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.

Takuma Sato captures 101st Indianapolis 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Similar to last year, an Andretti Autosport driver that wasn’t the most discussed or fastest has won the Indianapolis 500.

But after his best month yet at Indianapolis, bravery and tenacity has won Takuma Sato the 2017 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

And for Helio Castroneves, finishing second leaves him again, one spot short of his elusive fourth victory.

Rookie Ed Jones was third ahead of Max Chilton, with Tony Kanaan completing the top five.

Meanwhile Fernando Alonso had an engine issue that took him out from a star drive, and Scott Dixon survived a crazy accident early on despite going airborne.

This was a crazy race because it had 11 yellow flag periods, plus a red flag, and 15 different leaders, a record.

Unofficial results are below. More to follow.

Big wreck late in Indy 500 takes out Power, Hinchcliffe, two others

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A major wreck with 17 laps left in the Indianapolis 500 has occurred, involving five cars.

Oriol Servia, James Hinchcliffe, James Davison, Will Power and Josef Newgarden were involved in the incident, as they exited Turn 1 into the short chute to Turn 2.

All but Newgarden saw their day come to an end in the wreck. Newgarden wasn’t directly involved in the wreck, but spun avoiding the other cars, tapped the inside retaining wall, and spun back onto the racetrack.

Max Chilton is leading the race, with Takuma Sato second, followed by Ed Jones, Helio Castroneves and JR Hildebrand.

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Alonso’s Indy 500 dream ends in all-too-familar Honda engine failure

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From a story that started six weeks ago when he shocked the racing world by announcing his entry to the 101st Indianapolis 500, Fernando Alonso’s dream of winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing came to an all-too-familiar end when he was sidelined by an engine failure late on.

Two-time Formula 1 champion Alonso had been a force at the front of the pack throughout the first half of the race and even looked capable of taking a famous victory at the Brickyard, only for his engine to give up on the main straight and his hopes to go up in smoke.

Given his Indy 500 entry was put into motion as a way to ease his gripes with McLaren’s F1 struggles with ailing engine partner Honda, for it to end in such fashion weighs heavy with irony and, for Alonso, disappointment.

Thrown into a rolling IndyCar race start for the first, Alonso made a slow getaway on the opening lap to lose four positions and sit ninth, only to then pick his way back through the order with some fine overtakes on the likes of Will Power and JR Hildebrand.

A swift first pit stop of 8.2 seconds from the McLaren-Honda-Andretti crew lifted Alonso to third after the opening cycle, with the Spaniard then putting down the hammer to take the lead of the race from Alexander Rossi on Lap 37.

Alonso and Rossi spent the next 15 laps drafting, swapping the lead back and forth in a bid to save fuel, with the McLaren man sitting as race leader when the red flag was thrown for the crash between Scott Dixon and Jay Howard on Lap 52.

Alonso shuffled back to fourth before the next caution was shown following Conor Daly’s crash, and the Spaniard continued to sit in the top five despite being frustrated by former F1 colleague Max Chilton’s bold defense at one point.

Running second behind Andretti teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay and Rossi, Alonso was able to battle his way back through to the lead on the restart with 70 laps to go following Buddy Lazier’s shunt.

Honda’s engine concerns were justified when smoke began to seep from the rear of Hunter-Reay’s car, sparking another caution on Lap 138. While it did rule out one of Alonso’s win rivals, it was one less bullet in the gun for Andretti at the front.

Alonso made his penultimate stop under the caution, dropping him to ninth behind the drivers that opted to stay out. Just a single lap followed when Ed Carpenter’s front wing broke, leaving debris on track, but there was enough time for Alonso to fall back to 12th ahead of the sixth caution.

The loss of position also cost Alonso his net advantage over the field. Now on the same strategy as Helio Castroneves, Tony Kanaan and Oriol Servia – all of whom ran ahead – Alonso had ground to make up heading towards the final round of pit stops.

Alonso’s final visit to pit road was sparked by another caution called for a Honda engine failure, this time leaving Charlie Kimball on the sidelines. The majority of the pack came in, leaving the field with a straight sprint to the flag. Sat ninth for the restart, Alonso had to mount a charge with 30 laps to go on the restart.

Having passed James Davison early on the restart, Alonso picked up another spot with a brave move around the outside of Kanaan with 24 laps to go, giving him P7.

As Alonso continued to push, he became the third Honda driver to suffer an engine failure as he came towards the start/finish with around 20 laps remaining, his car grinding to a halt.

First Honda engine issue strikes Hunter-Reay on Lap 137

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INDIANAPOLIS – Reliability was expected to be a major story line in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil but it has taken until Lap 137 before the first Honda engine issue has hit, which came from pre-race concerns in that camp.

Ryan Hunter-Reay, who led seven times for 28 laps in the No. 28 DHL Honda for Andretti Autosport, had his engine drop out on the backstraight as he went onto the apron into Turn 3.

It is the second straight year the 2014 winner has been sidelined short of a possible second win.

Hunter-Reay has diced with teammates Fernando Alonso and Alexander Rossi this race. At the time of his motor dropping out, he was running second to Alonso.

There were eight Honda engine failures this month prior to today, between the INDYCAR Grand Prix race, and Indianapolis 500 practice and qualifying.