Amped is a good word to prep for Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000 2017 season previews

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While the Verizon IndyCar Series always gets the headline status at the start of the new season, it’s the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires’ start of a new year that always provides the first glimpse into the potential future stars you could see in IndyCar one day.

The traditional six-pack of races on the streets of St. Petersburg sets the tone for the start of the new year as the run for the more than $2 million in Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships awarded at year’s end gets going.

With that, here’s a look ahead to the respective seasons:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Few would argue last year’s Indy Lights field was one of the strongest in quality in nearly a decade. Seven different drivers won races and six were in contention for the championship with just two race weekends to go.

There’s always going to be a bit of upheaval with a new season and of those top six drivers, only two of them return for 2017, which means both enter as the joint preseason title favorites.

Might Kaiser be the next Indy Lights driver we see arrive in IndyCar? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Kyle Kaiser could emerge as this year’s champion. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In a nutshell, Kyle Kaiser has consistency and stability in his pocket while Santiago Urrutia has speed, car experience and a change of scenery that he didn’t have this time last year.

The 21-year-old Californian, Kaiser won his first two races at the Phoenix oval and Monterey road course, scored poles there and on the streets of St. Petersburg and finished third in points. A well-rounded driver, Kaiser has grown in maturation over the season and if he can turn some of his sixth places of a year ago into top-fives – he had six of them in 16 races – he could win the title for Juncos Racing.

Urrutia, meanwhile, is in a title-or-bust scenario for his sophomore season. The Uruguayan has speed to burn and the confidence of knowing he can win in Indy Lights, which he did at three different permanent road courses last year.

Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Urrutia moves to Belardi for 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

He and engineer Tim Neff move to Belardi Auto Racing in a move that should shore up his oval progression; this has been the type of track that’s given him trouble the last two years. Improve on ovals, and the title is there for the taking after his tough loss a year ago, which he handled with maturity beyond his 20 years.

The five other returning drivers for 2017 – Shelby Blackstock, Zachary Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett, Neil Alberico and Juan Piedrahita – finished between eighth and 13th in points a year ago with only one combined podium finish (Kellett was third at the Freedom 100).

Of those five, you’d have to say Alberico has the highest upside given his usual year-to-year growth in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda when he contended for the title then, and with mechanical issues stunting his first year, he has a chance with Carlin to emerge as that team’s lead driver. Blackstock (Belardi) and Claman De Melo (Carlin) switch teams this offseason. None of these five would be considered a preseason title favorite but two to three of them, at least, should move forward from where they were a year ago.

The eight rookies set to debut at St. Petersburg boast a fascinating mix of talent, speed, personality and family history that will serve Indy Lights well.

Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Telitz keeps his eyes on the prize. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Belardi Auto Racing fields Aaron Telitz, the Wisconsinite who completes his journey up to final step on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder after winning races in USF2000 and winning last year’s Pro Mazda championship. Telitz, engineer Kent Boyer and the John Brunner-led, Brian Belardi-owned team have clicked during the offseason and he should be an instant contender.

Andretti Autosport has two traditional rookies in Nico Jamin and Ryan Norman. Jamin, the 2015 USF2000 champion and the only other driver in Telitz and Pato O’Ward’s zip code in Pro Mazda last year, will no doubt impress in his step up to Indy Lights, and like Telitz seems a probable first-time winner at some stage this year. Norman enters rather under-the-radar but has experience in the Atlantic series and will look to surprise as the year progresses.

The eyes, the helmet is all Herta... this one's Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
The eyes and the helmet is all Herta… this one’s Colton instead of dad Bryan though. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

There’s a third rookie from the Andretti stable that will draw a lot of interest in Colton Herta, who at 16 will be one of the youngest drivers in series history and will be the top family storyline going into the year. Herta, the son of Bryan Herta, drives for Michael Andretti (himself the second generation in a three-generation racing family) and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, who brings that family’s winning history from the New York Yankees into racing with the Andretti Steinbrenner Racing entry. Young Herta has a lot of experience in Europe and is back Stateside for the first time since 2014, when he raced in USF2000.

Carlin has a pair of rookies in Garth Rickards and Matheus Leist. Rickards, the Pennsylvania native, will look to do what RC Enerson did in 2015 – step up from USF2000 to Indy Lights directly and win a race. Rickards’ qualifying didn’t always bare itself out in great USF2000 results so if he can keep his qualifying performance up in these cars, he could shine. Leist, the teenaged Brazilian, moves Stateside after winning last year’s BRDC British F3 title. He will have to learn quickly.

