Mazda Road To Indy Drivers Set For Spring Training In Alabama
Almost 50 race car drivers representing no fewer than 18 nations will converge this week on Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., for the official Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training Test.
This is the final opportunity for teams to prepare for the following week’s season-opening races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy will be in attendance, with Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competitors taking to the scenic 2.3-mile road course on Saturday, March 5, and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda fields sharing track time on Sunday and Monday, March 6-7.
Indy Lights Enjoys Significant Boost for 2016
The top level of the unique driver development ladder, Indy Lights, benefits from a substantial surge of interest this year following the successful adoption of an exciting and brand-new Dallara-Mazda equipment package in 2015. A strong field of 16 cars is expected at Barber, representing a 25 percent increase over the average field last season. The quality is impressive, too, with reigning FIA European Formula 3 Champion and two-time Macau Grand Prix winner Felix Rosenqvist, from Sweden, former FIA Formula 2 Champion and GP3 Series runner-up Dean Stoneman, from England, and 2015 Pro Mazda champion Santiago Urrutia, from Uruguay, joining an intriguing mix of veterans and rookies.
Defending Team Championship winner Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian will return with another stellar line-up comprising 2015 race winner RC Enerson, from New Port Richey, Fla., Urrutia, who makes the step with help from a substantial Mazda Scholarship after winning the Pro Mazda title, Brazilian Andre Negrao, a veteran of the GP2 Series in recent years, and Korean Heamin Choi.
Enerson, who will celebrate his 19th birthday on Sunday, set the fastest time in a one-day test session last week on the Phoenix International Raceway oval in Arizona.
Belardi Auto Racing, which guided Gabby Chaves to the 2014 championship, also has high expectations after Rosenqvist topped the times in an earlier test session at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida. The highly rated Swede will benefit from the experience of 21-year-old Ohioan Zach Veach, who will make his return to Indy Lights after finishing third in the 2014 title-chase.
After winning the 2015 driver championship with Spencer Pigot, who will achieve one of his life goals by graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg, Juncos Racing will look to Pigot’s teammate from last year, Californian teenager Kyle Kaiser, to continue the good work. Kaiser will be joined by Canadian rookie Zachary Claman De Melo.
European open-wheel powerhouse team Carlin burst onto the North American scene in 2015 by winning its first three Indy Lights races, and Dubai-based Englishman Ed Jones will be looking to repeat that feat – and more – during his sophomore campaign. Carlin has expanded its operation from two to three cars with the addition of Puerto Rican Felix Serralles, who won at Milwaukee last year, and rookie Neil Alberico, who has finished second in both the Pro Mazda and USF2000 championships over the past three years.
Andretti Autosport also will field a strong three-car team for Tennessean Shelby Blackstock, who claimed a podium finish last year at Mid-Ohio, Pro Mazda graduate Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Canada, and rising English star Stoneman, who also has an offshore powerboat championship on his resume.
Team Pelfrey will complete the field with two cars for series veteran Juan Piedrahita, from Colombia, and Canadian Scott Hargrove, the 2013 USF2000 champion who also finished second to Pigot in the 2014 Pro Mazda standings.
Canada’s Grist Heads Select Pro Mazda Field
Garett Grist, from Grimsby, Ont., Canada, has a score to settle in 2016. He began last year as one of the title favorites in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, joining defending champion team Juncos Racing after winning three times in 2014, and while he accumulated more points in the second half of the season than anyone else, including champion Santi Urrutia, a disappointing first half of the campaign left him languishing third in the points table. Now a six-time Pro Mazda race winner, Grist has his eyes set firmly on the championship and a coveted Mazda Scholarship to assist in graduation to Indy Lights in 2017. Grist will have three teammates at Juncos Racing: highly rated Australian Jake Parsons, who finished second in last year’s Chinese Formula Masters Championship, returning veteran Will Owen, from Castle Rock, Colo., and young Argentinean Nicolas Dapero.
Malaysian Weiron Tan, a four-time winner last year, also has high expectations, joining Team Pelfrey, which guided Urrutia to the 2015 championship, alongside proven USF2000 race winner Aaron Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis.
Two of Telitz’s USF2000 rivals for the past two years, fellow former Team USA Scholarship winner Jake Eidson, from Littleton, Colo., and last year’s champion Nico Jamin, from Rouen, France, also will step up into Pro Mazda with another sure-fire front-running team Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.
A pair of National class veterans, Bobby Eberle, from Houston, Texas, and Jay Horak, from Mesa, Ariz., will represent World Speed Motorsports and M1 Racing respectively.
Nine Nationalities Among 22-Strong USF2000 Entry
The first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder already is brimming with talent as drivers from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, China, England, New Zealand, Norway and Russia are set to challenge home-grown talent from both Canada and the United States in this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
Among those seeking to follow in the footsteps of 2015 champion Nico Jamin are three of last year’s most promising rookies, Australian Anthony Martin, Canadian Parker Thompson and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin. The trio finished fourth, fifth and eighth, respectively in 2015 and aim to continue the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team’s legacy by vying for a sixth consecutive championship crown.
Pabst Racing, which guided Jake Eidson to three wins and second place in the 2015 title-chase, will return with Pennsylvanian Garth Rickards and China’s Yufeng Luo, both of whom posted promising results during their rookie campaigns, plus Jordan Lloyd, who showed well in a few USF2000 outings before returning to his native Australia to win the inaugural CAMS Jayco Formula 4 Championship last year.
Team Pelfrey once again will field no fewer than four Van Diemen-Mazdas for Jordan Cane, from England, who won a record-equaling seven F1600 Championship Series races last year at the tender age of 14; New Yorker Robert Megennis, 15, who also made his mark with eight podium finishes; Californian TJ Fischer, who has competed in Europe the past two years; and Kiwi James Munro, who comfortably won the New Zealand Formula Ford title in 2013.
Other potential front-runners include John Cummiskey Racing’s pair of Ayla Agren, from Norway, who in 2014 became the first female to win the F1600 Championship Series, and Brazilian Lucas Kohl; 2014 Skip Barber Scholarship winner Luke Gabin (JAY Motorsports), from Australia, who finished sixth in the 2015 championship, highlighted by a podium finish in Toronto; two-time Team USA Scholarship winner Michai Stephens (RJB Motorsports); and Dakota Dickerson (Afterburner Autosport), who will step up to USF2000 on the strength of a Mazda scholarship after winning the Skip Barber Racing Championship Shootout, plus a Team USA Scholarship, in 2015.
The Mazda Road to Indy Spring Training test will commence with a pair of sessions for Indy Lights on Saturday, March 5, from 9:00-12:00 p.m. and 1:30-5:00 p.m., then continue with the Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams taking over with three sessions apiece on Sunday and Monday. Live timing for all on-track sessions will be carried on the respective series websites – indylights.com, promazda.com and usf2000.com.