By Road to Indy
As the only squad currently to field teams on all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder, Team Pelfrey has the ability to mirror the ladder series’ progression through the ranks. Dale Pelfrey first fielded a team in the IRL in the late 1990s, and today focuses on nurturing young racers, hoping to one day take a driver from karting to the Verizon IndyCar Series – all under the Team Pelfrey banner.
Former MRTI racer Jonny Baker handles the team’s day-to-day management, including the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires lineup that earned the 2017 Team Championship. Two of Team Pelfrey’s three Pro Mazda drivers this season came up through its ranks: Nikita Lastochkin was part of the foursome that helped the team begin its USF2000 program two years ago, and TJ Fischer moved up in the middle of his rookie USF2000 season last year. Added to the lineup in 2017 was 18-year-old Brazilian Carlos Cunha, coming off a fifth-place finish in Brazilian F3. The trio combined for 13 podiums – the only drivers to stand on the podium alongside eventual champion Victor Franzoni and runner-up Anthony Martin.
“If you look at our ladder system over the years, it’s been very strong in promoting drivers from F1600 into USF2000, and USF to Pro Mazda,” said Baker. “Five of our six drivers in USF and Pro Mazda were all returning drivers, and four came through F1600 and USF2000. We’re working on making budgets work so that we’re promoting more drivers from Pro Mazda into Indy Lights.
“We’re fortunate that we have engineers Thomas Knapp, who has put a car on the pole at the Indy 500, Doug Forker, who has worked with [Alex] Zanardi and [Juan Pablo] Montoya, and Rick Cameron who has been at the top but still enjoys working with the entry level series. It’s great for the drivers and the young engineers who can learn from these guys. We’re lucky that we’ve always had good chemistry between the drivers and crew – all the drivers got on well, walking between tents, helping each other, enjoying being part of Pelfrey Power. We believe in the idea of a team on and off the track.”
The highlights were many for Team Pelfrey in 2017. Fischer reeled off three straight podiums to start the season, with Lastochkin taking podiums in both races at Road America – the first Mazda Road to Indy podiums for both drivers. Cunha’s late-season surge, with podium finishes in the final four races (including a second-place finish at the season finale at Watkins Glen), capped off a year that saw all three drivers vying for third place in the final standings – and with an Indy Lights test awarded to the top three drivers in the championship, that third position was critical.
That Cunha, Fischer and Lastochkin were able to compete for such an important prize, while keeping the atmosphere under the tent positive, is a testament to the “team” aspect that Baker considers as important now as it was last season, when Pelfrey teammates Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward battled hard for the series title.
“Getting that test meant so much to them all. You could tell that there was a bit of tension, especially with Carlos and TJ coming down the stretch, with both wanting to come out on top of that battle. I do feel badly for TJ because there were a few things outside of his control that cost him. But his attitude through all of that was unbelievable. I have a huge amount of appreciation for that.
“I’m so proud of all our Pro Mazda drivers this year,” Baker continued. “Carlos did a fantastic job in his first full season of car racing, and TJ arguably enjoyed his most successful year to date. He should have had his first win if not for some bad luck at Road America. And Nikita earned his first MRTI podiums. There were a lot of good stories.”
Included in those stories was the personal and professional growth experience by each driver this season as Baker notes.
“Carlos didn’t speak much English at all when he first arrived, and I think being around the team and spending time here has really helped him. He has a great deal of natural talent and he’s figured out a lot of things on his own. You could see it from the first day he drove the car, and the way he finished the year was impressive. He is going to be a name you hear much more from.
“TJ had a good look at things last year, sitting in the same seat as Aaron and Pato, seeing where his strengths and weaknesses were. We told him some areas that he needed to improve, and he worked hard in the off season, tested and even had Pato come in and help him. And he is a different driver this year. He is arguably the most improved driver in the Mazda Road to Indy this year. Now, I can see him having a proper career in motorsports. He still has that football player in him, that absolute determination. He doesn’t know when he’s beat, so he keeps working at it and believing in himself.
“With Nikita, there’s so much talent there, a huge amount of speed. He keeps it simple and gets the most out of himself, and that’s where he’s made the most progress this year. When the big sessions come – qualifying, races – he’s been able to tap into his potential more than he has in the past. Nikita is extremely competitive and he pours his heart and soul into it. He’s also very honest with himself and when you have people like that, you want to work that much harder for them.”
Team Pelfrey’s Pro Mazda shop is abuzz these days with the recent delivery of two shiny new Tatuus PM-18s that will see action in this month’s Chris Griffis Memorial Test. Baker is excited to see the resurgence of the series that has been the team’s mainstay, which has seen Team Pelfrey earn three series titles and four team championships since 2012.
“We are very excited about that. This is where our team pedigree truly lies – it’s where we’ve won our championships and races. While we’re equally dedicated across the MRTI board, Pro Mazda is where we’ve had our sustained success for all these years and I don’t see that changing. Thomas Knapp will run the PM-18s and he’s won two championships, with Santiago Urrutia and Aaron Telitz – I don’t have any problem saying that we have the best engineer in the paddock and we’re lucky to have him. He’s so much more than an engineer and the drivers learn so much from him.
“We’re talking to a number of drivers so we’ll see how that develops. We have plenty of interest but we’re here to win. We have to get the right driver lineup that allows us to go for a fourth driver’s championship and a fifth team championship.”