Lastly a pair of Latin American drivers will be keen to impress. Argentine teenager Nico Dapero came on quickly at the end of last season with Juncos Racing in Pro Mazda and will continue to grow with the team this year. Meanwhile Mexican teenager Pato O’Ward, confirmed only for St. Petersburg with Team Pelfrey, looks to upset the apple cart with nothing to lose and everything to gain in his own step up from Pro Mazda.

The 16-race schedule features no races on the West Coast with Phoenix and Monterey both dropped (probably to Kaiser’s chagrin), and Gateway added. The Freedom 100, Iowa, Gateway and Watkins Glen races are single events with the rest doubleheaders for a total of three oval, four street course and nine road course races.

Four of the five returning teams all won races last year (Pelfrey the exception) and all five made the podium at least once. While a 15-car grid falls short of continuing to build upon the 16 that started last season, it is fortuitous most of the equipment from the disbanded Schmidt Peterson operation found a home elsewhere on the grid for 2017, and keeps the quality of the field still relatively high.

Kaiser and Urrutia enter as the drivers who immediately should be considered preseason title favorites, but the number of rookies that could win races is very intriguing as well. And if any of the other returning drivers make that next step forward this year, then we may well be writing about the seven different winners once again.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

One of the challenges within the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is that as drivers move on, either further up the ladder to Indy Lights or to sports cars, sometimes one of the three MRTI series is hit with a lower car count than you’d hope.

That series happens to be Pro Mazda in 2017, in the final year of its existing chassis with the rotary powered Mazda engine in the back, with car counts only scratching or exceeding the surface of double-digit entries.

But as Indy Lights struggled with single-digit fields as recently as 2013, and is now almost double that, this is very much a “survive and advance” year for Pro Mazda before the new Tatuus PM-18 debuts next season. And if last year with a similarly low car count is any indication, the loss in quantity can be offset by good quality.

Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin's Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Will the Pro Mazda field be seeing Martin’s Soul Red up front this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indeed four of the top five from last year’s Pro Mazda field – Telitz, O’Ward, Jamin and Dapero – have advanced into Indy Lights this year. It leaves a gaping hole at the top of Pro Mazda, of course, but one that several key drivers will look to fill.

USF2000 champion Anthony Martin should be at the head of the field from the off, as he’ll be back in a single-car effort for Cape Motorsports. The Australian overachieved in a single-car team with John Cummiskey Racing in 2015 in USF2000 and translated what he learned then into moving into title ascension with Cape last year. He’ll have full focus on his car this year and because he won’t be in the position of having teammates take points off each other, he has a good chance to match Matthew Brabham as the last driver to win USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles in successive years (2012-2013).

Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Or will Pelfrey yellow rule the day once again? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Team Pelfrey, meanwhile, will look for its third straight title with three new full-season drivers. The lone holdover is TJ Fischer, the Californian who made a midseason step up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda and learned the ropes. He should make a step forward this year. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin rarely featured in two seasons of USF2000 but should do better here. The wild card is teenaged Brazilian Carlos Cunha, new to the series and the tracks, but a fast prospect who could surprise. Urrutia and Telitz – Pelfrey’s last two champions – have worn Soul Red for Mazda in Indy Lights the following year.

The remainder of the field does not, at present, boast significant title prospects but will look to intermingle at the top when the opportunity presents itself. That said, a surprise or two could emerge from the late entries.

An additional incentive program announced by series operators Andersen Promotions helps, as does the fact it’s only a six-weekend, 12-race schedule with a tripleheader at Mid-Ohio and single oval at Gateway joined by doubleheaders at St. Petersburg, Indianapolis, Road America and Watkins Glen.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

While Indy Lights features a bevy of rookies and Pro Mazda features a number of new potential race winners, it’s USF2000 that features both, plus the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis that figures to throw a monkey wrench in the formbook for 2017.

Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Thompson (90), Gabin (91) and Franzoni (9) among three of the returnees. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

More than 20 cars figure to start the season opener at St. Petersburg this weekend and there’s about half the field, split between returning drivers and talented rookies, who could make some noise.

Cape Motorsports has won the last six series titles but faces a threat to its supremacy in 2017.

The veterans still in USF2000 are all hungry for different reasons. Three drivers enter their third years, and all of Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), Luke Gabin (Exclusive) and Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey) have the most race experience within the series. Whether that translates well with the new car, however, remains to be seen.

Series sophomores Robert Megennis (Pelfrey), Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) and Dakota Dickerson (Newman Wachs Racing) all impressed at various points last year and only Megennis returns to the same team in 2017. It would not be a surprise to see any of these three win their first races.

