Who might emerge in MRTI this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: 17 drivers to watch in 2017

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If you’re deep into scouting or just enjoy the additional racing that makes up most Verizon IndyCar Series weekends, look no further than the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the next potential series of stars.

Of the 21 drivers on the grid at St. Petersburg, more than half came through the Mazda Road to Indy to get there, several winning championships along the way.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

santiheadSantiago Urrutia, No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing

The Uruguayan returns for his sophomore season in the Mazda Road to Indy with very much a title-or-bust mindset, since he came staggeringly close to it last year. Although his team of Belardi is new, he’s come over with engineer Tim Neff, who’d put Urrutia in title-contending position last year at SPM. If Urrutia is to win this year’s title, he must improve on ovals, but fortunately that’s an area where Belardi excels.

aaronheadAaron Telitz, No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing

Although his arrival to Indy Lights was confirmed when he won the Pro Mazda title, it took until March for the i’s to be dotted and t’s crossed for the Wisconsinite as the Soul Red Mazda scholarship driver at Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz had a busy offseason of testing and will face the usual challenge of adapting to the heavier, more powerful and different Cooper Tires – tasks he’s already mastered once before in moving up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda.

kyleheadKyle Kaiser, No. 18 Juncos Racing

The third year driver out of California enters as a potential championship pick in the preseason and, for the second straight year, the unquestioned team leader at Juncos Racing. Kaiser’s evolved into a more well-rounded driver and just needs a street course win to match his triumphs on an oval (Phoenix) and road course (Monterey) of last year. If he can up his win total to perhaps four and maintain his consistency he showed most of last year, he could deliver enough for a title.

matheusheadMatheus Leist, No. 26 Carlin

The Brazilian rookie has the chance to be this year’s “Who’s that unheard of star at Carlin?” the same as Ed Jones was his first three races in 2015. Compared to teammates Neil Alberico, Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards, Leist has a strong background from his racing in Britain and a determination to impress. He should win races and the question mark for him is how he’ll take to ovals.

nicoheadNico Jamin, No. 27 Andretti Autosport

The Frenchman’s had an interesting Mazda Road to Indy career thus far. He made a quantum leap from year one to year two in USF2000, winning that title in 2015, and was respectable with car not on par with the Pelfrey team in Pro Mazda last year. He’s right on the border of being a title contender with Andretti Autosport but so much will depend on the team’s setup. Look for him to win at least once.

coltonheadColton Herta, No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing

The most fascinating blend of people comes with this entry. The 16-year-old Colton Herta is the son of Bryan Herta, who just plays dad on the car co-owned by Michael Andretti and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, themselves both sons or grandsons of legends. The younger Herta impressed in his European racing career and has come home for the first time since 2014. Nico Jamin may deliver more performance-wise for the team but you’d expect it with three years on the Mazda Road to Indy; if Herta can match and perhaps exceed the Frenchman regularly, he’ll have done quite well.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

anthonyheadAnthony Martin, No. 8 Cape Motorsports

The Australian will move up to Pro Mazda after winning the USF2000 championship and the Soul Red Mazda scholarship that comes with it. He’ll have to impress with limited testing, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the driver who balances aggression and speed well at the right times.

carlosheadCarlos Cunha, No. 81 Team Pelfrey

The 17-year-old Brazilian could be this year’s “Pelfrey discovery de jour,” much as Urrutia was when he arrived two years ago. While both Fischer and Nikita Lastochkin know the tracks and Fischer knows the Pro Mazda chassis, Cunha knows neither of them, but if his pace holds as he learns than he could emerge in front.

tjheadTJ Fischer, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

Fischer’s in a good position of timing given this is the last year of Pro Mazda as is, before the new car arrives in 2018. Team Pelfrey has won the last two titles and having had half a year to learn last year, Fischer should be a podium regular this season.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

oliverheadOliver Askew, No. 3 Cape Motorsports

The Floridian teenager embarked on a whirlwind end of 2016 that saw him win the Team USA Scholarship, star at the Formula Ford Festival in the UK and win the USF2000 Scholarship Shootout all in a two-plus month period. He should adapt quickly and is brimming with star potential, because he’s just one of those drivers you look at and feel there’s an intangible “it factor” that exists.

