DiZinno: After several years, several MRTI alums get their IndyCar shots

Brabham (center) and Pigot (right) in 2013. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In what’s been a relatively quiet offseason – save for this past weekend at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis – for the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s been good to see that three of the four drivers confirmed for new seats in 2016 have two things in common:

All three are American, and all three are Mazda Road to Indy alumni and champions.

Indeed Conor Daly has finally – after taking arguably the longest and most winding road since The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” to get to his destination – earned his opportunity in a full-season IndyCar program, with perennial hopeful Dale Coyne.

Meanwhile two drivers who’ve been inextricably linked on the Mazda Road to Indy path, Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham, have their first cracks at IndyCar open thanks to several partners and in the exact same year, some four years after dueling for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship as teammates.

So really, if you’ve been paying attention to the ladder system for the last few years, you hoped this day would eventually come where these three would make their way to the top.

It still took near perfect circumstances, a bit of luck, and great timing though for all three to get their shot.

Daly with NBCSN's Kevin Lee in Indy. Photo: INDYCAR
Daly with NBCSN’s Kevin Lee in Indy. Photo: INDYCAR

Daly’s road to IndyCar has been the equivalent of a 24-hour endurance race spread over five years, complete with surprises, occasional heartache and frequent overachieving.

He was the dominant champion in the 2010 Star Mazda season (now called Pro Mazda), driving for Juncos Racing and winning eight races. He beat a field that included fellow MRTI veteran and now NBCSN Indy Lights/Red Bull GRC analyst and CoForce co-founder Anders Krohn, eventual Porsche Junior driver Connor De Phillippi, and future Star Mazda and Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier, who drove for Coyne this past season.

And then the long, winding road began. Daly’s shift in 2011 to a joint North American/European focus began the delayed process of getting to IndyCar. He won at Long Beach and actually led the Indy Lights points after three races, but his first voyage to GP3 began that year too, in hopes of also keeping a door to Formula 1 open. That year’s Indy Lights champion? One Josef Newgarden, Daly’s longtime friend and rival coming up through the karting ranks in Indiana, and a driver who nailed his timing to join Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in IndyCar the next season.

While Newgarden found his footing and eventually blossomed into an IndyCar race winner this past year, Daly’s run through Europe continued to be tortuous. He won in 2012 with ART, but that year’s most notable moment came courtesy of a scary accident in Monaco when he launched over the back of a slower driver, who’d been blocking him through the tunnel, and went airborne before pirouetting into the catch fencing. Mercifully, Daly was OK.

A near GP3 title followed a year later in 2013, along with points in his GP2 weekend debut, his Indianapolis 500 debut. From the GP3 side though, he lost the title to Daniil Kvyat, who wound up advancing into F1 the following year with Toro Rosso.

A full season in GP2 in 2014 was a tough one and the itch to return home to North America on a more full-time basis increased. Daly tried to attend as many IndyCar races as he could, persistent and determined to show his face whenever and wherever he could.

The 2015 campaign was more of the same. He overachieved in a handful of IndyCar starts, all last-minute, and had speed but traditional poor luck in a partial season of sports cars. That “arguably best 17th place finish in recent memory” at Long Beach though was his “wow” moment of the season for the IndyCar paddock, with Coyne, and helped plant the seed for his full-time shot.

Brabham in PIRTEK Team Murray car. Photo: INDYCAR
Brabham in PIRTEK Team Murray car. Photo: INDYCAR

For Brabham and Pigot, they’ll have to hope that their road isn’t as winding to make it to full-time seats, after the two were arguably the two top prospects within the Mazda Road to Indy ladder the last four years. And both have taken intriguing roads to get to IndyCar.

Pigot was fast but occasionally fragile in USF2000 in 2012, and despite an eight-four win advantage over Brabham, lost the title to his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate. The moment of their season came in the Night Before the 500 at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis; the two ran side-by-side, neither giving an inch, for nearly 10 laps of the 75-lap race before Pigot eventually prevailed for the lead and the win. It was one of those indelible moments where if you were paying attention, you knew you’d seen something special, and you knew one day both of these two would make it to IndyCar.

The 2013 season saw both advance into Pro Mazda, but with different teams. Brabham enjoyed a record-setting campaign with Andretti Autosport; Pigot won only once with Team Pelfrey. It was Brabham, then, that got the edge on moving into Indy Lights with Pigot staying in Pro Mazda for another season.

But 2014 was nearly the end of their respective open-wheel roads. Brabham was not nearly as at ease with the Indy Lights car as the two previous chassis; he won only once and failed to mount a serious title challenge. Pigot, meanwhile, was faced with the prospect of needing to win the title to advance into Indy Lights.

