BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – St. Petersburg represented the kickoff to the Mazda Road to Indy season, but this weekend’s Mazda Road to Indy races for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seasons may paint a more representative picture of what is to come the remainder of the 2016 season.
Road courses more than street courses dominate the schedule. From the Indianapolis GP, to Road America, to Mid-Ohio and to Mazda Raceway, there’s still four more road course weekends to go on the calendar after Barber, compared to just two street courses (Toronto, Boston). So doing well here at Barber might pay dividends down the road.
Here’s what to look for in the respective series:
The Legacy Indy Lights 100 weekend features the same 16 cars you’ve seen at both St. Petersburg and Phoenix, the only change Scott Anderson back in the No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Dallara IL-15 Mazda instead of Heamin Choi. Otherwise, status quo.
Kyle Kaiser enters as the hottest driver in the series on the heels of a third, second and first in the first three races, and enjoys an 18-point lead over Felix Serralles. Kaiser’s Juncos Racing team swept the weekend here last year in dominant fashion with then-teammate Spencer Pigot.
Beyond the Juncos pair of Kaiser and Zachary Claman DeMelo, this is an important weekend for Carlin’s trio of Serralles, Ed Jones and Neil Alberico.
Neither Serralles nor Jones figured much on the road courses last season; Jones and Serralles posted a fourth apiece here last year. It’s crucial that the team, engineered by ace engineer Geoff Fickling, finds the setup on race weekend to match its pace in testing here, and get ahead of Juncos or else risk getting further behind. Alberico, who’s thus far struggled to find the optimum pace in qualifying on the Cooper Tires since stepping up from Pro Mazda, remains in search of his first top-five result.
This could be a good weekend for the SPM crew, particularly RC Enerson and Santiago Urrutia. Enerson scored his first Indy Lights podium here last year and his first win on a similar road course in Mid-Ohio. Urrutia led the way here in testing. If there’s a place the Uruguayan could win his first Indy Lights race, it’s here.
Belardi’s pair should be tough and win contenders this weekend with both of Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach. Veach has plenty of track experience and Rosenqvist, the St. Pete race two winner, will seek a bounce back weekend after a tough oval debut at Phoenix. He’s been busy with two races in Europe the last two weeks, in the Blancpain Endurance Cup and ADAC GT Masters.
Andretti Autosport should have a decent weekend and rookie Dean Stoneman could well be in line for his first podium finish, if not his first win. Teammates Shelby Blackstock and Dalton Kellett are overflowing with track experience from their time in the Mazda Road to Indy.
Team Pelfrey enjoyed a good test here in the spring and looks for decent results with its pair of Juan Piedrahita and Scott Hargrove.
We touched on half the likely contenders for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires’ Mazda North American Operations Presents the Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Alabama weekend earlier this week, with a look at Team Pelfrey’s St. Petersburg domination and a pondering of whether it would continue.
Beyond the Aaron Telitz-Weiron Tan-Pato O’Ward trio at Pelfrey, Juncos’ Pro Mazda team is in search of an improved weekend after a challenging St. Petersburg. Garett Grist should be leading the way of its four drivers.
At Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, Nico Jamin and Jake Eidson banked three top-fives between them at St. Petersburg, and will be looking to upend the Pelfrey trio this weekend. Jorge Cevallos (JDC Motorsports) rounds out a modest 10-car field.
Arguably the biggest wild card of the weekend on the Mazda Road to Indy card are the two USF2000 races, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Alabama, which feature a 24-car field. Last year, Telitz and Jamin won the pair of races for the Capes and the Capes, who endured a rare podium-less weekend in St. Petersburg, look to amend that stat this weekend.
Anthony Martin mightily impressed last year with fourth and second in the then-single car John Cummiskey Racing effort and could well score his first series win now with Cape. You could say the same for teammate Parker Thompson, who finished fifth both races here last year.
But those two – and Cape’s third driver Nikita Lastochkin – will have to get through Pabst Racing’s trio of Jordan Lloyd, Yufeng Luo and Garth Rickards first. Even though Lloyd didn’t race in the regular season here last year, he does have track experience from Cooper Tires Winterfest last year. He’ll be keen to improve on sixth and a DNF in two races.
Further down the order Luke Gabin has continued with JAY Motorsports despite only previously being set for St. Petersburg, and he’ll have a teammate for the first time in Cameron Das.
Pelfrey’s four-headed rookie quartet of James Munro, TJ Fischer, Jordan Cane and Robert Megennis are sleepers – 14-year-old Cane has the potential to make some history this weekend to follow up on a podium scored at St. Petersburg.
Also keep an eye on veterans Victor Franzoni (ArmsUp Motorsports) and Ayla Agren (John Cummiskey Racing), and last year’s Team USA Scholarship winners Michai Stephens (RJB Motorsports) and Dakota Dickerson (Afterburner Autosport).