Mazda Road to Indy enjoys busy two-day Chris Griffis Memorial Test at COTA

Shelby Blackstock. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy enjoyed a busy, trouble-free and fortunately dry couple days of testing over the weekend at Austin’s Circuit of The Americas, in the fifth annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test, to provide the first glimpse at what’s ahead for the respective 2016 seasons.

Here’s quick recaps from all three series:

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Series returnees Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) and Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport) led the way in Saturday’s opening sessions, with Kaiser half a second clear of Blackstock on a new tire run. As the Californian noted, chemistry, more than ultimate lap times, were more important given COTA isn’t on the 2016 calendar.

“I’m just working with the team and trying to get fast for next season,” said Kaiser, whose best time was 1:54.224 (107.158 mph) on Saturday. “I am working with some new teammates so the team chemistry is a little different. Overall, it was a really good day. This is one of my favorite tracks and that’s the main reason I am here. I just wanted to drive this track in an Indy Lights car. It was a blast.”

Blackstock led Sunday’s final day of running, albeit a fraction shy of Kaiser’s best time of the weekend, just 0.0494 of a second in arrears. Nevertheless, the young American seeks to improve upon what was a challenging first season in Indy Lights in 2016.

“We were working through our test plan pretty aggressively,” Blackstock said. “We were P1 in the first two sessions today and making good progress with the car. These two days have been massively beneficial especially from where we were last year. We are going through a big test plan and the car is definitely responding in the right way. Mike (Reggio, engineer) and I are working really well together and have a good communication down. The test plan is coming along nicely.”

Canadian rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo and Jose Gutierrez, the latter stepping up from Pro Mazda, impressed for Juncos Racing. Dalton Kellett (Andretti) and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James French and Heamin Choi also tested.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda champion Nico Jamin impressed in another outing for his USF2000 team, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, but now in Pro Mazda machinery. The 19-year-old Frenchman ran a 2:05.224 on Saturday to lead that day. But likely series returnee Pato O’Ward of Team Pelfrey clocked in a 2:04.767 on Sunday to end as the fastest time of the weekend.

“The hopes are to do Pro Mazda again. I love working with Team Pelfrey,” O’Ward said. “They have been a second family to me. These have been a very productive two days and we had a lot of time to test a lot of things.”

Juncos Racing’s thus far confirmed trio of Will Owen, Nicolas Dapero and Jake Parsons all tested, as did several others.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

Jamin’s Cape USF2000 car had a new driver but not a new spot on the timesheets for this test. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, in his first test with the dominant team in the series, led both days in USF2000 with a 2:10.217 on Saturday and a 2:09.545 on Sunday.

Others who impressed were two-year series veteran Aaron Telitz, in the new-to-USF2000 RJB Motorsports entry, at 2:10.7042 before he handed over the controls to rookie Clint McMahan, and Dutch teenager Rinus Van Kalmthout impressed Sunday aboard a second Cape Motorsports car.

After gaining his first experience of USF2000 equipment Saturday with Afterburner Autosport as part of the Mazda Road to Indy/MAXSpeed Group Driver Development Program, the car racing rookie took full advantage of the additional mileage to post the third fastest time overall at 2:10.2804.

Van Kalmthout and Lastochkin might be the early clubhouse leaders in the unofficial “Best Names in the Mazda Road to Indy” category.