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.

Don’t know the Rolex 24? You should. Here’s why.

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Hello, America. It’s time to go racing again.

Yes, Supercross is now three weeks into its season, and the Chili Bowl Nationals is now effectively the Christopher Bell Invitational after the young NASCAR star won his 3rd consecutive Golden Driller last weekend.

But the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway is the first marquee event on the American racing calendar – an event that just happens to have international prestige.

It’s also the start of Daytona Speedweeks, which culminates with NASCAR’s Daytona 500 on Feb. 17. But this is no mere opening act just warming up the crowd for the headliner.

In case you’re new to this event, here are a few reasons why it stands out:

Twice around the clock: Are you the kind of person that appreciates a challenge? Well, challenges don’t get much bigger in motorsports than a 24-hour endurance race where drivers, crews, machines, and strategies must work together flawlessly. For those behind the wheel in the Rolex 24, the obstacles are numerous: Punishing G-forces, extreme mental focus, lack of sleep, and staying on top of hydration and nutrition.

Star power: Speaking of those behind the wheel, the Rolex 24 traditionally draws top drivers from other disciplines such as IndyCar, Formula 1 and NASCAR to join sports car regulars from North America and around the world. As a result, the winners’ list is a Who’s Who of Motorsports.

This year’s field includes a clutch of NTT IndyCar Series drivers, highlighted by 5-time series champion and past Rolex 24 winner Scott Dixon. But pre-race buzz has centered on two particular interlopers: Alex Zanardi, the former CART champion making his first North American start since losing his legs in a 2001 crash, and Fernando Alonso, the two-time F1 champion looking to add another endurance triumph alongside his win with Toyota in last year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Cool cars: If you’re a gearhead, the Rolex 24 is a 200-mile-per-hour candy store. Across the four separate classes of competition, 13 of the world’s premier car manufacturers are represented.

The majority of those manufacturers are found in the Grand Touring classes that feature vehicles based on road-going production models. Chevy and Ford’s eternal rivalry rages on in the factory-backed GT Le Mans, but the class also boasts efforts from BMW, Porsche, and Ferrari. It’s even more diverse in the pro-am GT Daytona, where Porsche is joined by Audi, Lamborghini, Lexus and Mercedes.

As for the exotic, purpose-built Daytona Prototypes, they are powered by engines from Cadillac, Acura, Mazda and Nissan.

Nifty fifty: This year’s Rolex 24 begins the 50th anniversary season for IMSA, the sanctioning body for North American sports car racing. A select group of teams will mark the occasion at the Rolex 24 by running historic IMSA paint schemes on their machines. You may not be familiar with these looks, but it’s worth discovering the history behind them.

Here’s an example. The Starworks Motorsports team (GT Daytona) will carry a scheme based on Audi of America’s 90 Quattro from the 1989 IMSA GTO season. Boasting sports car legends Hurley Haywood and Hans-Joachim Stuck in the driver lineup, the 90 Quattro captured 7 GTO wins that season.

Audi’s performance led one competitor to create a “no passing” sticker with Stuck’s face on it. Stuck’s response: A doll fixed to his car’s rear window that dropped its pants to moon anyone Stuck put behind him.

Status symbol: Last but not least, the Rolex 24 has a unique prize – a trophy you can wear.

Winners get a standard cup, but what they’re really after are the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona watches, which include a special engraving to commemorate their victory. A standard version of this watch retails for tens of thousands of dollars, but you can’t put a price on the ones awarded at the Rolex 24.

This year’s grand marshal, 5-time Rolex 24 winner Scott Pruett, sums it up as “the ultimate reward.”

“To be presented a watch engraved with the word ‘Winner’ after 24 hours of intense racing is a moment that lives with you forever,” he added. “Your Rolex is a constant reminder of the perseverance and hard work that goes into succeeding at the highest level.”

Former NASCAR VP Robin Pemberton joins Andretti Autosport

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Andretti Autosport has hired former NASCAR executive Robin Pemberton to run its new Pirelli GT4 America Series program.

Pemberton spent more than a decade as the vice president before leaving the organization a little more than three years ago. He also worked as an executive for Ford and as a crew chief for several Cup drivers, including Richard Petty, Kyle Petty, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin.

Jarett Andretti, son of racing veteran John Andretti, will be driving for the GT team.

Here’s the release from the team:

Robin Pemberton has joined Andretti Autosport to oversee the team’s newest racing initiative in the Pirelli GT4 America Series. With over 10 years served as NASCAR’s Vice President of Competition, and four decades of racing involvement, Pemberton brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the pedigree team.

“The new Andretti Autosport GT4 program is an incredible opportunity for the team and McLaren to come together,” said Pemberton. “I’m excited to be involved and we are all working together to get the program off the ground. After spending time with Jarett at sprint car races last season, I’m impressed by his determination. He is a good talent with a bright future. I look forward to working with him and the entire Andretti Autosport team in this new challenge.” 

“We’re really pleased to welcome Robin to the Andretti family to oversee our new GT4 effort,” said Andretti Autosport CEO Michael Andretti. “A lot of effort goes into building a new program from ground up, and we think Robin’s experience and expertise will be a great asset as we get up to speed. We’re looking forward to a successful first year in the Pirelli GT4 America Series.” 

Pemberton’s motorsport career started in 1979 with Petty Enterprises, where he worked his way to the role of crew chief for both Richard and Kyle Petty. The New York state-native went on to crew chief with teams such as Roush Fenway Racing and Penske Racing. His record as a crew chief shows 28 victories and 39 pole positions. Before moving to NASCAR in 2004, Pemberton spent nearly two years as Field Manager for Ford Motorsport’s NASCAR programs, leading development of the Ford Taurus program.

With pre-season testing in full swing, Andretti Autosport will make its GT4 America Series debut March 1-3 at Circuit of the Americas with Jarett Andretti behind the wheel of the new McLaren 570S GT4.