All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires will hit the ground running in Florida this coming weekend in support of the headline Verizon Indy Car Series as part of the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Drivers representing at least 18 states and 14 different nations from around the world are expected to be among the starting lineups when Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda all begin their 2018 campaigns with a pair of races on the scenic and challenging 1.8-mile downtown street circuit.
Uniquely in the world of auto racing, Mazda Scholarships and other awards valued at over $3.5 million will be on offer at season’s end to assist the respective champions in moving up to the next rung on the ladder in 2019.
Telitz, Herta Seeking to Repeat from 2017
One year ago, rookies Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) and Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing) burst onto the scene in Indy Lights by sharing the victory spoils at the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires. Now with a season of racing at this level under their belts, the pair will be chasing victory again in the hope of following in the footsteps of the last four series champions, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones and, most recently, Kyle Kaiser, who will all be competing in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I have so many good memories of St. Pete,” said Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., who also won the final race of last season at Watkins Glen and showed strong pace at the final pre-season test recently at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida. “I’ve been on the podium here every year, except for my rookie year in USF2000 when I crashed out of both races – as rookies do! I know it’s not important to win the first race of the year in regards to the championship, but for me, I feel as though it’s important to come out of the box strong. You want to win, but there are concrete walls everywhere so if you make a mistake, you’re out. I learned a lot by crashing out my first year and I’ve applied those lessons every year since. I know what to do and I know what not to do.”
Herta, too, is in a confident frame of mind heading into the new season alongside returning teammates “Flyin’ Ryan” Norman, from Cleveland, Ohio, who impressed at Spring Training, and Indianapolis-based Canadian Dalton Kellett, plus promising young Mexican Patricio “Pato” O’Ward.
“The entire Andretti Autosport team had a good test at Homestead so it should be a good race for us at St. Pete,” said Herta. “I love St. Pete – I love the track and I love the town! Everybody loves street courses and especially St. Pete, because it’s not as bumpy as some other street courses, especially after the repaving. It’s one of my favorite circuits on the calendar.”
Telitz and Herta aren’t the only contenders to have tasted success previously in St. Petersburg. O’Ward shared the Pro Mazda wins with Telitz in 2016 and last year finished third in one of his four Indy Lights starts, while popular Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) finished second in Pro Mazda in 2015 and second again last year in Indy Lights before going on to take the runner-up position in the championship for the second straight season.
“I feel good going into the season,” said Urrutia. “It’s my third year in the series, so I have to win the championship so I can be in IndyCar next year. We have to keep it calm and stay focused. This is a good field, so it’s going to be tough, but if we can stay out of trouble and win races, I feel confident. I’ve been training the entire offseason and I’m ready to get started at St. Pete!”
Also from South America, Brazilian rookie Victor Franzoni has similarly high expectations after stepping up with the same team, Juncos Racing, with which he won the Pro Mazda title and which guided Kyle Kaiser to top honors in Indy Lights.
“My expectation for this season is to win the championship,” said Franzoni, who won at St. Petersburg on his North American debut in USF2000 in 2014. “I’m starting the season the same way I started 2017, really confident and knowing that I have to use the opportunity I have. I’m super excited and happy to be on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires again.”
Team Pelfrey was not present at Spring Training but has been working hard behind the scenes and has now finalized plans to field its pair of distinctive yellow Dallara-Mazda IL-15s for returning veterans Neil Alberico and Shelby Blackstock. Both Americans have finished on the podium at St. Petersburg as they worked their way up the Mazda Road to Indy via USF2000 and Pro Mazda. One year ago they placed third (Alberico) and fourth (Blackstock) in the corresponding Indy Lights season-opener.
The weekend’s activities will commence on Friday morning, March 9, with a 45-minute practice session starting at 8:50 a.m. EST. Separate 30-minute qualifying sessions will take place at 1:40 p.m. on Friday and 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, followed by Race One at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday and Race Two immediately before the IndyCar main event on Sunday at 10:45 a.m. The race will air on NBCSN on Monday, March 19, at 6:00 pm EST.