rinusheadRinus Van Kalmthout, No. 21 Pabst Racing

Here’s an interesting one. The Dutchman’s full name is Rinus Van Kalmthout, he’s gone in promotional purposes with the shorter, sleeker Americanized version of Rinus VeeKay – which sounds a bit like a club producer or DJ. The teenaged karting star has already dropped some surprise beats this offseason, having initially been set for Benik, tested for Newman Wachs and now joining as third driver for Pabst alongside Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl.

dakotaheadDakota Dickerson, No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing

The San Diego native has a two-year contract with which to build upon at Newman Wachs Racing, a team as renowned for its preparation as its history in junior open-wheel racing. Dickerson figures to move up to Pro Mazda in 2018 regardless but if he can score his first podium and win, that will help him rise in the standings this season.

andrecheadAndre Castro, No. 37 Newman Wachs Racing

The Brazilian driver impressed on his debut at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test in Indianapolis in October. As one of three drivers at Newman Wachs, he’ll look to match and occasionally beat series sophomore Dakota Dickerson, while trying to be top rookie compared to Dutchman Van Kalmthout.

robmheadRobert Megennis, No. 80 Team Pelfrey

The teenager from New York was the revelation of last year’s USF2000 season and will enter year two with increased expectations in an even deeper field. He should be able to break through for his first win and depending on when that would come, that would determine how high he can climb in the title after ending sixth last year.

aylaheadshotAyla Agren, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

The talented Norwegian driver, Agren is a past F1600 champion who’s thus far been unable to match that talent up with results in two moderately difficult USF2000 seasons. Her, Megennis and rookie Kaylen Frederick have the ability to gel well though and push the Pelfrey team forward; Agren is due her first win, and a top-five points finish would be good.

parkertheadParker Thompson, No. 90 Exclusive Autosport

The Red Deer, Alberta native was unlucky to come out on the losing end of the title bout with Cape teammate Anthony Martin last year and will be hard-pressed to accept anything other than a title this year to make up for it. He switches to Exclusive Autosport for a Canadian connection. The team has a bit of open-wheel experience and he should once again be in title contention.

lukeheadLuke Gabin, No. 91 Exclusive Autosport

Like teammate Thompson, Gabin’s in a make it-or-break it type of year with another new team, again his third in three years. A year ago, Gabin was hamstrung in part by a seriously tight budget, which made his aggressive race craft all the more impressive. He’s due his first win and could well surprise to follow his countryman, Anthony Martin, as an Australian USF2000 champion.

What IndyCar Drivers Are Saying about this weekend’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama

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Here’s What Drivers Are Saying about this Sunday’s 2018 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “We had a decent finish at Long Beach but we’re definitely hungry for more. Barber is one of my favorite tracks we visit – not just because we’ve won there – but because it’s a cool track and it’s only a few hours away from where I grew up (in Nashville, Tennessee). That just makes it even more special when I’ve won there. Barber is going to be interesting since it’s the first time we’re racing the new car on a road course. I think it could lead to some really exciting racing for the great fans at Barber and the fans at home. The whole No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet team and I are ready to take the strong car we have ready for this weekend to the track and run a great race.”

