MazdaRoadToIndy

Mazda Road to Indy: Ten to watch in 2014

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The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – now all run and operated by Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions – also kick off in earnest alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg this weekend.

Much of the action will be chronicled via the new Road to Indy TV outlet; additionally, NBCSN will have extensive coverage of all three of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda.

Indy Lights opens with a single race while both Pro Mazda and USF2000 will have double-header races.

Here are 10 drivers to watch of note between the three championships this year, following the conclusion of Cooper Tires Winterfest and our projections on some likely championship contenders.

INDY LIGHTS (Full Entry List)

Matthew Brabham, No. 83 Andretti Autosport

Perhaps the highest-touted prospect on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, “Matty Brabs” has the opportunity to capture his third championship in as many series in as many years (Pro Mazda 2013, USF2000 2012). Mature beyond his 20 years, but still with a laid-back demeanor outside of the cockpit, Brabham’s an absolute speed demon once he gets behind the wheel of his car. Andretti Autosport has been close-but-no-cigar to the Lights title the last four years, and Brabham is the guy most likely to break that streak.

Zach Veach, No. 26 Andretti Autosport

Veach is only 19, yet enters his fifth full year on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder in 2014. He’s always excelled at the branding and marketing side of the game; he’s still yet to make that last jump in consistency and performance on-track. After spending two years in USF2000 and a single year in Pro Mazda, Veach’s first year in Indy Lights had sporadic highlights but was otherwise spent learning the ropes. He should improve in 2014, taking his first win (a short oval his best bet), with the goal of attaining podium finishes on a more regular basis.

Jack Harvey, No. 42 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

The next young English talent who seeks to star in North America, Harvey is not Jack Hawksworth, who was the English Jack H who raced for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Harvey, 20, enters the four-time defending championship team from GP3, where he finished fifth last year. Should win multiple races, and we’ll see how he adjusts to ovals.

Luiz Razia, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

You could argue Razia, the 24-year-old Brazilian, is almost overqualified for Indy Lights since he was on the precipice of a Formula One race seat 13 months ago before funding fell through. Razia has an Esteban Guerrieri-type of feel to me at first glance; a talented and very experienced South American, coming into Schmidt’s team, who should be immediately on the pace. Although he wasn’t the out and out fastest in GP2, he should be in race-winning contention almost from the off in another Schmidt Peterson entry.

Pro Mazda (Full Entry List)

Neil Alberico, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

I’ll pinpoint Alberico more than Scott Hargrove as the guy to watch within Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda this year. That’s not a slight on Hargrove, who should be a dependable, consistent performer this year and did well in Winterfest. Alberico, 21, has the pedigree where he should have a higher ceiling, in terms of outright pace. He’s also gotten extra seat time this winter in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.  The Rising Star Racing-backed driver and former Team USA Scholarship recipient needs a bit more consistency and luck for his 2014 campaign.

Spencer Pigot, No. 7 Juncos Racing 

Pigot, like Veach in Indy Lights, is a guy who’s been around a while on the ladder, and is still only 20. But it’s fair to say he’s the early season Pro Mazda title favorite, with a year’s worth of experience, the championship-winning pedigree of the Juncos Racing team behind him and determination to avenge what was largely a difficult first season in the series. Like Alberico, has the Rising Star Racing support and dominated Winterfest. He has moved to Indianapolis to embed himself within the open-wheel hotbed city.

Shelby Blackstock, No. 28 Andretti Autosport

The son of country music legend Reba McEntire made some key leaps and strides in his jump from USF2000 to Pro Mazda last year. As he enters a second season with Andretti Autosport, he should emerge as the team’s leading driver, provided he keeps talented but young Canadian teammate Garett Grist at bay. Blackstock, 24, has done a great job of accruing seat time as he doubles his open-wheel efforts with racing a BMW M3 for Fall-Line Motorsports in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS class (he won at Daytona to open the 2014 season). He could win multiple races and challenge fellow Americans Pigot and Alberico for the title.

USF2000 (Full Entry List)

RC Enerson, No. 7 Team E Racing

The 17-year-old emerged as a surprise champion of Winterfest for his single-car, family team. The question now is whether they’ll have the consistency and performance to back it up over the course of the regular season. Enerson was a midlevel to occasional top-five driver in 2013; in a deep field, he’ll need top-five finishes with more regularity to contend for the full season crown.

Jake Eidson, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing 

Eidson, 18, follows Alberico and Pigot as the anointed Team USA Scholarship recipient in a Cape USF2000 seat, and he should be quick from the get-go. He nearly won Winterfest despite not winning a race. He made a handful of starts in USF2000 last year with a midlevel team and overachieved, but with the best equipment at his disposal in 2014, he should contend for regular wins.

