PALMETTO, Fla. – The future stars of the Verizon IndyCar Series will display their talents this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., as all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder will commence their 2015 seasons. The race weekend also will mark the debut of the exciting new Dallara IL-15, powered by a 450 HP, 2.0-liter turbocharged Mazda MZR-R engine, heralding the dawn of a new era for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.
The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, offering scholarships at every stage to assist talented drivers in their progression from karting and the grassroots of the sport through the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires as they aspire to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
Competitors in all three series will contest a pair of races on the challenging 1.8-mile, downtown street circuit. As part of the learning experience, drivers will benefit from a Mazda Road to Indy “Summit” on Thursday before the start of on-track activities, which will include a media training seminar hosted by veteran broadcaster Bob Varsha.
Englishman Harvey Leads Strong Field into a New Era of Indy Lights
As the final step on the ladder toward the pinnacle of open-wheel racing in North America, Indy Lights can trace its roots back to 1986 and the launch of what was originally called the American Racing Series. Former series champions Paul Tracy, Tony Kanaan, Cristiano da Matta and Scott Dixon have all gone on to win IndyCar titles, and three of the past four champions – Josef Newgarden (2011), Sage Karam (2013) and Gabby Chaves (2014) – have their sights set firmly on emulating that feat as they take to the grid for this weekend’s IndyCar season-opener.
The Mazda-powered new Dallara IL-15 has drawn excellent reviews during its development process and off-season testing, and has attracted a high-quality entry from around the world for its official race debut at the Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Peninsula Pipeline. The weekend will comprise a 40-minute “sprint” race starting at 2:25 pm ET on Saturday, March 28, and a 60-minute “feature” for which the green flag will fly at 11:45 am on Sunday, March 29.
Englishman Jack Harvey will start as one of the preseason favorites after finishing tied on points with last year’s champion, Chaves, in his rookie campaign in North America. Harvey only lost the title on a count-back of second-place finishes. The former British Formula 3 champion will remain with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian which has won four of the last five Indy Lights crowns.
Opposition will stem from multiple sources, including series veteran Matthew Brabham, the winner of consecutive USF2000 and Pro Mazda championship crowns in 2012 and 2013, with Andretti Autosport, and Briton Max Chilton, who has raced in the FIA Formula 1 World Championship the past two years and is looking to assist European open-wheel powerhouse team Carlin in its preparations for a future assault on the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Carlin teammate and 2013 European F3 Open champion Ed Jones also has shone in preseason testing, as have 2014 Pro Mazda champion Spencer Pigot, from Orlando, Fla., Juncos Racing teammate Kyle Kaiser and 2013 USF2000 champion Scott Hargrove, who finished a close second to Pigot in the 2014 Pro Mazda title-chase and has joined accomplished sports car team 8Star Motorsports. Potential front-runners also include 18-year-old RC Enerson (Schmidt Peterson), from nearby New Port Richey, Fla., who took second in the 2014 USF2000 championship, winning a series-high five races, including one in St. Petersburg, USF2000 and Pro Mazda veteran Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport) and Puerto Rico’s Felix Serralles, who has returned to North America after a successful foray in Europe to join defending champion team Belardi Auto Racing.
In addition to live timing and commentary on the series website – indylights.com – the race will be carried live on the IMS Radio Network to Sirius XM Satellite Radio, indycar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR app from Verizon. Practice and qualifying will also be streamed on the INDYCAR YouTube channel www.youtube.com/indycar and RaceControl.IndyCar.com. The race will air on NBCSN on Sunday, April 5 at 4:30 pm ET. Behind-the-scenes action on all three series can be found at RoadToIndy.TV.
Local Teams Highlight Pro Mazda Field
An impressive mix of accomplished veterans and impressive rookies characterize a strong 18-car entry for this weekend’s pair of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races which will comprise the Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Local race fans will have plenty of favorites from which to choose, with two of the more prominent teams, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing and Team Pelfrey, based within a few miles of the downtown street circuit.
St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports, run by brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape, will field three cars for Californian Neil Alberico, who recorded four podium finishes en route to third place in the championship standings during his rookie campaign in 2014; Frenchman Florian Latorre, who is stepping up to Pro Mazda after winning last year’s USF2000 championship and claiming a MAZDASPEEDDriver Development Scholarship; and Canadian Daniel Burkett, who dominated the 2014 Atlantic Championship Series in addition to earning several top-five finishes in USF2000.
