Pro Mazda start at NOLA. Photo: Pro Mazda Championship

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.

Report: No Mexico, 16 races expected on 2016 IndyCar schedule

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IndyCar chairman Mark Miles doesn’t expect the 2016 Verizon IndyCar season to begin in Mexico in February next year, according to a report by USA Today.

Though Miles said the Mexico race was “unlikely,” he believes the final schedule will 16 races at 15 venues over the course of seven months.

Miles said the series is waiting for a “highly, highly likely” event to be approved by a board around Oct. 13, going on to say it wasn’t Pocono Raceway.

“If we had to, we probably could put this out, in theory, sooner, but we want to go through the formality and respect the process of a formal approval from one of the promoters,” Miles said.

Miles said the Mexico City race has been put on hold due to concerns for proper promotion for the event, which would be the series’ first outside the United States since racing in Brazil in 2013.

“The process they needed to go through to get everything lined up has not really left a lot of time to be confident that everything can be done to properly promote the first race,” Miles told USA Today. “So I think the conversation is very much about ‘17. We just kind of ran out of time for ‘16.”

This is what is know about the 2016 IndyCar schedule so far.

Either the track, IndyCar, or an IndyCar support series (Pirelli World Challenge) have announced these dates for 2016:

March 13: St. Petersburg, Fla.
April 17: Long Beach, Calif.
April 24: Birmingham, Ala.
May 14: Indianapolis, In. (Indy GP)
May 29: Indianapolis, In. (100th Indy 500)
June 4-5: Detroit, Mich.
June 11: Fort Worth, Texas
June 26: Elkhart Lake, Wis.
July 31: Lexington, Ohio
Sept. 4: Boston, Mass.
Sept. 18: Sonoma, Calif.

These dates are not formal but are highly likely for 2016, per media reports:

April 2: Phoenix, AZ
July 17: Toronto, Ontario

These tracks have been rumored, but are yet to announce the status of IndyCar races for 2016:

Iowa Speedway
Pocono Raceway
The Milwaukee Mile
Gateway International Raceway

Williams hopes to improve on 2014 performance in Russian GP

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At this weekend’s Russian GP, Williams Martini Racing is looking for more of the same from Valtteri Bottas and a little improvement from Felipe Massa.

Last year, Bottas started and finished third while Lewis Hamilton ran away with the win, finishing 13 seconds over Nico Rosberg and 17 over Bottas in the inaugural race at the Sochi Autodrom.

Meanwhile, Massa started 18th after a fuel flow issue knocked him out of the first round of qualifying and managed an 11th-place finish.

Bottas and Massa enter the Sochi race fifth and sixth in the driver standings.

“We had a good result last year in Russia so we’re expecting another strong weekend and a good collection of points,” said Bottas in a release. “We all know the track now and it has a really good flow, with the long straights a good fit for our car.”

Bottas has finished in the top five in each of the last three races, two of which were won by Hamilton.

“Pace-wise we were close to Mercedes in Japan and I think we can be close again in Sochi, just like we were in 2014,” Bottas said, who also noted after Japan the team is set to turn its focus to its 2016 car.

Massa, who has two podium finishes this year, will try to bounce back from a DNF at Marina Bay and a 17th-place finish in Japan.

“I hope to make amends for qualifying last year and I’m confident we can have a competitive race,” Massa said in a team release.

“Russia is a very nice track with a few long straights which makes it interesting for overtaking,” Massa said of the 18-turn track. “The circuit has almost everything, starting with a straight and then moving into high-speed corners and then very slow corners in the middle sector. This makes setting up the car really important and the importance of downforce evident.”

The Russian Grand Prix can been seen on NBCSN on Sunday at 7 am ET.