Who might emerge in MRTI this year? Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: 17 drivers to watch in 2017

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If you’re deep into scouting or just enjoy the additional racing that makes up most Verizon IndyCar Series weekends, look no further than the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires for the next potential series of stars.

Of the 21 drivers on the grid at St. Petersburg, more than half came through the Mazda Road to Indy to get there, several winning championships along the way.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

santiheadSantiago Urrutia, No. 5 Belardi Auto Racing

The Uruguayan returns for his sophomore season in the Mazda Road to Indy with very much a title-or-bust mindset, since he came staggeringly close to it last year. Although his team of Belardi is new, he’s come over with engineer Tim Neff, who’d put Urrutia in title-contending position last year at SPM. If Urrutia is to win this year’s title, he must improve on ovals, but fortunately that’s an area where Belardi excels.

aaronheadAaron Telitz, No. 9 Belardi Auto Racing

Although his arrival to Indy Lights was confirmed when he won the Pro Mazda title, it took until March for the i’s to be dotted and t’s crossed for the Wisconsinite as the Soul Red Mazda scholarship driver at Belardi Auto Racing. Telitz had a busy offseason of testing and will face the usual challenge of adapting to the heavier, more powerful and different Cooper Tires – tasks he’s already mastered once before in moving up from USF2000 to Pro Mazda.

kyleheadKyle Kaiser, No. 18 Juncos Racing

The third year driver out of California enters as a potential championship pick in the preseason and, for the second straight year, the unquestioned team leader at Juncos Racing. Kaiser’s evolved into a more well-rounded driver and just needs a street course win to match his triumphs on an oval (Phoenix) and road course (Monterey) of last year. If he can up his win total to perhaps four and maintain his consistency he showed most of last year, he could deliver enough for a title.

matheusheadMatheus Leist, No. 26 Carlin

The Brazilian rookie has the chance to be this year’s “Who’s that unheard of star at Carlin?” the same as Ed Jones was his first three races in 2015. Compared to teammates Neil Alberico, Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards, Leist has a strong background from his racing in Britain and a determination to impress. He should win races and the question mark for him is how he’ll take to ovals.

nicoheadNico Jamin, No. 27 Andretti Autosport

The Frenchman’s had an interesting Mazda Road to Indy career thus far. He made a quantum leap from year one to year two in USF2000, winning that title in 2015, and was respectable with car not on par with the Pelfrey team in Pro Mazda last year. He’s right on the border of being a title contender with Andretti Autosport but so much will depend on the team’s setup. Look for him to win at least once.

coltonheadColton Herta, No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing

The most fascinating blend of people comes with this entry. The 16-year-old Colton Herta is the son of Bryan Herta, who just plays dad on the car co-owned by Michael Andretti and George Michael Steinbrenner IV, themselves both sons or grandsons of legends. The younger Herta impressed in his European racing career and has come home for the first time since 2014. Nico Jamin may deliver more performance-wise for the team but you’d expect it with three years on the Mazda Road to Indy; if Herta can match and perhaps exceed the Frenchman regularly, he’ll have done quite well.

Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires

anthonyheadAnthony Martin, No. 8 Cape Motorsports

The Australian will move up to Pro Mazda after winning the USF2000 championship and the Soul Red Mazda scholarship that comes with it. He’ll have to impress with limited testing, but that shouldn’t be an issue for the driver who balances aggression and speed well at the right times.

carlosheadCarlos Cunha, No. 81 Team Pelfrey

The 17-year-old Brazilian could be this year’s “Pelfrey discovery de jour,” much as Urrutia was when he arrived two years ago. While both Fischer and Nikita Lastochkin know the tracks and Fischer knows the Pro Mazda chassis, Cunha knows neither of them, but if his pace holds as he learns than he could emerge in front.

tjheadTJ Fischer, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

Fischer’s in a good position of timing given this is the last year of Pro Mazda as is, before the new car arrives in 2018. Team Pelfrey has won the last two titles and having had half a year to learn last year, Fischer should be a podium regular this season.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

oliverheadOliver Askew, No. 3 Cape Motorsports

The Floridian teenager embarked on a whirlwind end of 2016 that saw him win the Team USA Scholarship, star at the Formula Ford Festival in the UK and win the USF2000 Scholarship Shootout all in a two-plus month period. He should adapt quickly and is brimming with star potential, because he’s just one of those drivers you look at and feel there’s an intangible “it factor” that exists.

rinusheadRinus Van Kalmthout, No. 21 Pabst Racing

Here’s an interesting one. The Dutchman’s full name is Rinus Van Kalmthout, he’s gone in promotional purposes with the shorter, sleeker Americanized version of Rinus VeeKay – which sounds a bit like a club producer or DJ. The teenaged karting star has already dropped some surprise beats this offseason, having initially been set for Benik, tested for Newman Wachs and now joining as third driver for Pabst alongside Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl.

dakotaheadDakota Dickerson, No. 36 Newman Wachs Racing

The San Diego native has a two-year contract with which to build upon at Newman Wachs Racing, a team as renowned for its preparation as its history in junior open-wheel racing. Dickerson figures to move up to Pro Mazda in 2018 regardless but if he can score his first podium and win, that will help him rise in the standings this season.

andrecheadAndre Castro, No. 37 Newman Wachs Racing

The Brazilian driver impressed on his debut at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test in Indianapolis in October. As one of three drivers at Newman Wachs, he’ll look to match and occasionally beat series sophomore Dakota Dickerson, while trying to be top rookie compared to Dutchman Van Kalmthout.

robmheadRobert Megennis, No. 80 Team Pelfrey

The teenager from New York was the revelation of last year’s USF2000 season and will enter year two with increased expectations in an even deeper field. He should be able to break through for his first win and depending on when that would come, that would determine how high he can climb in the title after ending sixth last year.

aylaheadshotAyla Agren, No. 82 Team Pelfrey

The talented Norwegian driver, Agren is a past F1600 champion who’s thus far been unable to match that talent up with results in two moderately difficult USF2000 seasons. Her, Megennis and rookie Kaylen Frederick have the ability to gel well though and push the Pelfrey team forward; Agren is due her first win, and a top-five points finish would be good.

parkertheadParker Thompson, No. 90 Exclusive Autosport

The Red Deer, Alberta native was unlucky to come out on the losing end of the title bout with Cape teammate Anthony Martin last year and will be hard-pressed to accept anything other than a title this year to make up for it. He switches to Exclusive Autosport for a Canadian connection. The team has a bit of open-wheel experience and he should once again be in title contention.

lukeheadLuke Gabin, No. 91 Exclusive Autosport

Like teammate Thompson, Gabin’s in a make it-or-break it type of year with another new team, again his third in three years. A year ago, Gabin was hamstrung in part by a seriously tight budget, which made his aggressive race craft all the more impressive. He’s due his first win and could well surprise to follow his countryman, Anthony Martin, as an Australian USF2000 champion.

Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.