they head for the premier open-wheel auto racing venue in North America that home-grown drivers currently hold the points lead in all three championships.
Spencer Pigot, who hails from Orlando, Fla., but now makes his home in Indianapolis, took control of the top-tier Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title-chase by virtue of a commanding double victory two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. Neil Alberico, from Los Gatos, Calif., furthered his claim to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires by winning also at Barber, while Jake Eidson, from Littleton, Colo., heads the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda standings on the heels of podium finishes in each of the six races held to date.
Coincidentally, fellow rising American star and 2011 Indy Lights champion Josef Newgarden broke through in Alabama by securing his first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series victory for Indianapolis-based CFH Racing. All four drivers will be looking toward the top step of the podium again this weekend at the 2.439-mile road circuit which uses portions of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.
The Mazda Road to Indy is a proven driver development "ladder" which guides drivers all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, with scholarship packages to assist in the graduation between each level.
Pigot Aims to Cement his Authority at Indy
Pigot has developed into a poster boy for the Mazda Road to Indy. An accomplished karter, Pigot made the step into cars via a Skip Barber Karting Scholarship Shootout in 2009, followed by victory in the following year's BFGoodrich Skip Barber National Presented by Mazda which earned him another MAZDASPEED Driver Development scholarship award to move into USF2000. He narrowly missed out on the USF2000 title in each of the following two years but, after snagging one race win in his rookie year of Pro Mazda, went on to earn another championship and scholarship prize in 2014 to facilitate his graduation into Indy Lights for 2015.
Remaining with Brownsburg, Ind.-based Juncos Racing, Pigot finished a strong third in the first two races of the season at St. Petersburg, Fla. He impressed again at Long Beach, rising to second after being relegated to fifth from his front row starting position while avoiding an incident at Turn One. One week later at Barber he was untouchable, winning both races from the pole. The wins enabled 21-year-old Pigot to grasp the points lead from Dubai-based Briton Ed Jones, who, along with the European open-wheel powerhouse Carlin team, had begun his North American career in style with three consecutive victories.
Jones, 20, has every intention of working his way back to the front at Indianapolis, along with teammate and ex-F1 driver Max Chilton, who was delighted to claim his first podium result last time out in Alabama.
Fellow Englishman Jack Harvey also is sure to be a prominent force for seven-time Indy Lights championship-winning team Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian. The former British Formula 3 champion finished second in the 2014 Indy Lights championship, losing out only on a tie-breaker of second-place finishes, and has finished second again in four of the five races run so far this season. Harvey, who finished on the podium in both races on the Indy road course last year, is now aiming for the top step.
Rookies Felix Serralles (Belardi Auto Racing), from Ponce, Puerto Rico, and RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson), from New Port Richey, Fla., already have podium finishes to their credit this year, while Pigot's Juncos Racing teammate Kyle Kaiser, from Santa Clara, Calif., has displayed prodigious pace without yet achieving commensurate results. He intends to set that record straight during Rounds Six and Seven this week.
Watch out too for former Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship Powered by Mazda title-winner Sean Rayhall, from Winston, Ga., who made an impressive Indy Lights debut at Barber for 8Star Motorsports.
The Mazda Grand Prix of Indianapolis Presented by Cooper Tires will commence with a pair of 60-minute promoter test sessions today (Wednesday, May 5), followed by two 45-minute practices tomorrow. The "official" portion of the weekend continues with qualifying at 12:00 noon East Coast time on Friday, May 7, and the first of two races later in the afternoon at 4:30 p.m. Following a 15-minute warmup at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, Round Seven of the 16-race season will start at 1:25 p.m., immediately before the Verizon IndyCar Series headline event. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available on the new Mazda Road to Indy App and at indylights.com.
Alberico and Urrutia Head 22-Strong Pro Mazda Field
The Pro Mazda competitors will contest a triple-header on the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit, including a make-up race following postponement of the scheduled second race last month at NOLA Motorsports Park in Louisiana due to severe weather.
Californian Alberico concluded his deal to remain with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing only a few weeks before the start of the Pro Mazda season, but he didn't allow the lack of preparation to hinder his progress. Alberico, who finished a strong third in his rookie campaign in 2014, romped to a pair of victories on the streets of St. Petersburg to claim the early championship lead. The team struggled for pace at NOLA, where Alberico finished a disappointing sixth in an extremely competitive field, but bounced back two weeks ago at Barber Motorsports Park to claim a fourth and another race win which allowed him to maintain a slender eight-point lead as the expanded 22-car field heads to Indy. Alberico, in particular, is looking forward to his return to Indianapolis after securing two podium finishes last year.
