Megennis and Lloyd. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

USF2000 2016 season preview

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It’s a transition year for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, which enters its final year with the venerable Van Diemen chassis before the new Tatuus USF-17 is launched and debuts for testing later this year.

Nonetheless, whereas when Indy Lights had a reduced car count in its final year before its new car came in for 2015, the USF2000 field had a bumper crop with 22 cars entered to test at Barber Motorsports Park.

There’s a great number of talents, too, in the mix of returning drivers for their second year and the rookies who arrive from elsewhere for the first crack at the Mazda Road to Indy.

We’ll take a look through, team-by-team, in the order that they finished 2015.

Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

Although Pabst Racing threatened it last year, the road to the USF2000 title goes through Cape. The team has won five straight USF2000 titles (Nico Jamin, Florian Latorre, Scott Hargrove, Matthew Brabham and Petri Suvanto) since 2011.

  • 2-Nikita Lastochkin: The Los Angeles-based Russian moves from Pelfrey to Cape this year. Should improve upon eighth in points and should contend for wins and podiums, although is the least likely Cape title contender.
  • 3-Parker Thompson: The 18-year-old out of Red Deer, Alberta is mature beyond his years and excelled on the single-car JDC Motorsports team. Will win races and contend for the 2016 title after finishing fifth last year.
  • 8-Anthony Martin: Australian also overachieved with John Cummiskey Racing last year and banked several podiums. He and Thompson enter this year as the top two title contenders in a deep field.

Pabst Racing 

Pabst expands to three cars and with three drivers who raced in USF2000 last year. They’ll seek additional wins and a sustained championship challenge.

  • 21-Jordan Lloyd: Only did St. Pete and NOLA due to budget restrictions at JCR but for a full 2016 season, the talented Australian should score his first career win.
  • 22-Garth Rickards: Had a respectable first full season with Team Pelfrey and should assume the unofficial team leader role this year.
  • 23-Yufeng Luo: Chinese driver now in L.A. finished seventh in points last year with several fifth place finishes. A podium contender, and could sneak a win.

John Cummiskey Racing 

The open-wheel veteran launched his own team last year and is set for two cars full-season after running two the opening two races last year. Anthony Martin was fourth last year, top rookie in the field, and both he and Jordan Lloyd move on for 2016.

  • 33-Ayla Agren: A past F1600 champ, the Norwegian talent should improve upon her rookie year as JCR team leader after switching from Team Pelfrey.
  • 34-Lucas Kohl: Despite a name that sounds anything but, Kohl will be one of a couple talented Brazilian rookies to monitor this year. Open-wheel veteran Roberto Moreno coaches the karting veteran.

JDC Motorsports

John Church’s team maintains its open-wheel presence even as most of his team is involved in sports cars. One USF2000 car continues after Parker Thompson overachieved last year.

  • 72-Tazio Ottis: Californian has competed on the West Coast in Formula Mazda and SCCA competition. Remains to be seen how he’ll stack up.

Team Pelfrey

Pelfrey’s Pro Mazda team won that title last year, while its USF2000 team served as a training ground for four different rookie, all of whom have graduated to other teams this year (Lastochkin to Cape, Rickards to Pabst, Agren to Cummiskey and Gabin to JAY). In their place come another batch of four fresh faces.

  • 80-Robert Megennis: A 15-year-old New Yorker who steps up from Team Pelfrey’s F1600 program after banking a number of podiums there last year.
  • 81-Jordan Cane: Only 14, but won seven F1600 races for Team Pelfrey last year. The Englishman is very young but has a very bright future ahead of him.
  • 82-TJ Fischer: Formula Renault veteran, 21, returns to the U.S. after a couple years racing abroad. He also gave up a shot at playing college football to pursue his racing career.
  • 83-James Munro: 19-year-old Kiwi is the first New Zealander in Mazda Road to Indy history, and has had some success in the Toyota Racing Series.

