Judging by the opening two races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 12-13, this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season seems set to be a thriller.
Five drivers representing four different teams claimed podium finishes and the top three point contenders are separated by just two points as the 16-car field heads next to the famed Phoenix International Raceway oval in Avondale, Ariz., for Round Three on Saturday afternoon, April 2. The 90-lap Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix will serve as a precursor to the evening’s Verizon IndyCar Series headline event.
This weekend marks Indy Lights’ return to PIR for the first time since 2005, although the developmental series has a storied history on the 1.022-mile oval dating back to 1986 when it was first introduced as the American Racing Series. The championship has evolved steadily since then, and now serves as the third and final step on the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel ladder which provides scholarship-funded opportunities for drivers to progress from the grassroots of the sport via the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
The advent last year of a new Mazda turbo-powered Dallara IL-15 equipment combination has resulted in a 25 percent increase in the field for the 2016 season, and indications from a recent pre-season test day suggest a wide-open contest is in store featuring a variety of formula car champions from around the world on the starting grid. The existing qualifying lap record of 22.887 seconds (160.755 mph), set by Canadian Claude Bourbonnais, and the race lap record of 23.227 seconds (158.402 mph) which stands to the late, lamented Greg Moore, both set in 1995, also are likely to take a beating.
A pair of 45-minute practice sessions will take place on Friday, April 1, at 9:00 a.m. MST and 1:00 p.m., followed by single-car qualifying at 4:30 p.m. The green flag for Saturday’s race will fly at 1.30 p.m. Live streaming shows of all sessions will be available at indylights.com, indycar.com and on the Road To Indy TV App. Saturday’s race will air on NBCSN on Wednesday, April 6, at 2:00 am EDT.