The next five positions in the points table currently are held by Pro Mazda rookies, headed by the Team Pelfrey pair of Santiago "Santi" Urrutia, from Uruguay, and Patricio "Pato" O'Ward, who hails originally from Monterrey, Mexico, but now is based and attends school in San Antonio, Texas. O'Ward, incidentally, celebrates his 16th birthday today.
Urrutia, who has competed in Europe for the past four seasons, has been a revelation since switching his attention to North America, winning once at NOLA and adding three more podium finishes. O'Ward, meanwhile, made his debut for the team during last fall's Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test, in which he impressed by posting the fastest time.
O'Ward, with three top-five finishes to his name, heads a group of five drivers who are separated by just six points: Frenchmen Florian Latorre (Cape Motorsports), who won the 2014 USF2000 championship; Timothe Buret (Juncos Racing), who took a second at Barber; Malaysian Weiron Tan (Andretti Autosport), the polesitter at NOLA and winner of Race One at Barber; and Canadian Garett Grist (Juncos Racing), who won twice during his rookie campaign in 2014.
Jose Gutierrez (Juncos Racing), from Monterrey, Mexico, and Daniel Burkett (Cape Motorsports), from Winnipeg, Man., Canada, also have podium finishes to their credit already in what is proving to be an extremely competitive season. Indeed, the level will rise still further for this weekend's Cooper Tires Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Indianapolis with the late addition of Scott Hargrove. The talented Canadian, who won the 2013 USF2000 championship and finished a close second in the 2014 Pro Mazda title-chase, including a pair of wins at Indianapolis, had intended to step up this year into Indy Lights, in which he ran well in the first two races in Florida, but has been obliged to reset his sights and now has joined JDC MotorSports for this weekend's trio of races. An influx of entries for Indianapolis also includes USF2000 race winner Victor Franzoni, who will make his debut with M1 Racing.
The Pro Mazda contingent will begin their weekend with a pair of one-hour promoter test sessions today (May 6), followed by two official practice sessions at 9:15 a.m. and 2:15 p.m. on Friday, and the first of three races - the grid for which was set last month at NOLA, prior to the rain-out - at 5:55 p.m. Qualifying for the second race will take place at 10:15 a.m. on Friday, May 8, with the green flag at 2:00 p.m. The final race will start at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday. All times are local. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available on the new Mazda Road to Indy App and at promazda.com.
Consistent Pace the Key for USF2000 Points Leader Jake Eidson
The old adage "To finish first, first you have to finish" has been followed to a tee by championship leader Jake Eidson. The youngster from Littleton, Colo., previously a champion in both the Skip Barber Racing Series and the F1600 Championship Series, won the opening two races of the season on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and since then has notched a quartet of third-place finishes to ensure he holds the series points lead prior to the two 30-minute races which will comprise the Mazda USF2000 Grand Prix of Indianapolis.
The Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing pair of Nico Jamin, from Rouen, France, and Aaron Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., have combined to win three of the last four races, but haven't been able to match Eidson's consistency. They currently trail by 11 and 21 points, respectively.
Fourth place in the standings is held by the best-placed rookie, Anthony Martin, from Perth, Western Australia. The Aussie, whose Van Diemen-Mazda is fielded by veteran IndyCar crew chief/team manager John Cummiskey, has impressed with a handful of top-five runs, capped by a fine second last time out in the rain at Barber Motorsports Park.
Fellow rookie Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, also has impressed with a sequence of three top-five finishes for JDC MotorSports, and seems to be improving with every outing under the expert guidance of 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice.
Others to watch this week include another young Australian, Luke Gabin (Team Pelfrey), who has moved into USF2000 on the strength of a MAZDASPEED scholarship after winning the 2014 Skip Barber Racing Championship Shootout, and Noblesville, Ind., native Sam Chastain, who is making his USF2000 debut with JDC MotorSports after showing well in last year's F1600 Championship series.
After two 60-minute test sessions today, the USF2000 contingent will benefit from another pair of 30-minute practice periods tomorrow, May 7. Qualifying will take place at 9:30 a.m. on Friday, May 8, followed by the first of two races at 1:00 p.m. Race Two will start at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, May 9. All times are local. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available on the new Mazda Road to Indy App and at usf2000.com.