Ed Jones is a dark horse on Sunday. Photo: IndyCar

Recent MRTI grads comprise significant chunk of Indy 500 field

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INDIANAPOLIS – With the current crop of established veteran Verizon IndyCar Series drivers in their early 30s to early 40s, it’s worth asking when the next generation of drivers will properly emerge in a “changing of the guard.”

It took time for IndyCar to move on from the Andretti, Unser, Rahal, Foyt, Mears, Fittipaldi, Sullivan and more group of names, as most retired into the 1990s. In their place have come the Castroneves, Kanaan, Montoya, Dixon, Power, Hunter-Reay, Bourdais and Pagenauds of the world, having debuted between the late 1990s and mid-2000s.

There’s a distinct feel this Indianapolis 500 though that the next verge of talent is on the horizon, if not this year then in the next two to three years to come.

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires presence in this year’s Indianapolis 500 is deep and detailed. Some 14 of the 33 drivers have raced in the series since its formal 2010 introduction, and others have raced in previous American open-wheel ladder championships (namely Formula Atlantic or Indy Lights in its prior iteration) and 24 Mazda Road to Indy alumni in the field all told.

It might, in fact, be easier to count the drivers racing Sunday who don’t have any North American open-wheel ladder experience.

It’s the recent grads though who have a good chance in this race, which for the moment is their only confirmed race of 2017, who otherwise have nothing to lose.

Five of the last six Indy Lights champions are in the field, dating to 2011. Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones are the two full-time drivers, Spencer Pigot races most events as road/street course driver for Ed Carpenter Racing while he’s since switched to Juncos Racing for this race only, while past teammates and back-to-back champions Sage Karam and Gabby Chaves are looking to re-establish themselves as full-time IndyCar competitors after only having parts of one full season.

The others who’ve raced in the Road to Indy and graduated from 2010 to 2016 and are in this year’s field include two rookies, Zach Veach and Jack Harvey, A.J. Foyt Enterprises teammates Conor Daly and Carlos Munoz, several-time IndyCar race winner James Hinchcliffe, Ganassi’s Max Chilton and Charlie Kimball, Juncos’ Sebastian Saavedra, and Dale Coyne Racing’s Pippa Mann.

This list doesn’t include two other notables in Matthew Brabham and RC Enerson, who impressed in limited 2016 IndyCar starts, but aren’t in this year’s Indianapolis 500 owing to lack of finances, not lack of talent.

ED JONES AND COYNE LEAD THE WAY FROM P11

It’s been Jones who’s been the underrated, and under-appreciated, star of the month. The Dubai-based Brit may be this year’s only full-season rookie, but has been impressive from the off at Dale Coyne Racing. With several laps turned over 230 mph and both pace and patience in traffic, the defending Indy Lights champion and Mazda scholarship recipient is arguably the top darkhorse Sunday from P11 in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda. And it’s not like a rookie started 11th and won last year’s race or anything… (Alexander Rossi did, hence the setup).

Jones flies the flag as IndyCar’s lone full season rookie in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

“I guess the heat made the car a bit more difficult to drive because this morning in practice we rolled out and did four laps and were like ‘let’s park it, that’s the perfect car,'” Jones said after qualifying. “But nonetheless, it was a great job by the guys who made some changes from yesterday. Thanks to the team, Dale, my engineers.

“Obviously, it was a tough day yesterday, but the team spirit is so strong. It’s great to be a part of this team. It’s tough, like they say with racing you’re always up and down. Especially around here, a place where you’ve got to treat it with respect. Any tiny mistake or any small difference can cost you a huge amount. I’m just proud to be representing this team, hopefully we can move further up in the race.”

TWO MRTI LEGACY STARS REUNITE; PIGOT AND JUNCOS BACK TOGETHER

Pigot and Juncos are reunited for Juncos’ Indy debut. Photo: IndyCar

Rising Star Racing-supported driver Pigot, inadvertently, gets his start in this year’s ‘500 with a MRTI graduate team in Juncos Racing, thus completing the journey for Argentine team owner Ricardo Juncos into IndyCar. Rarely, if ever, has a story been written where a driver began with a team in karting and the two grew together simultaneously to where now he’s driving for Juncos in its debut. Despite a crash in practice, the spirit of the Juncos team shone through with a rebuild overnight, and Pigot’s return in qualifying spoke volumes.

