MRTI: Pro Mazda plus some other MRTI drivers in action this weekend

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Following a month-long break since the Freedom 100 (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires) and the Night Before the 500 at Lucas Oil Raceway (Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda), the Mazda Road to Indy resumes starting this weekend with two different elements.

Pro Mazda is in action to support the Verizon IndyCar Series at Houston, while some other MRTI past or present drivers are in action at Watkins Glen for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship Sahlen’s Six Hours at the Glen.

PRO MAZDA: HARGROVE VS. PIGOT TITLE BATTLE INTENSIFIES

After his double win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend and a runner-up finish at the Night Before the 500, Scott Hargrove has closed the gap on Spencer Pigot to just three points (180-177). Pigot went four-for-four to open the year before Hargrove and Garett Grist have won the last three races.

The Hargrove-Pigot battle isn’t limited to open-wheel, as both were in action last week in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Michelin at Calabogie. Hargrove took a win in the second race of the weekend for his third triumph in four starts there; he currently leads that points table by four points over Chris Green, with Pigot third in the standings (78-74-54 the gaps there).

At Houston last year, Pigot had one second in Pro Mazda and Hargrove one third, so both seek their first wins on the treacherous and bumpy street circuit this weekend.

The battle isn’t limited to these two, though. Grist and Andretti Autosport teammate Shelby Blackstock look to break through. Blackstock’s had a whirlwind couple of months where he’s raced in Pro Mazda, the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge with the GS class Fall-Line Motorsports BMW M3, and also in the Nurburgring 24 Hours last weekend.

Respective teammates for Pigot (Juncos Racing) and Hargrove (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing), Kyle Kaiser, Jose Gutierrez and Julia Ballario (Juncos) and Neil Alberico (Cape) have shown flashes of brilliance this season and look for their first wins of the year.

There’s two new drivers as well with USF2000 drivers Clark Toppe and Felipe Donato moving up to Pro Mazda for the weekend with JDC Motorsports and M1 Racing, respectively. The two races are at 1:05 Saturday and 1:00 Sunday.

WATKINS GLEN: MRTI CROP INCLUDES CHAVES, ALUMNI THROUGHOUT 55-CAR FIELD

The 55-car field for the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship round features a number of Mazda Road to Indy alumni in the field, and the current Indy Lights points leader.

Gabby Chaves steps in once again to the DeltaWing coupe in Prototype, which he’s raced at both Daytona and Sebring and now shares solo with Katherine Legge this weekend. Chaves has also been involved in a couple tests for the team, where he’s continued to learn and develop as a driver.

Elsewhere recent Indy Lights alumni Gustavo Yacaman (No. 42 OAK Racing), Sage Karam (No. 01 Chip Ganassi Racing), Tristan Vautier (No. 07 SpeedSource), David Ostella (No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports), Martin Plowman (No. 88 BAR1 Motorsports) and Rusty Mitchell (No. 08 RSR Racing) will be in the field in the P and PC classes. There are other Indy Lights graduates who raced in the 1990s and early 2000s; the numbers get higher the longer back you go.

New Chip Ganassi driver Marcus Armstrong will team with boyhood idol Scott Dixon

Marcus Armstrong Scott Dixon
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Marcus Armstrong was a Scott Dixon fan his entire life, and when he was 8, the aspiring young racer asked his fellow New Zealander to autograph a helmet visor that he hung on his bedroom wall.

Next year, Armstrong will be Dixon’s teammate.

Armstrong was named Friday as the fourth IndyCar driver in the Chip Ganassi Racing lineup and will pilot the No. 11 next season on road and street courses.

A driver for the five oval races on the 17-race schedule will be named later.

The No. 11 is essentially the No. 48 that seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson drove the last two seasons, with Chip Ganassi making the change to run four cars numbered in sequential order. Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson drives the No. 8, six-time champion Dixon drives the No. 9, and 2020 IndyCar champion Alex Palou drives the No. 10.

So just who is the second Kiwi in the Ganassi lineup?

A 22-year-old who spent the past three seasons in Formula One feeder series F2, a Ferrari development driver in 2021, and former roommate of Callum Illot and former teammate of Christian Lundgaard – both of whom just completed their rookie IndyCar seasons.

“I’ve always been attracted to the IndyCar championship because it’s one of those championships that’s been really well televised in New Zealand since I was young, mainly because of Scott and his success,” Armstrong told The Associated Press. “As time progressed, as I got closer to F1 and single-seaters, the attraction to IndyCar grew just because of how competitive the championship is – I like to challenge myself and the level of competition in IndyCar is remarkably high.”

Armstrong, from Christchurch, New Zealand, was set to travel from his current home in London to Indianapolis this weekend to meet his new team. He won’t need an introduction to Dixon, the 42-year-old considered the best IndyCar driver of his generation and Armstrong’s unequivocal childhood hero.

Last season, Dixon earned his 53rd career victory to pass Mario Andretti for second on the all-time list. Dixon has driven for Ganassi in all but 23 of his 345 career starts.

“For a long time I’ve been a Scott Dixon fan. I don’t want to make him cringe with our age difference,” Armstrong told the AP.

Despite the two-decade age difference, Armstrong never considered someday racing with Dixon a fantasy.

He convinced his father after winning five national karting championships to allow him to leave New Zealand for Italy at age 14, where he moved by himself to pursue a racing career. Armstrong said as soon as he’d received parental permission, he’d never look back.

Armstrong was in Formula 4 two years after his move to Italy and won that title in his first season. He won four races and four poles in F3 in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, then collected four wins and eight podiums in three seasons of F2.

“Maybe it’s a strength, or maybe it’s a weakness, but I always thought I was capable of doing great in the sport,” Armstrong told the AP. “I think you probably have to succeed in the sport, you need to believe in yourself. I always pictured myself being in IndyCar.

“As Scott’s teammate? I can’t specifically say I saw that. It’s an extraordinary chain of events.”

Armstrong becomes just the latest driver to leave Europe, where F1 is the pinnacle but has only 20 seats each year. Alexander Rossi began the trend in 2016 when the American left F1 and won the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie. He’s been followed by Ericsson, last season’s Indy 500 winner, Romain Grosjean, Illot, Lundgaard, and on Thursday three-time W Series champion and Williams F1 reserve driver Jamie Chadwick was announced as driver for Andretti Autosport in IndyCar’s second-tier development series.

Armstrong said he could have remained in F2 for a fourth season, but he’d been watching IndyCar for so long, and after conversations with Illot and Lundgaard, he decided to make the move to what he believes is the most balanced racing series in the world. He tested for Dale Coyne Racing at Sebring in October.

He doesn’t know if European racing is done for good, just that he wants to be in IndyCar right now.

“I don’t want to think too far into the future, I’m just grateful for this opportunity that is standing right in front of me,” Armstrong said. “I want to perform as well as I can in the near future and just consolidate myself in the fantastic chance that is IndyCar and just do my best.

“I’m not looking at F1 as a landing spot – I am looking at IndyCar, and that’s exactly why I am here.”