Afterburner Autosport

The Minnesota-based team led by Tim Walsh seeks a bounce back season, after being suspended for a couple races for a technical infraction last year. Victor Franzoni won a race last year so the team has the potential, and the team made a one-race comeback with Sennan Fielding and Jack Mitchell at Mid-Ohio.

  • 17-Felipe Ortiz: Teenaged Brazilian moves up from F4 and F3 in the past into USF2000. He’s 17 years old and drives car No. 17.
  • 18-Dakota Dickerson: A driver to watch. Team USA Scholarship recipient and the Mazda scholarship driver, the 19-year-old will have a Soul Red car and will contend for top rookie honors, if not the title outright.

JAY Motorsports 

Jay Green’s team ran through Lucas Oil Raceway last year with Augie Lerch. Now with a black-and-green car replacing its prior trademark black-and-pink, targets a full season with greater results this year.

  • 91-Luke Gabin: The Australian ended sixth in points, with Team Pelfrey teammates eighth, ninth and 10th with one podium finish. Doesn’t have the Mazda scholarship as he did last year, but in a lower pressure environment, could impress at points throughout the year.
  • 92-Cameron Das: Baltimore teenager has limited formula car experience and will learn as the year goes on. 

Chastain Motorsports 

Tom Chastain’s team ran in the IRL off-and-on from 1997 through 2007. Son Sam Chastain made his series debut last year and now will drive for the family team for a full season this year.

  • 5-Austin McCusker: Has some F2000 and F1600 experience and was listed to debut in the team’s second car.
  • 77-Sam Chastain: Looks to grow and develop after series debut with JDC Motorsports at the Indianapolis GP weekend last year.

RJB Motorsports

The new team out of Sturgis, Mich. runs its first full season after a toe-in-the-water debut at Mid-Ohio last year with McMahan and Alex Mayer. Fred Edwards, CEO of Metalloid Corporation, and his company have made an investment to make it possible.

  • 19-Michai Stephens: A determined young gun who’s a two-time Team USA Scholarship winner, might be one of the top rookies in a deep field. The Evanston, Illinois native, 23, has a high level of poise and focus.
  • 20-Clint McMahan: Likely won’t measure up to Stephens within the team but is another car on the grid. If he beats Stephens with any degree of regularity, he’ll have exceeded expectations.

Spencer Racing

The small team steps up to USF2000’s National Class from the SCCA Pro F2000 class. At present, the No. 12 car for Eric Filgueiras is the lone National class entry, but will feature a technical partnership with KVSH Racing’s Jimmy Vasser.

ArmsUp Motorsports

Finished 11th, 12th and 13th with Keyvan Andres Soori, Max Hanratty and James Dayson last year but the Gregg Borland-owned, Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin-based team was yet to announce its plans at press time. Hanratty and Dayson have already been announced to Tequila Patron ESM’s IMSA Mazda Prototype Lites program.

Conor Daly honors friend killed Saturday amid Indianapolis unrest

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IndyCar driver Conor Daly posted a poignant tribute to Chris Beaty, a former Indiana University football player and Indianapolis business owner who was killed Saturday amid protests and rioting in the city.

Daly said he got to know Beaty, who owned an event and marketing promotions company, five years ago when he was organizing Indianapolis 500 afterparties.

Daly annually had been involved in Beaty’s parties since then and said Beaty helped get him home earlier this year when Daly’s blood sugar crashed while at an event.

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“The world lost a tremendous person. RIP Chris Beaty,” wrote Daly, who also tweeted “The violence has to stop.”

According to the Indianapolis Star, Beaty died after suffering multiple gunshot wounds during Saturday night’s unrest in downtown Indianapolis. It’s unclear if the shooting was tied to the protests.

Graham Rahal also posted about his interaction with Beaty.

Daly, Rahal and the rest of the IndyCar Series will return to action Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway (8 p.m. ET, NBC).