Teams and drivers from all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy have converged on Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala., for the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Open Test.
The two-day outing, which commences today, will provide an opportunity for several new team and driver combinations to gain a head start on their preparations for 2014 as others evaluate program possibilities.
The challenging 2.3-mile road course is part of the 2014 schedule as Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will be showcased April 25-27 alongside the IndyCar Series.
Each of the three levels on the ladder boasts a mixture of newcomers and returning veterans for the test, many of them gaining their first on-track experience since the conclusion of the 2013 season.
In Indy Lights, Matthew Brabham will begin his quest to extend an extraordinary sequence of success. The third-generation racer won the USF2000 title as a rookie with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in 2012 and used the MAZDASPEED
scholarship prize in claiming the Pro Mazda title with Andretti Autosport during a record-breaking 2013 campaign. Another scholarship has enabled Brabham, 19, from Boca Raton, Fla., to remain with the Andretti organization in 2014, when he will also carry the colors of York, Pa.-based United Fiber & Data, highlighting the company's all-fiber networking and broadband solutions.
"Winning the championship this year in Pro Mazda has been the biggest accomplishment of my career so far," said Brabham. "I'm very grateful to be a part of the Mazda Road to Indy as it has developed and matured me as a driver tremendously. I'm really looking forward to moving up and competing in Indy Lights next year. It is going to be another big learning curve for me and I'm really excited to get right into pre-season testing. I don't really have any expectations leading into the test at Barber. My main goals are just to work on adapting my driving style to the Indy lights car and to get a feel for the setup on the new Cooper Tires."
Zach Veach, from Stockdale, Ohio, will drive a second Andretti Autosport entry in the colors of RePLAY XD/The Young Marines/Ads IT Solutions/Zakosi Data Back Up. Veach, who celebrates his 19th birthday today, finished seventh in his rookie Indy Lights season, highlighted by a pole position in the final round at Auto Club Speedway.
While California-based Welshman Lloyd Read, a Pro Mazda graduate, will be settling in to his new Bryan Herta Autosport/Jeffrey Mark Motorsport team, a pair of European-based drivers -- Jack Harvey and Yann Cunha -- will be exploring their options for 2014. Both will join Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, which has won the four most recent Indy Lights championships with J.K. Vernay (2010), Josef Newgarden (2011), Tristan Vautier (2012) and Sage Karam (2013).
Cunha, 22, from Brasilia, Brazil, has competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series the past two years. Harvey, 20, from Bassingham, England, won the 2012 British Formula 3 Championship and finished fifth in the GP3 Series this year. Harvey is a member of the McLaren Young Driver Program and is supported by the British-based Racing Steps Foundation.
Belardi Auto Racing will also be on hand with two entries for USF2000 regular Michael Epps and Frenchman Alexandre "Alex" Baron, who made his Mazda Road to Indy debut last year. Baron, the 2012 French F4 champion, notched two wins in only four USF2000 starts in 2013 with Afterburner Autosport.
Blackstock, Pigot and Hargrove head Pro Mazda entries
Shelby Blackstock, Spencer Pigot and Scott Hargrove will head the field of Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires contenders at Barber Motorsports Park. Young Americans Blackstock and Pigot scored one victory apiece during their rookie Pro Mazda seasons in 2013 and will be among the favorites for honors next year. Canadian Hargrove, meanwhile, will be hoping to follow in Brabham's footsteps after winning this year's USF2000 title.
Blackstock, 23, from Nashville, Tenn., already has confirmed he will continue with Andretti Autosport in the Starstruck entry. Pigot, 20, from Orlando, Fla., does not yet have a firm deal in place but will join 2010 series champions Juncos Racing for the test.
Hargrove, 18, from Vancouver, B.C., who won four races for Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing en route to the USF2000 crown and a Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship to graduate to Pro Mazda, will return to test with the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based team that recently announced an expansion into the Pro Mazda ranks.
"I'm excited to get my first taste of a Pro Mazda car at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test," said Hargrove. "It's great to see the whole Mazda Road to Indy come together at this time of year as it allows drivers and teams to get a head start on preparations for 2014. Winning the 2013 USF2000 championship and the Mazda scholarship was a huge team effort and to see everyone's hard work pay off is an incredible feeling. Hopefully, the momentum will continue in 2014 with the opportunity to move up in the Mazda Road to Indy."
Neil Alberico, 21, from Los Gatos, Calif., has confirmed that he, too, will step up from USF2000 with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing after winning a season-high six races in 2013.
Other graduates from USF2000 making their unofficial debut in Pro Mazda at the test include Garett Grist and Michael Johnson, both of whom will be moving up with their existing teams. Grist, from Grimsby, Ontario, will continue to drive for Andretti Autosport, while Johnson, from Flint, Mich., the only paralyzed racer on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, will remain with JDC MotorSports.