Strong Field in Place for PM-18 Debut as BN Racing’s Malukas Tops Final Testing
A revitalization of the entire Mazda Road to Indy will be completed this weekend when the brand-new Tatuus PM-18 makes its race debut in the Pro Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products. The PM-18, which for cost-benefit reasons uses the same basic chassis as the USF-17 that was introduced into USF2000 last year, completes the process which began in 2015 with the advent of the Dallara IL-15 in Indy Lights.
The cars have proved to be fast in testing and the drivers have been reveling in the increased level of performance both in terms of horsepower and downforce. There seems to be little to choose between a talented group of Pro Mazda veterans and rookies, all of whom are excited about their prospects on the unforgiving streets.
“I’m really looking forward to St. Pete,” said Brazilian Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing), who finished fourth in St. Pete on his North American debut one year ago and emerged fastest from a recent pre-season test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I have good memories from last year. It’s so awesome, the walls are so close! Last year was difficult for me because I didn’t know either the tracks or the car, so this year will be that much better.”
“It’s an amazing atmosphere at St. Pete – you see kids hanging on the fences, people walking around eating hot dogs and having fun,” added Sting Ray Robb, from Payette, Idaho, who has joined Team Pelfrey for his second year in the category – at the tender age of 16. “It’s really cool to be running right on the streets of the city and all the drivers look forward to it. We were P2 in Spring Training at Homestead last week and that’s a good start. The same techniques apply whether you’re on a road course or a street course, and I have more time in this car before the start of the season than I did last year, so that’s a big help.”
An impressive crop of rookie drivers will include rising American star Oliver Askew, 21, from Jupiter, Fla., who steps up to Pro Mazda after winning last year’s USF2000 title as a rookie for the locally based Cape Motorsports team, and personable Canadian Parker Thompson, 20, who is also graduating with the same team, Exclusive Autosport, with which he finished third in the 2017 USF2000 title-chase.
“Everyone has excitement built up from the long offseason, but I plan to keep a level head and approach the weekend like I have been since I entered the Mazda Road to Indy last year,” said Askew, who won the inaugural MRTI USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in 2016 and will retain the distinctive Soul Red colors indicative of a Mazda Scholarship winner. “I have no doubt that we will have another competitive package to fight for the Pro Mazda championship.”
“I really like St. Pete; the atmosphere is great,” added Thompson. “For whatever reason, street courses really match my driving style and they’ve treated me well. I had the pole the past couple of years in the USF2000 car and I can use that experience to the best of my ability. We had a very successful test last week – to roll off the truck in Spring Training at Homestead and be P1 in the first session surprised even ourselves. We’ve had a successful start to the season so hopefully we can keep it up as we head to the first race weekend of the year.”
A pair of teenagers, Rinus VeeKay from the Netherlands, who finished a close second in USF2000 last year, and New Yorker Robert Megennis, who won the St. Pete opener in 2017, also are moving up to Pro Mazda with Juncos Racing, which guided Brazilian Victor Franzoni to the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
Other rapid newcomers include David Malukas, from Chicago, who, after a promising maiden season of USF2000 in 2017 (which included a pole position at Road America), set the pace for BN Racing in a final pre-season test this past weekend at Barber Motorsports Park, and Harrison Scott, from Chelmsford, England, who, along with Italian-based RP Motorsport Racing and teammate Lodovico Laurini, will be racing for the first time in North America after dominating the 2017 Euroformula Open Championship.
Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin will return to the Cape Motorsports team for his sophomore Pro Mazda campaign, while Kris Wright, from Pittsburgh, Pa., joins BN Racing.
Additional rookies will include Brazilian Rafael Martins, formerly a race winner in British F4, and young Mexican Andres Gutierrez, both of whom will join Robb at Team Pelfrey plus English Formula Ford Festival winner James Raven (DEForce Racing) and the youngest driver in the field, 15-year-old Canadian Antonio Serravalle, who has joined Exclusive Autosport.
A 30-minute practice session beginning at 8:10 a.m. EST on Friday will be the only opportunity for the Pro Mazda contingent to become familiar with their new cars on the track prior to the first of two qualifying periods at 1:15 p.m. Qualifying for Race Two will take place at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, followed by Race One at 12:10 p.m. The green flag for Race Two is set for 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
St. Pete-based Team Chases Eighth Straight USF2000 Crown
Brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape have made the Tampa/St. Petersburg area in Florida their home since the family moved to the U.S. from England in the early 1980s. They have made USF2000 their personal playground, too, having won no fewer than seven consecutive championships dating back to 2011.
Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., intends to extend that streak in 2018 as he remains with the Capes while stepping up to USF2000 after dominating the 2017 Formula 4 United States Championship powered by Honda.
“I have never raced on a street course, so this is going to be a first,” said Kirkwood, 19, who hit the ground running when he topped the time sheets during the Spring Training test two weeks ago at Homestead-Miami Speedway. “I was fast at the Homestead test but that all goes out the window on a street course. But I have a lot of confidence in the team – they had a great car here last year and I believe them when they tell me that it will be even faster this year. I’m especially looking forward to it because it’s really my hometown race, since I live only a couple of hours away.”
Two other F4 champions will join Kirkwood on the 24-car grid. Highly touted Englishman Jamie Caroline, who won 10 times last year for the Carlin team on his way to the British F4 Championship title, beating the previous record of eight wins by current Formula 2 and McLaren F1 test driver Lando Norris, has completed a deal to join BN Racing alongside Arkansas rookie (and former US F4 racer) Russell McDonough IV. In addition, NACAM F4 Champion Calvin Ming will remain with Pabst Racing for his second season of USF2000 after taking four podium finishes and finishing fifth in the 2017 title-chase.
Pabst Racing, which secured its first Team Championship in 2017, also will field cars for 16-year-old Kaylen Frederick, from Potomac, Md., who impressed last year by finishing fourth in the championship, including a pair of top-five results in St. Petersburg, returning Brazilian Lucas Kohl and Swedish karting standout Rasmus Lindh, 16, who posted the second-fastest time at Spring Training.
“I’m really looking forward to St. Pete – it will be my first time on a street circuit,” said Lindh. “I have been preparing myself a lot, because there’s not much time before qualifying. I spent some time in traffic at the Homestead test and was able to pass some guys, so hopefully it will go well. I have never been to St. Pete so I’m looking forward to going in early to see a little bit of the city before the weekend – and to see my first IndyCar race.”
DEForce Racing, run by former IndyCar driver David Martinez, also will field a strong four-car team for returning drivers Kory Enders, from Warwick, N.Y., and Colin Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., plus rookies Jose Sierra, from Mexico City, Mexico, and former F1600 Championship Series race winner Zach Holden, from Greenfield, Ind.
Three other teams have strength in numbers with three-car lineups. Canadian-based Exclusive Autosport, which burst onto the scene in 2017 by guiding veteran Parker Thompson to third place in the championship, will run Formula Panam Champion Manuel Cabrera, from Mexico City, Brazilian Formula 3 graduate Igor Fraga and veteran Canadian Jayson Clunie. Newman Wachs Racing has enlisted Darren Keane, from Parkland, Fla., F1600 Championship Series race winner David Osborne, from Cincinnati, Ohio and England’s Oscar DeLuzuriaga, while Team Pelfrey will run South African Formula Ford Champion Julian Van der Watt, karting standout Kyle Dupell, from Portland, Ore., and Brazil’s Bruna Tomaselli, who made good progress during her maiden season in 2017.
Florida-based Team Benik has another strong lineup with karting stars Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y., and Sabre Cook, from Grand Junction, Colo. The stellar field will be rounded out by entries from SOL.O Racing for 15-year-old Colombian F4 grad Mathias Soler-Obel and ArmsUp Motorsports, which expects to field at least one Tatuus USF-17 for Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout winner Keith Donegan, from Dublin, Ireland, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Oliver Askew by adding the USF2000 title as a rookie.
“I know it will be tough to win the championship in my first year racing over here but I’ve a great team around me and a lot of people who believe in me so that always helps,” said Donegan, a winner last year in his rookie campaign in British Formula Ford 1600 who will celebrate his 21st birthday on March 12. “I’m giving myself every opportunity to win so I’ll keep doing what I do and pushing and see what happens.”
Competitors in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products will take to the track at 7:30 a.m. EST on Friday, March 11, for their 30-minute practice session prior to qualifying for the first of two races at 10:45 a.m. Qualifying for Race Two will take place at 7:30 a.m. on Saturday, with the green flag for Race One set for 10:15 a.m. on Saturday and for Race Two as the final activity in a hectic weekend of competition at 5:25 p.m. on Sunday.