Michael Epps, No. 44 Belardi Auto Racing

Epps, the 22-year-old Englishman, certainly has the years most of his USF2000 rivals don’t, and emerged as a potential star toward the end of 2013 and into the 2014 Winterfest. He won twice at Winterfest, and should lead Belardi Auto Racing’s four-car effort this season. He’ll have stiff internal competition from teammates Florian Latorre, Daniel Burkett and Nico Jamin, which should push the team forward. Belardi has been one of the few teams to take it to Cape the last two years, which bodes well for them going into 2014.

OTHERS OF NOTE

Belardi has its best set of Indy Lights drivers in Gabby Chaves and Alexandre Baron, but hasn’t quite had the equipment to match in recent years. We’ll see if that changes this year. Michael Johnson, who is paralyzed, steps up to Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports and continues to develop as a driver despite his handicap. Italian teammate Vicky Piria, who will race with JDC at least at St. Petersburg, is a promising ex-GP3 shoe. The USF2000 field is very deep, with potentially 10-15 podium-contending drivers, and that makes it hard to pick just three or four to watch. Of the others, Peter Portante and Aaron Telitz (ArmsUp), Clark Toppe (JDC), Henrik Furuseth (JAY) and Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) should provide some highlights throughout the year.

Pipo Derani set for IndyCar test with SPM at Sebring

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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Pipo Derani has become a star in the sports car world the last couple years, courtesy of his drives primarily with Tequila Patron ESM.

Meanwhile for at least a day, the 23-year-old Brazilian will be returning to his open-wheel roots in a big way.

NBC Sports has learned Derani will test for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports on March 1 in a rookie test for the Verizon IndyCar Series. Derani joins Mexican driver Luis Michael Dorrbecker, who will also make his test debut that day at that test at Sebring International Raceway’s 1.5-mile short course.

Derani raced a partial season in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2014 with Team Pelfrey, before shifting to sports cars later that fall, starting with Murphy Prototypes.

Derani excelled with G-Drive in 2015 before his star turn with ESM last year. This year, his schedule grows even greater, as he’s been confirmed with Ford Chip Ganassi Racing for the first three races of the FIA World Endurance Championship season, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans, sharing the No. 67 Ford GT with Andy Priaulx and Harry Tincknell.

It’ll be interesting to see what Derani does on the Sebring short course in one of SPM’s Honda-powered entries. He’ll be back at Sebring a couple weeks after his IndyCar test, as he prepares to defend his win in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with ESM.

‘Uncle Bobby’ Unser turns 83 today

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February 20 is quite a day for birthdays in the North American racing world. “The Captain,” Roger Penske, turns 80, and the Shaker Heights, Ohio native continues at the head of his incredibly successful race team and automotive group without so much as a sweat.

One of Penske’s longtime drivers has his birthday today, as well. Bobby Unser, or “Uncle Bobby,” turns 83.

A member of the famed Albuquerque family, Unser won three Indianapolis 500s (1968, 1975 and 1981) before moving into broadcasting after he retired, working with ABC at the ‘500 and throughout the IndyCar schedule. A legend on Pikes Peak as well, Unser has more than a dozen wins there.

As time has passed, Unser’s forthright, candid insights have really stood out in a time where fewer drivers have properly spoke their minds.

Last May at Indianapolis ahead of the 100th Indianapolis 500, I had the opportunity to chat with “Uncle Bobby” about his life and career at the Speedway. A selection of those quotes are below:

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been coming every year since 1959. I saw the lights blinking on track and wonder what just happened!” he said. “This place has been going 100 years, and I’ve been a part of it for a long time.

“There’s been too many changes and I couldn’t remember them all in my head anyway. I don’t like the changes I’m seeing, but it doesn’t mean they’re all bad.

“I don’t know why I got into TV; I didn’t even go to high school. Yet I’m an engineer! Who’d ever thought Bobby Unser would do television? I ended up with a really good group at ABC. I didn’t think I could ever do it – but I did! I enjoyed myself.

“I lost a brother here. And I lost an uncle who was preparing to come here. My brother Jerry was killed here, and my uncle Joe was killed preparing to come here in a car. We were testing it in Colorado. We’ve lost two Unsers here – we don’t need a medal – but it hasn’t all been peaches and roses.

“The evolution of cars was easy. It was better to do it when we’re young! I’m not kidding. One of my heroes was Don Branson. He was a dirt track legend for sure, but he was good here too. He was the upper end of years, and I was gonna get his car. I didn’t know he’d get himself killed… we had it preplanned. But he was gonna quit driving and work for Goodyear as field manager for their racing tires. That was a big step for me.