Among the returning series veterans will be teenagers Kyle Kaiser, from San Jose, Calif., and Jose Gutierrez, from Monterrey, Mexico, both of whom will join Juncos Racing for the test, and Expert class contender Jay Horak, from Mesa, Ariz., with M1 Racing.
Kyle Connery, from Vero Beach, Fla., and Dalton Kellett, from Stouffville, Ontario, each contested one Pro Mazda weekend in 2013 and are looking to step up full time in 2014. Connery, a regular front-runner in the F2000 Championship Series the past few years, will join JDC MotorSports, while Kellett, a consistent top-10 contender in USF2000, has recently concluded a deal to join 2012 series champions Team Pelfrey.
Exam commitments at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, will restrict Kellett to a single day of testing, but newly announced Brazilian Luis Felipe Derani, a veteran of the European Formula 3 Championship who finished a strong third in last month's Macau Grand Prix, will drive on both days for Team Pelfrey.
Several drivers will be taking advantage of some opportunities presented by the Mazda Road to Indy, including 17-year-old Englishman Harrison Scott, a front-runner in this year's MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain, and a trio of South Americans who finished among the top five in the LATAM Challenge Series. Jose Enrique Lopez, from Maturin, Venezuela, will share a JDC entry with Scott, while Sebastian Arriola, from Guatemala, and Mexican Fernando Urrutia will each drive one day with M1 Racing.
Venezuelan Robert La Rocca, the 2012 F2000 champion, also will test with M1 Racing while Alfonso Celis of Mexico City, who contested the Formula Renault 2.0 NEC Championship in 2013, will pilot Juncos Racing's fourth entry.
Newcomers and veterans among strong USF2000 entry
The first USF2000 Open Test in preparation for the 2014 season also has attracted an interesting entry list featuring several returning veterans and some talented newcomers seeking to take their first step onto the Mazda Road to Indy.
Two-time defending champion team Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing will field one car at the test as the Florida-based organization also stretches its sphere of influence into Pro Mazda, but newcomer Jake Eidson will surely be among the pacesetters. Eidson, 18, from Littleton, Colo., emerged as a clear winner of the F1600 Championship Series this year, also driving for Cape Motorsports, and the three-time Skip Barber Series champion excelled in England this fall after winning a Team USA Scholarship.
Other newcomers to watch at the test will include Aaron Telitz, Jack Mitchell Jr. and Harrison Scott. Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., recently won the Skip Barber Race Series Championship Shootout -- and a MAZDASPEED scholarship to compete in USF2000 next year -- in the face of stiff competition, including Eidson, and will drive one day apiece with Afterburner Autosport and ArmsUp Motorsports.
Mitchell, from Chicago, is another former Skip Barber standout who won a Team USA Scholarship in 2012 and went on to win this year's Toyo Tires F1600 Series in Canada. Mitchell will drive a JAY Motorsports Van Diemen-Mazda. Fellow teenager Scott, from Althorne, England, has earned his opportunity to join the Mazda Road to Indy initiative following a series of impressive showings as a rookie in the MSA Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain.
"It's going to be a great experience to go and see what it's like out there," said Harrison, who will join Afterburner Autosport for one day before spending Day 2 at the wheel of a JDC MotorSports Pro Mazda car. "It would be great to race in the USA and it's certainly a possibility that we are looking at. From what I have heard the USF2000 car is quite similar to the EcoBoost Formula Ford I raced this year and should not feel too different from what I am used to, while the Pro Mazda chassis approaches an F3 car in terms of power and handling, so it should be good. Hopefully, I can prove my talent and impress."
Plenty of gifted returning veterans will keep the newcomers on their toes, including MAZDASPEED driver Peter Portante, from Plainfield, Conn., winner of the 2012 Skip Barber Race Series Championship Shootout, who will join ArmsUp Motorsports for the test alongside Timothy Paul, from Mount Kisco. N.Y.; Henrik Furuseth, from Oslo, Norway, and Clarke Toppe, from The Woodlands, Texas, representing JDC MotorSports; the Belardi Auto Racing trio of Florian Latorre, from Libourne, France, Michael Epps, from Hemel Hempstead, England, and Daniel Burkett of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; and Austin Cindric (Pabst Racing), from Mooresville, N.C.
Additional new faces in the crowd include Nathan Blok of Beachburg, Ontario, and Patricio O'Ward of Monterrey, Mexico (who won five of the six Pacific F2000 Championship races he contested this fall on his car racing debut), with JDC MotorSports; Victor Franzoni of Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Gustavo Myasava of Parana, Brazil, with Afterburner Autosport; Will Owen of Castle Rock, Colo., with Pabst Racing; and newly announced Nico Jamin of Rouen, France, with Belardi Auto Racing.