My Mazda Road To Indy: The Graduates
Spencer Pigot achieved one of his career goals when he took victory at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, earning him the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title and the Mazda scholarship valued at $1M to ensure himself of a future in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
One year later, as the young Floridian completed his rookie season, he looked back on his Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career and the steps that brought him to the pinnacle of American open-wheel racing.
Pigot’s career took off after he won both the 2009 Skip Barber Shootout and the 2010 Skip Barber National Series, earning a pair of Mazda scholarships which vaulted him onto the Mazda Road to Indy with a spot in the 2011 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. Three years later, Pigot continued his progression by winning the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, then graduated to the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series by winning the Indy Lights title – and a record-extending fourth Mazda scholarship.
His first experience driving an Indy car actually came toward the end of his Indy Lights season when he joined six other Indy Lights drivers in testing with IndyCar teams at Sonoma Raceway in August of 2015. For Pigot, that first experience was invaluable.
“Having the IndyCar test last year was a great chance for me to get behind the wheel of an Indy car with no pressure. It benefits the team, because they get an extra day of testing, and it benefits us because we get to experience an Indy car for the first time under conditions that are similar for everyone. It’s a win-win so that’s why you saw so many teams take advantage of it this year. It gives you a taste and makes you want to get back into the car as soon as possible.”
If Pigot and his fellow Indy Lights drivers made a relatively easy transition to the more powerful Dallara DW12, much of that can be attributed to the Dallara IL-15, the new car introduced at the beginning of last season. Pigot believes the car created a perfect exclamation point on the three-tiered Mazda Road to Indy.
“The Indy Lights car was a huge step forward: it was a more sophisticated race car than the old car, with much more power and downforce than anything I’d driven before. It was a big step forward and allowed me to jump into the Indy car and feel pretty comfortable right away. That’s how the Mazda Road to Indy prepares a driver – every time you progress a level, the car is bigger, heavier and has more power. It was the biggest of the four jumps, but I think the Indy Lights car is the best car out there to help you prepare for what’s in store when you get into the IndyCar Series.”
Pigot signed with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for three races in 2016 as part of the scholarship – the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 – forming an all-American line-up alongside Graham Rahal. Rahal, the son of Indy legend Bobby Rahal and the youngest winner of a Verizon IndyCar Series race, competed in Indy Lights in 2006.
With the help of Art Wilmes’ Rising Star Racing, Pigot then signed with Ed Carpenter Racing to pilot the No. 20 at the remaining non-oval events of 2016, joining fellow RSR driver Josef Newgarden with team owner Ed Carpenter driving the oval events. The second half of the season saw his best finishes of the year (ninth) come at Road America and Mid-Ohio – venues at which he had raced a combined 15 times on the Mazda Road to Indy.
“We learned a lot from everyone at RLL and I really had a blast. They are a great team. The goal was to do more races with them but it didn’t pan out. The opportunity with Ed came up and we couldn’t pass it up. It’s been great.
“I’ve known Josef since I was 11 or 12 years old and racing karts,” continued Pigot. “I’ve learned a lot from him. We’ve been able to compare setups and data and I’ve been at all the ovals as well, listening to Ed on the radio. So I had two super experienced guys – both of whom are race winners and have been at the front of IndyCar for some time now – so I couldn’t pick better teammates. Same with Graham, he was a great teammate to start the season.”
In the end, Pigot found that the Mazda Road to Indy indeed equipped him well for his rookie season in the “Big Show.” From getting to know the tracks, the organizers and the IndyCar drivers, Pigot believes he was far more prepared than a driver who came in cold.
“The great thing about the Mazda Road to Indy is that you’re racing on all the same tracks as IndyCar for four or five years. That’s one less thing you have to learn on a race weekend, which is pretty hectic to begin with. It’s a huge help when you get to a race weekend to know you’ve been on that track three or four times already. And having been at all the events for the past five years, I know what to expect. It’s totally different when you’re experiencing it for the first time. It’s nice to be an IndyCar rookie but still know the way things go and knowing who people are.
“My first drivers’ meeting was also so much easier. I’d gotten to know some of these guys pretty well through my years in the Mazda Road to Indy. You know what to expect based on watching the races in person – you learn how guys drive, who’s super aggressive, who’s more patient. But I do think you gain a little bit of respect before you even get to the first race by getting to know them, instead of them not knowing what to expect of you as a rookie lining up with them on that first starting grid.”
Pigot capped his 2016 season in spectacular fashion last weekend, putting the No. 70 Mazda Prototype into the lead at the 10-hour sports car endurance classic, the Petit Le Mans - passing, among others, the recently-crowned IndyCar champion Simon Pagenaud. Pigot handed the wheel to Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda driver coach Joel Miller for the final stint, and the No. 70 was poised for a podium finish until a broken fuel injector ended the day with an agonizing 12 minutes remaining.
“This has been such an amazing year,” said Pigot, who turned 23 last week, “and the scholarship made it possible for me to be here. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world. I wouldn’t have been racing in IndyCar if not for the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship. I’ve been a part of the Mazda family for years; I won my first scholarship with them when I was 16.”