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “Barber is a very nice track. I raced there last year (in Indy Lights). We did one day of testing there this year with the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet, so hopefully we will have a great car to be running in the top 10. It’s a fast track and a physical track as well, so it’s going to be a long race. We need to concentrate on great laps and play the strategy again to see if we can get a top-10 there. I’m looking forward to it.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’ve been coming to Barber since 2010, and it’s been a really good track for us, but we’ve yet to win it. I think we’ve been on the podium nearly every race, with five or so of those being second-place finishes. It’s such a great event and you can really see what a great job the track does with the crowds growing year over year. Hopefully, this will be our year with the PNC Bank car.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “Obviously it was a great weekend for us at Long Beach (tying a career-best finish), so I’m really excited to get back in the NTT DATA car this week at Barber. We had great pit stops and strategy last weekend and I was extremely pleased with the result. I think I have a better understanding of what I need to do from the start to the finish of a race weekend in terms of getting the car right. We’re heading in the right direction as a team and I hope it’s the beginning of a string of very successful results and momentum.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “Long Beach was really great for the whole No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet team after we finished second. It was our best finish so far this season, so it’s done a lot for team morale going into this weekend at Barber. Road courses are always a lot of fun and I’m really looking forward to racing one with the new car. My team has been really working hard over the past several weeks with back-to-back races and they have a really strong car ready to go. Barber is such a cool course and the fans there are always really excited to be there. It’s just a really fun event for everyone and I can’t wait to get on track.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re coming from two top-10s in a row and the team is for sure on an upswing. Our test at Barber a few weeks back was cut short because of bad weather, but I’m hoping that we’ll keep the consistency and be competitive there as well. Barber Motorsports Park is a beautiful track where the fans are very passionate and always fill up the place. I’m looking forward to getting there later this week to hit the ground running with the No. 14 ABC Supply Chevrolet.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Our preseason test went well at Barber. I think we were fortunate that we went to the first one because the weather cooperated and we got good track time with this car, unlike the open test. I think it’s going to be interesting to see what conditions we get as we go back for the race. I think the new aero kit it has met expectations. It seemed like at Long Beach it really helped passing. You were able to follow a lot closer. Barber has always put on a great race, but I think that this year it could be even better. Depending on tire degradation and things like that, I think this new car could put on a very exciting race at Barber. We have always been pretty strong at Barber but last year wasn’t that great for us. In general, it’s a place we should be good at and I hope we can carry on the progress that we have been making in terms of competitiveness. I think it could be a great weekend for us. The team has worked hard and we’ve been fortunate to sneak in a couple of good results so far, even with some difficulties, and hopefully we can keep that going. We are just going to keep our heads down, work hard and stay focused on the end goal. I certainly hope that we can keep this thing going and go into Indy with a lot of momentum as we have done. I’m really excited about where we are and I think things are looking pretty good.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 The Paysafe Car Honda): “We had a good test at Barber last month aboard the Paysafe car and I’m really looking forward to the race this weekend. Obviously, the conditions will likely be different from when we tested, but it was an encouraging test. I’m hoping to make up for the tough race weekend we had at Long Beach last weekend. The No. 19 Paysafe crew deserves a good result for all the hard work they’ve been putting in. Hopefully, I can give it to them this weekend.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “Hopefully, I can carry over the speed we’ve had so far this year but convert it into a solid result in Barber. We’ve been fast in both of my races so far, but unfortunately don’t have much to show for it. We had a test at Barber last month, though we didn’t get much running in. There will be a lot to learn on both my side and the engineering side that will take a lot of time and energy, but we’re up for the challenge.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It’s been a tough start to the season so far. Our results don’t show the quality of the cars that we have had. We’re ready to turn that around and no better place than Barber Motorsports Park. Barber is definitely one of my favorite tracks, the fast corners and steep elevation changes are pretty unique and a lot of fun to drive. The track has been very good to me in the past, so I hope that trend will pick back up this weekend.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We had a really disappointing finish last week at Long Beach, but we’re going to use that disappointment to turn it into energy to fuel us to have a strong finish at Barber. We’ve had a busy few weeks and the No. 22 Menards Chevrolet team has worked hard to keep giving me great cars. It’s our first road course this season and it’s the first we’ll run with the new car. We learned a lot in the first three races, so we are ready. We won at Barber in 2016. It’s a beautiful track that always brings a lot of really great INDYCAR fans, so I know we’re all really looking forward to it.