Pigot at IMS. Photo: INDYCAR
Pigot at IMS. Photo: INDYCAR

As such, the nerves and intensity were at their highest at the Sonoma season finale, as Pigot battled Scott Hargrove, the 2013 USF2000 champ who was looking to match Brabham in going back-to-back in two different series. Canadian Hargrove was a worthy opponent; one of the nicest people you’ll meet off the track but aggressive as hell on it.

The drama was ratcheted up and when Pigot emerged as champion over Hargrove after that weekend, it changed both of their respective careers.

Consider Pigot was the only one of the three who had a full Indy Lights season now set for 2015, while Brabham and Hargrove raced only on two and one weekend, respectively. Hargrove also raced in the Porsche GT3 Canada series, a year after he won that series’ title, while Brabham had a bit of everything else in occasional starts – FIA Formula E and Stadium Super Trucks among them.

Pigot – perhaps a year earlier than anticipated with Jack Harvey now cast in the “it’s his second year and he figured to win the title” role Pigot had occupied a year earlier – took the crown at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and earned his latest Mazda advancement scholarship to move into IndyCar.

Pigot’s struck a deal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for at least three races, with hopes of more to come. Brabham, meanwhile, has tapped into his Australian roots and will be working with Brett “Crusher” Murray – whose dream of an Indianapolis 500 entry will come true with the new PIRTEK Team Murray effort, run in partnership with KV Racing Technology.

It’s Harvey and Hargrove who are now, currently, on the outside looking in but two more who you hope to see next make the jump into IndyCar, because both have the talent to do so. Sage Karam, another of the Mazda Road to Indy stars the last few years, is another who you hope to see get a second season following his first with Chip Ganassi Racing this past year (budget pending, of course).

Another couple Americans – Neil Alberico and Zach Veach – are others who’ve had four or five years already within the Mazda Road to Indy and are so close to that jump.

But for these three though, it’s obvious. Mazda has helped make their open-wheel careers not only happen, but continue despite challenges, and the fruits of all their labor will come good with their IndyCar shots next year.

Seeing the ladder produce three more graduates is a very good thing.

Jett Lawrence wins Hangtown Pro Motocross, remains perfect in 450s

Lawrence Hangtown Motocross
Align Media

Jett Lawrence remains perfect in the Pro Motocross series after recording another perfect round at Hangtown in Rancho Cordova, California. In his second start on a 450, Lawrence won his second National with his fourth consecutive moto win. It is getting increasingly difficult to find the right superlatives to describe the exploits on the reigning 250 West Supercross champion.

“The track was so brutal out there,” Lawrence told NBC Sports Jason Thomas. “The bike handles amazing even when it’s not too friendly. You had to be really patient; you couldn’t take too much. I didn’t eat enough before that second moto. I kind of lost energy halfway through, but luckily I could use technique and balance and just keep that flow going.”

Lawrence leaves Hangtown with an 18-point advantage over Ferrandis in the 450 Motocross standings, but perhaps more importantly, he climbed to 19th in the SuperMotocross standings and should he stay there, he has an automatic invitation to the Main events in the SMX Championship.

“On this track, you just have to manage,” Lawrence continued. “If you try to take too much and not respect the track, it will bite you very quickly. It was humbling on the first few laps. I got kicked on the cutout at the start of the third section, the tabletop going to the left. I had to get my focus because the boys were coming.”

Still in his first few races since returning from a concussion suffered at Houston in the Supercross series, Dylan Ferrandis finished second with results of third in Moto 1 and second in Moto 2. While Ferrandis was happy with the result, he remains hopeful that he will contend for victory shortly.

“The first moto was very hard for my physically, Ferrandis said. “I got arm pump and when you get arm pump your body gets tired. But I’m very happy because we made a big change for the second moto. We tried stuff every session today and in the last moto the bike was much better, but unfortunately I wasn’t sure what I could do with this bike because the track was very hard and difficult to pass.”

RESULTS: How they finished in the 450 Overall at Hangtown

With the rash of injuries at the end of the Supercross season, the podium was filled with heartwarming stories. Cooper Webb returned to action last week in Pala and failed to make the podium. He is steadily improving with a third-place finish in Hangtown. after finishing with a 4-2.

“It’s incredible what seven days can do,” Webb said. “Last week I felt like I was going to get lapped in the second moto. This week, I could see the leader. It was nice. I fought hard, learned how to suffer again there and that felt nice.

Moto 2 wasn’t pretty for Lawrence. On several occasions in the opening laps, he nearly high sided as he rode the front wheel through the ruts. The reward was worth the risk. By the halfway point, Lawrence had 4.5-second lead over Webb, who was embroiled in a tight three-rider battle for second with his teammate Aaron Plessinger pressuring him and Ferrandis ready to take advantage if those made contact.

