Preview: Firestone Indy Lights Series

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The Firestone Indy Lights Series, the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, is already at a crossroads in terms of public opinion and reaction before it’s even raced its first event of 2013.

A scant nine cars, tied for the fewest in the series’ history since its new incarnation as the Infiniti Pro Series in 2002 (Milwaukee, 2004) are entered for the opening round of the 2013 season. The biggest issue the series dealt with in the offseason was the announced delay of its new car, projected to debut in 2014, that would replace the current Dallara chassis used since this series started in 2002.

No doubt the future of the series will be discussed as the year goes on, and what can be done to improve its feasibility (costs and car, mainly). Still, to the series’ credit, at least half if not two-thirds of the drivers entered have a legitimate chance at winning a race this year.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – long the standard-bearer in Indy Lights having won the last three titles and a total of six – enter with three rookies in their cars. None are slouches as they are the top three finishers from the 2012 Star Mazda Series, champion Jack Hawksworth, runner-up Gabby Chaves and American Sage Karam.

And the other stat SPM has going for them is that each of their champions the last three years – JK Vernay, Josef Newgarden and Tristan Vautier – has won on debut in St. Petersburg to kick off their championship charge. The challenge for any of SPM’s three this year is to keep the streak alive.

Andretti Autosport boasts the only driver with a prior Indy Lights win in the field – Colombian Carlos Munoz in his second season. Munoz won twice a year ago and represents Andretti’s best chance of wresting the title back from Schmidt’s squad. Rookie Zach Veach steps up from Star Mazda and could score a win if the cards fall right, but will probably need until the second half of the season to truly establish himself.

Belardi Auto Racing and Team Moore field two cars apiece, but of that quartet only Peter Dempsey (Belardi) seems a likely winner. One of the series’ fastest and most aggressive drivers, the Irishman finally has a proper full-season effort after two stop-start seasons. The other trio (Jorge Goncalvez, Belardi and Moore’s Juan Pablo Garcia and Ethan Ringel) are unlikely to challenge the top runners.

The first round of the Firestone Indy Lights Series season airs Sunday at 11:00 a.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network.

Matty Brabham working towards IndyCar comeback

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Australian American young gun Matty Brabham is hoping to work towards a comeback in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Brabham, 23, was along with RC Enerson the two top young guns who raced a handful of 2016 races but didn’t get a proper encore in 2017. Brabham has instead specialized in racing in Robby Gordon’s Stadium SUPER Trucks series, where he leads that championship and hopes to win it this weekend in Lake Elsinore, Calif.

While his PIRTEK Team Murray deal was announced two years ago in December in a technical partnership with KV Racing Technology for 2016, Brabham didn’t get the chance to build on that beyond the two races he did at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and Indianapolis 500 itself. An impressive qualifying run at the road course saw him nearly make Q2, while he fought an ill-handling race car in the ‘500 all month to finish his debut.

Being out of the cockpit hasn’t meant a lack of work, with Brabham having kept his face present at a number of IndyCar races working to put together meetings, occasionally driving two-seaters and then staying active in the trucks.

“All the racing stuff comes naturally as I’ve grown up in it around my dad (Geoff), and from my grandfather (the late Sir Jack) as well, that’s been the easy part,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “It’s the off-track stuff, finding sponsorship and the money to continue racing, that’s been the hardest battle to get into IndyCar or any motorsport.

“It’s been challenging but I’ve learned a lot on the business end. What a lot of people forget is that I went straight from high school straight into racing, so I don’t have a ton of business experience to learn about how to find sponsorship. It’s been a lot of learning as you go.

“Obviously you have to work on business deals and try to find companies. I’m involved with a lot of traveling, and I’ve been at a lot of the shows, PRI and SEMA and the main ones. The biggest thing is networking and talking to people, and learning from them, and go about doing it.”

As the Verizon IndyCar Series is riding a tidal wave of young talent gathering either part-time or full-time rides, Brabham is one of a handful that sticks out as being absent.

The 2018 field includes recent Indy Lights graduates Kyle Kaiser, Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Gabby Chaves – each of the last four champions – along with other drivers Max Chilton, Zach Veach, Matheus Leist and Jack Harvey who’ve all graduated within the last three years. That number could grow if either or both of Zachary Claman DeMelo and/or Santiago Urrutia find seats.

Brabham, Enerson and Sage Karam, the 2013 Indy Lights champion, are probably the three drivers most deserving of a full-time IndyCar shot for 2018 with recent MRTI experience that hasn’t got it yet. None has driven more than 15 races in the series, Karam only having had a partial 2015 campaign with three other one-offs at the Indianapolis 500.

Seeing the success his counterparts from the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires have had hasn’t angered or frustrated Brabham, as it’s shown how capable the ladder is of preparing drivers for IndyCar. A switch to the new 2018 Dallara universal aero kit next year is also key to note.

“When there’s a big change, you’re seeing guys with the guys I’m racing with in MRTI,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for them to show what they could do next year. I’d love to be a part of it. Envious of the guys testing so far. Everyone’s said it’s like a real race car that’s a bit more challenging to drive.

“But it’s really cool to have that going along, and be a part of. For the young guys, it’s quite difficult for them to jump in for one race, and compete against veterans for some time. It takes them a couple years to show results and win races. There’s plenty of young guys who could do so with the right environment, step into the series.

“It’s great seeing Jack, Spencer, and all these guys I competed with on MRTI do well – and I won championships – so it’s a little frustrating, but it’s great to see them get in and do well because I feel I could do just as well.”

Brabham was close to stepping into the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda last year when Sebastien Bourdais was injured, but didn’t quite have the funding to make it happen. Such an opportunity would have seen him filling in for his 2016 teammate, who he had nothing but high praise for.

“I think there were a couple of us in conversation – but it’s a sad thing when it happens and you never want to see it; plus, Bourdais was my first teammate,” he said. “He was great and very helpful. You hate to see it. Lots of conversations went on in the background, certain people put my name forward and my name was in the mix.”

Alas, his talent is still there, and it’s worth remembering past Team USA Scholarship recipient Brabham beat Pigot to the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title when the two were teammates at Cape Motorsports and then he followed up with a crushing performance en route to the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires title.

It’s a common story for young drivers that talent isn’t the lone qualifier for an opportunity, but Brabham is hopeful he hasn’t faded from the radar.

“I’ve had a lot of conversations and in constant talks with the team owners and with sponsors as well. There’s nothing set in stone but I am working towards things,” he said.

“I’m kind of right on the edge of getting in there, will just take that last little bit of funding – which is the same for everyone else. I just need the lucky break to get in there for a couple races, show what I can do. I’m hungry and will work extremely hard. I know I can do it – it’s just a matter of getting that chance.”