MRTI: 17 drivers to watch in 2017

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

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”