For the first time in several years, the Mazda Road to Indy makes the trip out west to Sonoma Raceway. While Indy Lights and Formula Mazda cars have run at Sonoma in the past, this marks a rare occasion for all three of Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 to be on the same weekend, with all three titles to be determined.
Although Gabby Chaves and Zach Veach have been the dominant forces in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, they’re not the only two with a shot at this year’s title.
Chaves leads Veach by seven points, 466-459, with Jack Harvey within shouting range at only 23 back (443). The Englishman swept the pair of Mid-Ohio races two weekends ago; Veach enters this weekend on the strength of a crucial win at Milwaukee last Sunday. Chaves has a series-leading four wins in 2014, with Veach three and Harvey two.
The Lights title follows the IndyCar points system, with 10 points in-between first and second (50 to 40). Heading into Sunday’s second race, we’ll have a better idea of where things stand.
A Chaves title would deliver Brian Belardi his first series title. Veach looks for Andretti Autosport’s first title since JR Hildebrand’s in 2009. Meanwhile if Harvey can steal it, he’d extend Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ run of consecutive championships to five in a row since 2010 (JK Vernay, Josef Newgarden, Tristan Vautier, Sage Karam).
A field of 10 cars will say farewell to the current Indy Lights chassis, in use since the series’ reincarnation in 2002.
It’s Spencer Pigot vs. Scott Hargrove for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. While Pigot seeks an elusive first title on the Mazda Road to Indy after two near misses in USF2000 (particularly in 2012) and a rough first Pro Mazda season, Hargrove looks to go back-to-back after taking the USF2000 title a year ago.
Pigot leads Hargrove by 19 points, 290-271. With anywhere from four to eight points the margin between first and second, depending on bonus points, it will likely take Hargrove winning with Pigot running into issues to be able to overtake him.
Neil Alberico, Hargrove’s teammate, looks to lock down third in the championship. Meanwhile Shelby Blackstock has his eyes on third place on the strength of three podium finishes from the last four races. Alberico has 205 points to Blackstock’s 196.
With a 30-point lead and a propensity for powering to pole position (eight poles in the last 10 races), Frenchman Florian Latorre is poised to capture the 2014 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda championship for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.
Latorre would follow Hargrove, Matthew Brabham and Petri Suvanto as USF2000 champions for Cape since 2011.
If Latorre doesn’t pull it off, Cape teammate Jake Eidson could capitalize from P2, or RC Enerson for his family’s Team E Racing squad could. But they’ll need help in order to pull it off.
USF2000 and Pro Mazda each race Friday and Saturday; Indy Lights races Saturday and Sunday.
(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)
Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality
It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.
“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.
“Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”
During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.
The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.
The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.
“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”
So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).
Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).
“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”
Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.
James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”
Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.
“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.
“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”
James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.
“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”
“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”
Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.
“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.
“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”
Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.
“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.
“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”