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Previews: Pro Mazda and USF2000 Series

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Each of the other two rungs on IndyCar’s Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Pro Mazda Championship and USF2000 National Championship, have higher car counts and other prodigious talent worthy of watching starting at St. Petersburg.

Pro Mazda kicked off its 2013 season at Austin’s Circuit of the Americas earlier in the month, where sophomore Diego Ferreira and rookie Matty Brabham secured victories in the doubleheader weekend. Brabham, grandson of Formula 1 World Championship Sir Jack Brabham and son of sports car champion Geoff, is a highly touted prospect racing for Andretti Autosport after winning the 2012 USF2000 champion.

Brabham’s adversary from the USF2000 season a year ago, Spencer Pigot, has also graduated from the junior championship and races with Team Pelfrey. Pigot and Petri Suvanto, a talented Finn who’s had more than his share of bad luck in a year and one weekend with Pelfrey, are two drivers who should win their first races this season.

Andretti’s second car is driven by Shelby Blackstock, son of country music star Reba McEntire. Ferreira’s teammate at Juncos is Scott Anderson, another USF2000 graduate. JDC Motorsports also boasts a four-car lineup while M1 Racing and World Speed Motorsports also have cars entered.

USF2000 raced a doubleheader at Sebring last week, and series sophomores Neil Alberico and Scott Hargrove split the two race victories. They both drive for the two-time defending champion Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team.

A 31-car field, biggest in any of the four open-wheel series racing in St. Petersburg this weekend, takes to the concrete confines of the 1.8-mile street circuit. Some of the other drivers worth watching include Danilo Estrela (Belardi), Garett Grist (Andretti), Stefan Rzadzinski (JDC, whose car is above, right), Jesse Lazare (Pabst), Jeroen Slaghekke (Cape), Austin Cindric (Andretti, son of Team Penske president Tim), and Andrew Hobbs (ArmsUp, son of NBC Sports Network F1 analyst David) among others.

With so many young drivers in such tight confines, the hope is that caution flags do not pepper the races. These championships present a great opportunity for fans to start paying attention to drivers who could be in IndyCar within two to three years.

Astronaut has different kind of out of this world experience in an Indy car

HOUSTON, TX  - MARCH 4: NASA Astronaut Scott Kelly speaks to the media after returning from a one year mission in space aboard the International Space Station, at the Johnson Space Center March 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas. Kelly's his record-breaking yearlong mission was intended to provide critical data to understand how to keep astronauts healthy during long space voyages.  (Photo by Eric Kayne/Getty Images)
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Retired astronaut Cmdr. Scott Kelly has had a number of out of this world experiences, particularly serving three stints on the International Space Station.

There’s not much that can top that.

But to hear Kelly tell it, his recent visit to Indianapolis Motor Speedway – and taking a ride around the legendary 2.5-mile oval in a two-seat Indy car – may have come pretty close.

Kelly and NASA PR rep Amiko Kauderer both took to Twitter to tout their respective rides that day, along with another tweet from IMS president Doug Boles.

Check them out:

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Congratulations to IndyCar driver JR Hildebrand on marriage to Kristin Paine

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While he’s still in the market for a full-time IndyCar ride in 2017, JR Hildebrand is officially off the market when it comes to the single life.

The Sausalito, California native, who now lives in Colorado, tied the knot on Oct. 16 with long-time girlfriend Kristin Paine in Boulder.

We wish the new Mr. & Mrs. Hildebrand all the best.

In the meantime, now back from their honeymoon, JR posted a few photos from before and after the wedding (photos are via @JRHildebrand on Twitter):

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Perez: “This year’s Mexican GP will be even better than last year’s”

xxxx during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Mexico at Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 31, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.
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Sergio Perez is not expecting a sophomore slump for the second edition of the Mexican Grand Prix back on the calendar since 1992, in its second year at the refurbished, renovated and relaunched Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez in Mexico City.

If anything, the Sahara Force India driver expects the race to build on what it did last year, when it came back to a Formula 1 calendar after a 23-year hiatus.

“I have no doubt this year’s event will be even better than last year – expectations are huge following the success of 2015,” he said in the team’s pre-race advance.

“For me, the biggest surprise was the passion of the fans: all the affection I received, all the messages and all the incredible moments I experienced are what really made an impression on me. I am so happy to go back there.”

This is very much a home race for Perez, who finished eighth in it last year, but who could be poised to end better this go-around.

He is from Guadalajara and not Mexico City proper, but still holds an affinity for his home country’s capital city.

“Mexico City may be quite far from my city of Guadalajara, but I go there very often for professional reasons,” he said. “It’s a city I love and there’s so much going on: the best restaurants, so many sights and so many things to do. It is a huge city and sometimes traffic makes going from one side of town to the other feel like an adventure!

“It is, not surprisingly, one of my favorite moments in the season and last year’s was special not just for me, but for my team and for anyone who came to the race.”

Perez currently sits seventh in the Driver’s Championship with 84 points, having moved ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas as “best of the rest” behind the top six drivers from Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari at last week’s United States Grand Prix from Circuit of The Americas.

Gutierrez: “It’s a very special week for my whole career”

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 30:  Esteban Gutierrez announced as driver for Haas F1 Team on October 30, 2015 in Mexico City, Mexico.  (Photo by Andrew Hone/Getty Images for Haas)
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Mexican driver Esteban Gutierrez will have his first chance to race on home soil in Formula 1, when the Haas F1 Team driver competes in this weekend’s Mexican Grand Prix from the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez.

Gutierrez, then a Ferrari reserve driver, was announced in Mexico City last year as Haas’ second driver for 2016, alongside Romain Grosjean. But while he was at the track, he hasn’t been in a car here and that will change this weekend.

With the new version of the Haas VF-16 front wing expected to return to his chassis this weekend, Gutierrez is looking for a big weekend on home soil.

“It’s a very special week for my whole career,” he said in the team’s advance release. “It’s probably one of the best two weeks of my career because it represents so much to racing, to motorsports in Mexico in general, and to me. It’s a kind of connection where I can share my passion for racing and what I do with all Mexicans. I feel grateful for their support.”

Gutierrez reflected on what last year in Mexico was like for him.

“Last year was great. I could live the event from a different perspective, but now it will be even better when I will be racing there. I’m very excited to enjoy that.

“The atmosphere was amazing. I enjoyed it so much. Obviously, I would have liked to have been racing, but that was my position and the reality is that I wanted to enjoy in that perspective. It was a very special weekend and I felt very proud to see all the fans having a huge interaction. It turned out to be one of the best events of the season.”

With the new front wing expected and the circuit’s long straights expected to suit the Haas, which doesn’t have a ton of downforce, it could play to his and the team’s benefit this weekend.

“Romain ran the new front wing all weekend. Esteban did 20 laps on Friday and then we discovered a problem with the front wing. We had to go back to the old version because we had no spare because that was damaged in Japan when Esteban had the contact with Carlos Sainz. These wings are very complicated to make and they take a long time, but we should have the new version of the wing again for Esteban in Mexico,” team principal Guenther Steiner said.

Gutierrez added, “It will be important to do the best we can with our car. It’s a track we believe can suit the style of our car, and we’re hoping that will be the case. It’s going to be important to have as much track time as possible to adapt to the circuit.”

Several finishes of 11th have left Gutierrez on the fringes of scoring a point this season, but not yet having cracked the top-10 in any race this season.