“Don, I’m not gonna tell you I’m better than him. But he didn’t like the rear-engined cars. I’m young. He’s older. So I stepped into a rear-engined car and it feels fine to me! Some of them couldn’t hack it going from the roadster to rear-engined car. But it was easy for me, and for my brother Al. I think a lot of that is the experience you have, and the age.

“This is a tough place. Arguing about the cars now could be another deal. Most anyone could run the cars today… but I don’t want to go down that road and take up more of your time.

“Mario (Andretti) was one of my closest friends in those days. We’d fly together as I had a junky old airplane that barely made it, but it beat driving to races!

“Foyt’s Foyt. He’s a grouchy old fart, you know? But he’s a hell of a race driver. I wish the younger generation would have seen him when he was young… he was a fireplug. He was fast, he was a chassis man, and he understood engines. He was so good.

“It’s ’68, obviously (my favorite ‘500 win). You never know you can do it. There’s so many guys in this race that could be leading, two laps or 10 from the end the car quits. There’s so many of them like that. How many times are you’re leading Lap 150, and then ain’t gonna win it?

“You don’t know you can win it until checkered flag falls. The next one’s easier.”

Team Penske restores iconic ‘Blue Hilton’ Indy 500-winning transporter

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Photo courtesy of Team Penske
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Few teams have as great an appreciation for their own history as Team Penske, so it’s only fitting that on a day when Roger Penske turns 80, the team reflects on the first transporter that helped launch the team into the national stratosphere.

Penske’s first of 16 Indianapolis 500 victories was achieved in 1972 with Mark Donohue driving, and the transporter that carried that No. 66 Sunoco McLaren Offy was a customized 1972 International Fleetstar truck known in the racing circles as “The Blue Hilton.”

This transporter served Team Penske well, carrying both Indy cars and sports cars that dominated in Can-Am in the early 1970s with George Follmer and Donohue.

More than 8,000 man hours went into the restoration of this transporter, which was only found in 2015 after concerns it’d been scrapped. Penske Truck Leasing’s James Svaasand, Michael Klotz, and David Hall and Team Penske Historian Bernie King led the restoration and can thank Jerry Breon, a long-time Penske team member, who found the truck for sale.

“After we confirmed that it was, in fact, the Blue Hilton that was for sale, I called Brian Hard (president of Penske Truck Leasing) and we agreed that we had to find a way to bring her back to life,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said in a release. “This transporter was there when the foundation was laid for Team Penske and it is symbolic of the way in which we operate today.  Everyone at PTL did an unbelievable job restoring this vehicle.  I can’t wait for Roger to see it in person, as it is something he will cherish.”

The transporter will be on display at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C.

You can read the full release here. A few photos of the transporter are below, courtesy of Team Penske:

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Testing confirmed, races not yet for Mikhail Aleshin in sports cars

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 01:  Mikhail Aleshin of Russia, driver of the #7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsport IndyCar prepares for qualifying to the Phoenix Grand Prix at Phoenix International Raceway on April 1, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver Mikhail Aleshin will focus primarily on the Verizon IndyCar Series this season, but may still be busy with sports car commitments with SMP Racing.

His sponsor he has in IndyCar is working on a new non-hybrid LMP1 car for 2018, as SMP Racing’s technical partner BR Engineering is working with Dallara on that new chassis.

Aleshin said via a press release he’s already been busy working on the development of that car ahead of its planned introduction next season (more info here via Sportscar365 and Endurance-Info).

The new creation stems from the fact BR Engineering was not granted a place to continue with its BR01 LMP2 chassis, which raced in the FIA World Endurance Championship and also won the pole for the 2016 Rolex 24 at Daytona, as the ACO confirmed just four chassis constructors would continue in LMP2 in 2017 to coincide with new regulations (Onroak, Oreca, Riley Multimatic, Dallara). BR and other constructors were removed from the field as a result.

Intriguingly though, Aleshin was also listed as the nominated driver for SMP Racing’s Dallara P217 chassis for both the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the European Le Mans Series.

Le Mans doesn’t clash with an IndyCar weekend, while the ELMS and IndyCar have one clash, the weekend of August 26 when IndyCar races at Gateway Motorsports Park and ELMS is at Paul Ricard.

Aleshin may be active in a number of sports car races this year, as he has been off-and-on the last two years. But he doesn’t know his exact schedule yet.

“Well we’re working to produce our own car for 2018… and I’m one of the test or development drivers,” Aleshin told NBC Sports.

“I don’t know yet (Le Mans)… maybe I’ll be there. Well, it’s good to be a placeholder! But hopefully not for every event.

“For me the main thing this year is to concentrate on two things. Number one is IndyCar. But I have a very similar responsibility on taking care of our LMP1 project with SMP, as that will be very big.”