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.

UPDATE 2: INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama once again under red-flag race stoppage

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UPDATE No. 2: The INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama was closing in on restarting on Lap 23 or 24 before officials threw the second red flag race stoppage because of lingering puddles on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park, particularly on the front stretch. We’ll keep you updated as situations warrant.

UPDATE No. 1: The INDYCAR Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is under a red-flag race stoppage after 19 laps due to rain and puddling on the racing surface at Barber Motorsports Park.

Cleaners and dryers are on the track to try and get some of the water off the racing surface. The low spots on the track, as well as the front stretch, have been particularly troublesome and led to several spinouts and at least two wrecks (Charlie Kimball and outside front pole sitter Will Power).

Power’s day is done after suffering irreparable damage to the left side of his car after hydroplaning on the front straight and running into the inside retaining wall.

ORIGINAL STORY FOLLOWS:

Although rain has been falling for nearly an hour and the Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile permanent road course is drenched, the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama is underway on NBCSN.

The start of the race was moved up from 3:38 p.m. ET to take the green flag at 3:08 p.m. ET.

Josef Newgarden is the defending winner of this race and also will start from the pole for today’s race.

While the race is scheduled for 90 laps, there’s a possibility that if the weather worsens or if lightning appears, it could potentially be shortened to just two hours.

As can be expected, all cars are on rain tires to maximize grip.

Catch the race live on NBCSN.