But it’s the rookies, who without the background of having the previous car and needing to re-learn this one, and with wide-eyed optimism and enthusiasm, who figure to make a big splash.

Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Askew is overflowing with promise. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Chief among them is Oliver Askew, who’s a name you should put on your radar sooner rather than later given his star potential. The Floridian has won the Team USA Scholarship and the USF2000 shootout in successive months, and excelled in his first official test with Cape at Homestead-Miami. He’ll win races, the question being when they’ll happen and if it’s enough to give Cape a seventh straight title.

Newman Wachs’ Andre Castro and Pabst Racing’s Rinus Van Kalmthout are two rookies who also figure to make some noise. Two others made one weekend appearance apiece last year, Kaylen Frederick of Team Pelfrey and Devin Wojcik of ArmsUp Motorsports.

The rest of the rookies are sprinkled in at Cape, ArmsUp, DE Force Racing, RJB Motorsports, Pabst, Benik, John Cummiskey Racing and Exclusive Autosport. So there’s plenty of first-year drivers to go around.

Like Pro Mazda, USF2000 only has one oval on its schedule, in Iowa instead of Gateway. That race and Watkins Glen are single races with the rest doubleheader weekends.

You might not know the USF2000 names now but as recent drivers like Spencer Pigot, Matthew Brabham, RC Enerson and Sage Karam have proved, IndyCar is within reach down the road.

MRTI: Chris Griffis Test Sunday times and notebook

Thompson (90, Exclusive) and Hoogenboom (78, BN) in Pro Mazda. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test concluded on Sunday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

Combined times after the two days of running are below, with Nico Jamin (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and Oliver Askew (Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) remaining on top from Saturday to Sunday, and Darren Keane (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) supplanting Andres Gutierrez at the head of that field.

Previous notebooks are linked here (Friday, Saturday), with additional Sunday notes to follow.

COMBINED TIMES

INDY LIGHTS (Best Session)Full Results

Jamin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 5-Nico Jamin, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:15.7173 (Session 2)
2. 98-Colton Herta, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 1:15.7808 (Session 8)
3. 23-Victor Franzoni, Juncos Racing, 1:15.7953 (Session 8)
4. 3-Pato O’Ward, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.0900 (Session 5)
5. 4-Rinus Veekay, Belardi Auto Racing, 1:16.1419 (Session 5)
6. 31-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:16.1585 (Session 8)
7. 31-Nicolas Dapero, Juncos Racing, 1:16.2491 (Session 4)
8. 48-Ryan Norman, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.3285 (Session 4)
9. 27-Anthony Martin, Andretti Autosport, 1:16.5185 (Session 4)
10. 2-TJ Fischer, Team Pelfrey, 1:16.8124 (Session 5)
11. 21-Heamin Choi, Juncos Racing, 1:18.1931 (Session 5)

PRO MAZDA (Best Session); Full Results 

Askew. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 8-Oliver Askew, Cape Motorsports, 1:19.8142 (Session 5)
2. 79-David Malukas, BN Racing, 1:19.9394 (Session 5)
3. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:19.9815 (Session 5)
4. 1-Carlos Cunha, Juncos Racing, 1:20.0236 (Session 2)
5. 3-Robert Megennis, Juncos Racing, 1:20.1268 (Session 4)
6. 81-Kaylen Frederick, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.1928 (Session 5)
7. 18-Calvin Ming, Pabst Racing, 1:20.2141 (Session 5)
8. 2-Sting Ray Robb, Juncos Racing, 1:20.6289 (Session 5)
9. 91-Nikita Lastochkin, Exclusive Autosport, 1:20.7001 (Session 2)
10. 80-Kris Wright, Team Pelfrey, 1:20.9930 (Session 4)
11. 82-Aaron Telitz, Team Pelfrey, 1:21.2144 (Session 8)
12. 78-Leonard Hoogenboom, BN Racing, 1:21.3713 (Session 8)

USF2000 (Best Session); Full Results

Keane ended head of queue in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