Team Pelfrey will make the short trip from its base in Palmetto with a pair of cars for Mexico’s Patricio “Pato” O’Ward and Uruguay’s Santiago “Santi” Urrutia. O’Ward is the youngest driver in the field at age 15 but impressed last year by winning a round of the French F4 Championship during a partial campaign, then proving fastest of all in a Mazda Road to Indy test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Other potent protagonists will include Juncos Racing, Andretti Autosport and JDC MotorSports. The lineup for last year’s championship-winning team, Juncos Racing, will include 2014 race winners Garett Grist, from Grimsby, Ont., Canada and Jose Gutierrez, from Monterrey, Mexico, as well as promising rookies Will Owen, from Castle Rock, Colo., a USF2000 race winner last year, and Frenchman Timothé Buret. The Andretti Autosport challenge will stem from Malaysian Weiron Tan, who recently won two Cooper Tires Winterfest preseason races, and Canadian Dalton Kellett, while JDC’s stable will include Kyle Connery, from Vero Beach, Fla., Englishman Raoul Owens and the inspirational Michael Johnson, 22, from Flint, Mich., who drives a car equipped with hand controls after being paralyzed following a motorcycle racing accident at age 12.
The first of two races for the Allied Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will start at 1:30 pm ET on Saturday. The green flag for Race Two will fly at 9:50 am on Sunday, March 29. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available at promazda.com.
Representatives from 10 Nations and Six States Among Global USF2000 Entry
The international appeal of the Mazda Road to Indy is exemplified by the entry list for the first two races of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season as drivers from six different states and no fewer than 10 nationalities will battle for honors at the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Picking the likely winners is no easy task, although leading contenders will surely include a pair of talented young Americans, Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz, along with Frenchman Nico Jamin and Brazilian Victor Franzoni.
Jamin, who hopes to follow in the footsteps of countryman Florian Latorre by winning a MAZDASPEED Scholarship and an opportunity to graduate to Pro Mazda in 2016, has already laid out his credentials by winning the recent five-race Cooper Tires USF2000 Winterfest. The 19-year-old from Rouen, France, is hoping to buck the trend and become the first driver in the five-year history of the Winterfest also to take top honors in the “regular season” championship. His team, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, is seeking to extend its remarkable streak of four consecutive championships with Petri Suvanto (2011), Matthew Brabham (2012), Scott Hargrove (2013) and Florian Latorre (2014).
Jamin will be joined at the St. Petersburg-based team by Wisconsin native Telitz, who claimed USF2000 Rookie of the Year honors in 2014.
Eidson, who finished third in USF2000 points during his rookie season, and Franzoni also enjoyed success at the Winterfest. Eidson, from Littleton, Colo., won twice for Pabst Racing and only lost the title due to an obscure mechanical failure in the final race, while Franzoni, who placed fifth in the 2014 title-chase, also notched two wins for Afterburner Autosport.
Other young chargers include Jordan Lloyd, who hails from the same small town in Queensland, Australia, as defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power, and countryman Anthony Martin, who will both drive for the team run by veteran IndyCar crew chief/team manager John Cummiskey. Another youngster from Western Australia, Luke Gabin, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on Friday, will carry the distinctive Soul Red MAZDASPEED scholarship livery on his Team Pelfrey Van Diemen-Mazda as a result of winning last year’s Skip Barber Racing Championship Shootout.
Gabin is joined at the Palmetto, Fla.-based Team Pelfrey by Norwegian Ayla Agren, who displayed her speed by winning last year’s F1600 Championship Series, Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin and Mechanicsburg, Pa.’s Garth Rickards. All three have graduated together with Team Pelfrey into USF2000, while the fourth member of that F1600 team, Arizona’s Augie Lerch, also graduates into USF2000 with another Palmetto-based team, JAY Motorsports.
Karting standout Parker Thompson (JDC MotorSports), from Red Deer, Alb., Canada – a protégé of 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice – and the youngest driver in the field, second-year racer and Naples resident Keyvan Andres Soori, from Cologne, Germany, who only celebrated his 15th birthday a couple of weeks ago, also will be worth watching.
The first of two races at the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will take place at 10:15 am ET on Saturday, March 27, with Race Two at 8:55 am on Sunday, March 29. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available at usf2000.com.