MRTI: Cooper Tires Winterfest Update; Garcia signs with SPM

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There was racing other than NASCAR in Daytona this weekend, hard as that is to believe.

The North American open-wheel season got underway with the Cooper Tires Winterfest at NOLA Motorsports Park in New Orleans on Friday and Saturday, featuring all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder: the Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 series.

In the five combined Pro Mazda and USF2000 races, five drivers from five different teams won. It’s a far cry from the last two Winterfests, where only the USF2000 series ran and the races were dominated by drivers from the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teams.

Spencer Pigot (Juncos Racing, Friday) and Garett Grist (Andretti Autosport, Saturday) captured the first two Pro Mazda race wins. Pigot leads the points standings by 10 over Grist, heading to the second set of two days at Barber Motorsports Park on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The USF2000 series saw three different winners in as many races, which is two more teams than had won the Winterfest the last two years.

Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport, Friday) and RC Enerson (Team E, Saturday) and Clark Toppe (JDC Motorsports, Saturday) took the three USF2000 race wins. Enerson leads Cape’s Jake Eidson by six, 70-64, heading to Barber.

Cape swept each of the last two six-race Winterfests in 2012 and 2013, both times with one driver taking five of six races. Pigot (2012) and Neil Alberico (2013) were those two, although the eventual USF2000 regular season champions, Matty Brabham (2012) and Scott Hargrove (2013) took the sixth.

In the two days of Indy Lights testing at NOLA, 2013 runner-up Gabby Chaves (Belardi Auto Racing) led Andretti Autosport’s Brabham. Luiz Razia was third for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. They head to Barber as well ahead of tomorrow.

Additionally on the Indy Lights front, and the SPM front, the team has signed veteran Juan Pablo Garcia as its second confirmed driver, besides Englishman  Jack Harvey.

The Mexican has made 30 series starts since 2009, with only three career top-five finishes (fourth at St. Petersburg, fifth at Milwaukee and Toronto all in 2013). He made strides in 2013, only his second full season in the championship.

A switch to the front-line Schmidt equipment should provide the 25-year-old Garcia his best chance at improving those statistics, and continuity. He’s competed with Team Moore Racing, Belardi Auto Racing, Jeffrey Mark Motorsport, Jensen Motorsport, HVM Racing, and Michael Crawford Motorsports in his Indy Lights career.

“It’s a very prestigious team in the Indy Lights series, and they have always demonstrated that all their cars are always vying for podiums, victories and leading races, and every year they win a championship,” Garcia said in a release. “They have good drivers, a good team of engineering and crew and, of course, great cars. It’s really hard to achieve that every single year.”

Besides the two confirmed, Razia and Juan Piedrahita have tested for SPM this winter, and are likely to be nominated to official race seats soon.

IndyCar 2017 driver review: Remaining part-time drivers

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MotorSportsTalk wraps up its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017 with the remaining part-time drivers, after the 23 drivers who ran anywhere from six events to the full season.

There were 15 drivers who made four or fewer starts this season. Some overly impressed or drew major headlines in their limited opportunities.

They were, by start count:

  • Sebastian Saavedra (No. 17 Juncos Racing Chevrolet, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 4)
  • Gabby Chaves (No. 88 Harding Racing Chevrolet, 3)
  • Oriol Servia (No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 3)
  • Jack Harvey (No. 50 MSR w/Andretti Autosport Honda, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, 3)
  • Juan Pablo Montoya (No. 22 Team Penske Chevrolet, 2)
  • Zach Veach (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet, No. 40 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet, 2)
  • Fernando Alonso (No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti Honda, 1)
  • Pippa Mann (No. 63 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Jay Howard (No. 77 Team One Cure/SPM Honda, 1)
  • Sage Karam (No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold Racing Chevrolet, 1)
  • James Davison (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Tristan Vautier (No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 1)
  • Buddy Lazier (No. 44 Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet, 1)
  • Zachary Claman DeMelo (No. 13 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda, 1)
  • Robert Wickens (No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, Practice Only)

Going through them, in terms of impact, Alonso’s one-off at the Indianapolis 500 easily resonated loudest. It was incredible to witness the amount of buzz, worldwide support and media attention that Alonso generated, and fueled a running joke that he was the only driver in this year’s race. It was capped off when he beat Ed Jones to race rookie-of-the-year honors, despite losing a Honda engine late while Jones dragged a broken Dale Coyne Racing car to third place.

Elsewhere, Chaves and Harding Racing’s debut was the most unexpected pleasant surprise from a driver and team standpoint. A solid ninth at Indianapolis was followed by an even more impressive fifth at Texas. Their three oval races laid the groundwork for a step-up to a full-time entry in 2018.

Montoya proved he still had it with a pair of top-10s in a fifth Team Penske car. He’ll be in Penske’s Acura prototype sports car program next year and the hope is that we haven’t seen the last of him in IndyCar.

Saavedra re-established himself on the scene after a year-plus hiatus. The likable Colombian overachieved given low expectations with two different teams. Whether it was enough to see him and longtime backer AFS Racing for further races in 2018 is unknown.

Harvey and Veach each came up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee, both rookies in the Indianapolis 500 alongside Alonso and Jones while also getting additional road course starts. Neither of them looked a world-beater in their road course outings owing to tough circumstances, but they logged key laps and miles to build for a brighter future from 2018 and beyond in recently announced multi-year programs (Harvey with Michael Shank Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, and Veach with Andretti Autosport).

Of the rest, Servia’s results left a bit to be desired, a potential top-five fading in Indy when he and Davison collided to trigger a multi-car pileup. Davison and Vautier impressed in their lone starts of the year with their pace and aggression but were unable to parlay them into results.

Mann made her usual Indy 500 one-off entry and secured her best finish in six starts, but pressed through a challenging month that she’ll be keen to improve upon in 2018. Her day was significantly better than Howard’s and Lazier’s, who both ended their ‘500 bows in the wall, and with Howard having contributed to Scott Dixon’s savage accident when he crashed in Turn 1 and then came into Dixon’s path.

“ZCD” made his debut at Sonoma in a second RLL Racing entry and did rather well, competitive on lap times as the weekend progressed on a track that’s notoriously low-grip. Wickens never got that far. Despite a preseason ride swap with his close friend James Hinchcliffe that reignited his passion for open-wheel after several years, and with Mercedes announcing it would pull the plug on its DTM program after 2018, Wickens got only a practice day at Road America before Mikhail Aleshin sorted his visa issues. The circumstances evolved in Wickens’ favor at season’s end to see him get the second seat for 2018 at SPM after all.