1. 36-Darren Keane, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.1424 (Session 5)
2. 22-Andres Gutierrez, Pabst Racing, 1:25.5618 (Session 3)
3. 27-Callan O’Keefe, BN Racing, 1:25.6295 (Session 2)
4. 21-Hunter McElrea, Pabst Racing, 1:25.7021 (Session 5)
5. 31-Rasmus Lindh, Team BENIK, 1:25.7791 (Session 5)
6. 81-Jacob Loomis, Team Pelfrey, 1:25.8514 (Session 5)
7. 90-Parker Thompson, Exclusive Autosport, 1:25.8743 (Session 2)
8. 23-Lucas Kohl, Pabst Racing, 1:25.9792 (Session 6)
9. 37-David Osborne, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:25.9996 (Session 8)
10. 20-Aaron Telitz, RJB Motorsports, 1:26.0042 (Session 6)
11. 80-Michael D’Orlando, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.2295 (Session 8)
12. 37-Jake Craig, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.2452 (Session 4)
13. 25-Elliott Finlayson, BN Racing, 1:26.3668 (Session 8)
14. 32-Jaden Conwright, Team BENIK, 1:26.4557 (Session 2)
15. 38-Max Peichel, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:26.5058 (Session 2)
16. 33-Myles Rowe, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.6004 (Session 8)
17. 90-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:26.6460 (Session 5)
18. 82-David Osborne, Team Pelfrey, 1:26.6824 (Session 2)
19. 34-Sabre Cook, John Cummiskey Racing, 1:26.9362 (Session 6)
20. 38-Oscar DeLuzuriaga, Newman Wachs Racing, 1:27.7455 (Session 8)
21. 92-Justin Gordon, Exclusive Autosport, 1:27.7750 (Session 3)
22. 24-Zoey Edenholm, BN Racing, 1:28.5449 (Session 8)
23. 93-Jayson Clunie, Exclusive Autosport, No Time

NOTES

Old USF2000 teammates Jamin and Telitz share a high-five. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Several drivers pulled double duty between series, namely Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport in Pro Mazda and USF2000), Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing in Indy Lights and Pro Mazda) and Aaron Telitz (Team Pelfrey in Pro Mazda, RJB Motorsports in USF2000). Telitz (above) added a run in Pro Mazda in Team Pelfrey’s No. 82 car; the Wisconsinite has done a lot of the series’ testing for the new Pro Mazda Tatuus PM-18, and had hoped to run all three series. We’ll have more meanwhile on Thompson and Exclusive’s double in the days to come; the Michael Duncalfe-led team out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan was one of three new Pro Mazda teams adding those cars to USF2000 efforts (Pabst Racing, BN Racing) this week.
  • There were a handful of drivers that changed cars or teams for Sunday’s second day of the test, primarily in USF2000. While Keane ran both days at Newman Wachs, the Brian Halahan-managed team ran David Osborne and Oscar DeLuzuriaga in the Nos. 37 and 38 cars, taking over from Jake Craig and Max Peichel. Osborne switched from Team Pelfrey, where he ran Saturday, and where Jacob Loomis ran Sunday. Justin Gordon ran a second Exclusive Autosport chassis, switching to the No. 90 on Sunday after running the No. 92 Saturday.
  • The PM-18 best lap set by Askew is more than three seconds faster than the series’ official track record (Pato O’Ward in 2016, at 1:22.8800, 105.941 mph). Askew’s best time of 1:19.8142 averages 110.010 mph around the 2.439-mile circuit. Neither the Indy Lights nor USF2000 cars eclipsed the existing lap records in those categories.
  • Drivers largely extolled the PM-18’s outright pace and potential with the horsepower upgrade, in what is a significant step forward for the series. “Following prototype testing of the new PM-18, I believed that we had a special race car and this weekend’s testing confirms that,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “Based on team and driver comments, this is a fantastic race car and I am very pleased with what Tatuus, Elite Engines and my team have assembled. It fits perfectly in between the USF-17 and the IL-15 in terms of lap times and, more importantly, it takes what a driver learns in the first step and introduces higher HP, higher grip and higher aero. This will be a great training car for years to come, and seeing our program now with three excellent and well-designed cars is very satisfying to me.”
  • Keane, one of the few veterans (relatively speaking) within USF2000 was plugged in this weekend as the only driver outside Pabst Racing to threaten the top of the timesheets. “It’s a good boost in confidence for me heading into next year. I am really happy with how everything is going with the team. They are a great group of guys and it’s just really good to see us improving and being where we want to be,” he said.
  • Rinus Veekay hailed the Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 Mazda this weekend in his first test there, although the talented Dutch teenager may well focus on Pro Mazda next season and shoot to win that championship, and continue his battle with Askew established in USF2000. “The car is very nice, quick,” noted VeeKay. “You can really feel the downforce and it was a pleasure to drive.”
Veekay. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The MRTI is done with official running for the year, but the $200,000 MRTI Scholarship Shootout remains in December at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, the former Firebird Raceway, outside Phoenix. The winner of that will get a ticket into USF2000 for the 2018 season.

Full MRTI spring training will take place at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February 2018, with undoubtedly a bevy of driver and team announcements to come over the following months.