It took 20 minutes for Plessinger to get around Webb and once he did, he trailed Lawrence by four seconds. But then, with three minutes remaining, Plessinger crashed and had difficulty restarting the bike, handing second back to Webb who has seven seconds behind Lawrence. Plessinger fell to fourth with results of third and sixth.

Adam Cianciarulo rounded out the top five with a 5-4.

Last week Hunter Lawrence won the overall with a 3-1. He repeated that feat in Hangtown in an exact replica of his Fox Raceway results last week. In Moto 1, Lawrence got off to a slow start and lost 10 seconds in the opening laps. Forced to overcome a sixth-place position in the race at the end of Lap 1, he once again caught the riders ahead of him when the field hit heavy traffic. For the second week, scored another 3-1 for the Hangtown National win.

“The start was crucial’ I knew I had to go,” Lawrence told NBC Sports’ Jason Thomas. “They laid a lot of water down, so I didn’t want to be behind any longer than [I was]. First hot one of the year, was a bit of a wakeup call, so I’m happy to get out of here safe and healthy.”

Lawrence’s third-place finish in Moto 1 featured a fierce battle for final spot on the podium when he caught Spain’s Guillem Farres and France’s Tom Vialle. With Lawrence hailing from Australia, the international nature of the sport was highlighted.

Lawrence left Hangtown with a 10-point advantage over Haiden Deegan in the Pro Motocross championship battle.

Click here for 250 overall results

Justin Cooper finished second in both motos to finish second overall. Hangtown represented a huge improvement from Fox Raceway where he finished fifth overall with a 5-4 finish in the two motos. Cooper pressured Haiden Deegan in the second half of Moto 1 and he earned the holeshot in the second moto and stayed within three seconds of Lawrence in that race.

“He was following me a little bit, checking out my lines, seeing where he was better,” Cooper said. “It’s disappointing to give up the lead like that but it was way better than last weekend. I will definitely take two seconds. I want to be on the top of the step. I feel like I get close to the top step but I never get it done. That’s building up the frustration – the fire. I really want to get one of these wins, so it’s time to start digging.”

Haiden Deegan earned the first holeshot of his career in Moto 1 and rode away from the field, building a four-second lead in the opening laps. Cooper trimmed the lead at the halfway point and for a while it leveled off at two seconds. Then Cooper made another charge with three to go and closed to within a second. Deegan was biding his time, however.

“I was saving a little. I knew at the end Justin was going to try and put a charge on. I let him get up close and then sent it super hard at the end to break him a little at the end.”

Deegan’s first moto win comes in only his fourth National and he remains perfect in regard to podiums this year.

“This was a dream since I was a little kid, to win,” Deegan said. “And in my fourth race, it’s gnarly. I was just sending it. I was getting a little tired at the end becasue I left my mouth open the whole time. It’s unreal; I’m so hyped. I wanted to win bad and I proved it to you guys.”

Chaos erupted in turn 1 in Moto 2 Jeremy Martin went and another rider ran over his arm. Michael Mosiman crashed further down the track on that same lap. Both riders were helped off course by the Alpinestars Medical team.

2023 Motocross Race Recaps

Fox Raceway: Jett Lawrence wins in first 450 start

2023 Supercross Race Recaps

Salt Lake City: Chase Sexton ends the season with win
Denver: Chase Sexton wins, takes points’ lead with Eli Tomac injury
Nashville: Chase Sexton keeps hope alive; Cooper Webb out
New Jersey: Justin Barcia wins muddy race; first in two years
Atlanta: Chase Sexton is back in the championship picture
Glendale: Eli Tomac wins 51st, breaks tie with James Stewart
Seattle: Eli Tomac wins and ties Webb for first
Detroit: Chase Sexton inherits win after Aaron Plessinger falls
Indianapolis: Ken Roczen gets first win in more than a year
Daytona: Eli Tomac extends Daytona record with seventh win
Arlington: Cooper Webb wins for second time, closes to two of Tomac
Oakland: Eli Tomac ties Ricky Carmichael with 48 wins
Tampa: Cooper Webb gets first 2023 win
Houston: Eli Tomac bounces back from A2 crash to win third race of 2023
Anaheim 2: Triple Crown produces new winners Chase Sexton, Levi Kitchen
San Diego: Eli Tomac, Jett Lawrence double down
Anaheim 1: Eli Tomac wins opener for the first time

More SuperMotocross coverage

Chase Sexton is out for Hangtown
Enzo Lopes re-signs with Club MX for 2024
Record Supercross attendance reported in 2023
SuperMotocross Power Rankings after Pala
Results and points after Pala
Jett Lawrence wins Pala in his first MX start
450 Champion Chase Sexton takes back what he gave away
250 West Supercross champion Jett Lawrence ends dream career
250 East Supercross champion Hunter Lawrence overcomes doubt and injury