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “I’m really excited to be going back to Barber Motorsports Park this weekend. I’ve had some success there in the past and we have a little data from the open test last month to get us up to speed when the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet rolls out for Practice 1. Barber is unique with its elevation and technical demands and it really requires some patience to make your moves at the right time and place. Last weekend’s top 10 was a big morale booster for everyone on the Carlin team, myself included. I think if we can carry this momentum throughout the weekend and make some progress in qualifying, we can definitely put ourselves in a good spot at the checkered flag on Sunday.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “I definitely feel we have a lot of momentum on our side after finishing fourth in Long Beach. I honestly can’t wait to be back in the car at Barber and to keep improving. A year ago this weekend, I got the chance to compete in my very first Indy car race at Barber, so it’s going to be nice to be coming back to a track I have a little more experience at than others on the schedule. For me, my main goal is to focus on qualifying. I would really like to start getting higher on the charts for the start of the race. The Group One Thousand One car and crew have been great this year; we’re ready to show that again this weekend.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “I’m excited to head to Barber, especially after this last weekend in Long Beach, and I’m really happy to welcome Kerauno to the car as well. The team has been working hard and have a really good car that I’m happy with. Barber is one of the more difficult road courses we visit, but I know my Kerauno crew will be able to give us what we need to keep our momentum going. We took the points lead after last weekend and we’re not planning to give that up anytime soon.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “There’s only one goal for the (No.) 28 team at Barber this weekend, and that’s to grab our third victory at this track. The season started off OK with two top-fives, but then we took a hit with luck in Long Beach. We had a productive test at Barber a few weeks ago, but we were unable to run through our full test list due to weather. We have quite a lot of work to get done in the practice sessions in order to get the car into our ideal setup window before the race. I have no doubt the DHL team will work hard at it.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “We’ve tested at Barber twice but the second one was cut short due to the weather. Honestly, we don’t know yet how competitive we will be but we have some good data. At least the first test was productive for us, which will hopefully give us a good baseline to start with. Barber will be fun to drive with the new aero kit. The track is beautiful but it is very difficult to overtake. Again, I think tire management will be the key. I think that by the end of each stint, you will see a great battle with overtaking. Other than that, first we have to make the car fast. The weekend will be quite different conditions, temperature-wise, than when we tested there, which was very cold. I hope we have a good, strong package for the Honda Indy Grand Prix.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I am looking forward to my first race weekend in Alabama. Unfortunately, we couldn’t complete the amount of laps that we had hoped for during the open test, but we are still optimistic. The Barber Motorsports Park is a fantastic facility and the track layout reminds me a little bit of the famous grand prix track in Spa-Francorchamps (Belgium), where I managed to score a win in F3 and a second-place finish in the Formula V8 World Series. I hope that’s a good omen, even if I am fully aware that things don’t happen overnight in the Verizon IndyCar Series. As I continue to learn more about the ‘red’ Firestone tires, we will hopefully be able to make the next step forward and get some good points with our No. 32 Binderholz Chevy.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “I enjoy racing at Barber Motorsports Park. The road course really suits my driving style. I love the smooth, flowing corners and it always gives the fans a good show. The track does a good job of putting together a nice package of other series on track for the fans to watch throughout the weekend as well. We had the chance to test the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet at Barber earlier in the season, but the weather didn’t allow us to get as much track time as we were hoping for, so we’re going to need to get up to speed quickly in practice. The first three races of the season have been great learning experiences for Carlin and even last weekend, despite not getting the results I was personally hoping for, we still learned a ton.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Excited to be heading to Barber Motorsports Park for our fourth race of the year. Barber is a track that I enjoy a lot. Although we didn’t really have any testing from our practice day that we spent there, we’re still fairly confident that we can use the information that we learned over the first three race weekends and have a competitive car. I know we’re eager to get back to racing and are looking for our best result so far.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “We finished last weekend with a decent result considering the struggles we encountered in Phoenix and earlier in the weekend at Long Beach. I’m happy to put that behind us and focus forward. We’re sitting 10th in the championship and that’s not good enough, so this weekend we have to be on our A game and get a podium result. We’ve been there before at Barber and I know we can do it again.”