“I just got a little loose. I exited Turn 1. It was a shame, because we had a decent run going,” Pigot said. “It might have been high-20s, which from Friday, I would’ve been all right with after that crash. All that matters is we’re in the race, and I was able to save the car there in Turn 1. I’ve got to thank the guys. They’ve worked a lot of long hours to get me back out here.”

“It’s crazy! So 15 years ago, coming from Argentina, in karts and he’s 9 years old,” Juncos reflected. “Now we’re living this dream. Without losing the focus on the task, we need to enjoy this, because it’s a great story of the team, of Spencer, and of both of them together. For whatever reason, it’s happening.”

RECENT INDY LIGHTS CHAMPS, WINNERS LOOK TO MOVE UP FULLY

Chaves (88, 2014) and Hildebrand (21, 2009) are past Indy Lights champs in the field. Photo: IndyCar

Chaves has the most official success in IndyCar among the champions from the last few years. The Colombian American parlayed the 2014 Indy Lights title into both the series and Indianapolis 500 rookie-of-the-year honors in 2015, and might have won at Pocono had it not been for an engine issue driving on a shoestring budget for Bryan Herta Autosport. But financial pitfalls hit before 2016, leaving him scrambling for a ride and then left to watch as Alexander Rossi won the Indy 500.

Now with series debutante Mike Harding, Chaves says this is another great opportunity for him to continue and show he – and the team – belong.

Al Unser Jr. and Gabby Chaves. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s huge… it’s what it’s all about, right?” Chaves said. “It’s about keeping the sport going, getting some new faces in it. There are definitely a lot of guys who can stick around and be here for a while.”

Veach, one of Chaves’ closer friends and fellow IndyCar two-seater driver, makes his Indianapolis 500 debut in a third car for Foyt. The journey’s been harder for him and Harvey, perhaps, as they didn’t win an Indy Lights title and the Mazda advancement scholarship that goes with it. But it hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his dream.

Veach looks to impress in third car for AJ Foyt Racing. Photo: IndyCar

“When I talked to AJ Foyt Racing, one of the first things they mentioned was my drive at Road America last year, when I won with a car that wasn’t handling that great, and my dominant win at Watkins Glen,” Veach explained. “I think that showed them a spark of what I can do and that’s what the Mazda Road to Indy has made easy. You have the confidence to walk up to teams because they’re familiar with your past and your lifestyle.”

Harvey, like Veach, came up just short of an Indy Lights title. Chaves beat him to the 2014 title on a tiebreak and then in 2015, Harvey’s fast start faded down the stretch as Pigot and Jones closed stronger. Nonetheless, he’s happy to be back in a seat after it’s been nearly two years since his last start, in Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport’s car.

Harvey and Shank are rolling through the ups and downs of Indy. Photo: IndyCar

“The ladder we all know rewards winning,” Harvey said. “For people like Zach and I especially, we did everything right to win, but the cards didn’t fall our way. It reflects on us as people, how hard we’ve worked to get here. We’ve kept grinding and got the opportunities we have.”

THE FACTORY SPORTS CAR STAR AND YOUNG CHARGER BACK AGAIN

Karam looks to make the most of his one scheduled 2017 IndyCar start. Photo: IndyCar

Karam won both the USF2000 and Indy Lights titles and has been trying to stick full-time in IndyCar for four years. Now a factory driver for the 3GT Racing Lexus RC F GT3 in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, Indianapolis is always a welcome comeback for the 22-year-old out of Nazareth, who prepares for his fourth ‘500 as the youngest driver in the field, with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

“It feels good to have some races under my belt with Lexus and Scott this year including the Daytona 24, Sebring, Long Beach and COTA,” said Karam. “I feel that doing those races has made me more relaxed behind the wheel coming to Indy. Last year, without some racing before Indy, I thought I got too anxious in the 500 when I was towards the front. I really wanted to lead the race.”

Many of the names mentioned in this piece aren’t household names yet. But they are all drivers in their 20s who have potential staying power for years to come.

Supplanting the veterans isn’t something that comes easily, but given what Josef Newgarden has accomplished with time, breaking into the top-five in points and winning multiple races as he’s into his sixth season now, and has arrived at Team Penske at age 26.

None of the other recent graduates have more than three years experience in IndyCar. But they’re working towards that point, and Sunday’s race provides a great shot where an unheralded name or two emerges on a national stage.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.