Road to Indy – Weekly Wrapup: 12/6-12/10

Once again, we had a jam packed week of mostly cool news for the now Mazda Road to Indy program. Yes, I said MAZDA. They’re now the official title sponsor of the program, and they bring some other benefits as well. However, I say mostly cool news because there was one downer for the week. Dan Andersen’s racing operations via Andersen Racing will cease in 2011. Andersen Racing had fielded entries in both the Star Mazda Championship and the Firestone Indy Lights series. Andersen will still run the US F2000 National Championship and his other karting operations, but he won’t be supporting any drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy program, at least not in 2011. That’s a real shame as Andersen Racing has in the past given opportunities to a lot of quality drivers. JR Hildebrand drove for the team in Firestone Indy Lights before joining AGR/AFS Racing where he won his 2009 Firestone Indy Lights championship, and Anders Krohn finished 2nd in last year’s Star Mazda Championship for the team. More about Mr. Krohn later. While we may understand and sympathize with the economic realities that lead Mr. Andersen to this decision, it doesn’t mean we have to like it and I’ll cross my fingers for the team’s return to competition in 2012.

The Headlines

In spite of the downer news from Andersen, there was a LOT of really positive things that happened this past week, so lets jump right in beginning with the big news that was announced at the Performance Racing Industry Trade Show on Thursday morning. Mazda Racing (@MazdaRacing for you tweeters) announced that it will be sponsoring the entire Road to Indy program and that a major part of that sponsorship is supporting the champion of each rung on the development ladder by offering a scholarship to the next level all the way through to the IZOD IndyCar Series.

One big complaint last season about the program was a lack of a scholarship program between Star Mazda, Indy Lights, and IndyCar. Mazda offered the previous champions of the Star Mazda Championship a fully funded ride in the Mazda-powered Atlantics Championship, but when that series dissolved, they switched the package to their Rolex Grand-Am Series where they run the RX-8 in the GT class. I can’t fault them for that. At the time, they had no investment in the Firestone Indy Lights series. Perhaps their support is a hint at the possibility of a Mazda-based powerplant for the Indy Lights machines in the future.

When the announcement was released, there weren’t many details on the nature of the scholarships that were to be offered, so I did some calling and digging and this is what I found out. The US F2000 champion will be given enough of a bonus to secure full-season ride in Star Mazda with a team of the driver’s choice, and the Star Mazda champion will receive a similar bonus towards a ride in Firestone Indy Lights. Neither scholarship is be enough by itself to fully fund a season, but they’re large enough that wrapping up a deal should take very little effort. Both of these scholarships will begin with the 2011 champions.

The Firestone Indy Lights champion, however, will be given $500k to take to any Leaders’ Circle team in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and $1M to any team non-member team. This would include new teams to the series such as Highcroft, or teams returning to the series such as Rahal Letterman Racing. This at first seems very anemic, and hardly worth the effort. However, $500k is at the very least enough to run a full Month of May program, and for a part-time or new team, its enough to fund several races! Also, keep in mind that this is just a start. The Mazda Road to Indy program is only entering is second year. It will take time to get all the partnerships aligned and in place. I think the league is off to a great start, though, and I’m very happy to see Mazda continue to be a part of the development of young racing talent here in the US.

We also have a little bit more information regarding the USAC to Firestone Indy Lights scholarship. The $300k scholarship that a driver receives for winning the USAC National Drivers Championship will be available first to the team that scores the most Entrant Points. For the 2010 season, that was Sam Schmidt Motorsports thanks to JK Vernay’s championship efforts. This gives SSM the first option on hiring the 2010 USAC champion, Bryan Clauson. If SSM passes on the opportunity, then Team Moore would get the next option and so on down the points standings.

Driver Announcements

Andretti Autosport US F2000 Line-Up
Zach Veach and Andretti Autosport officially announced their agreement for 2011. Zach “Ziggy” Veach will rejoin the Andretti Autosport US F2000 National Championship effort with Zakosi Data Backup as the sponsor. This will be Zach’s second season in the US F2000 car, but it will be his first full season. Last year he missed the first event. You can read more on the announcement here: Road to Indy – Veach Returns to USF2000 for Andretti.

Joining Zach at Andretti Autosport will be winner of the 2010 Skip Barber National title and Team USA Scholarship, Spencer Pigot. Pigot started, like many young drivers today, winning in karts. His first win and championship came in 2003 at the age of ten, and he’s been winning ever since. In 2009, he stepped up to cars in the Skip Barber Regional series and found victory lane in his second race in the car.

“The opportunity to drive for Michael Andretti is something I didn’t think could happen until much later in my career. It’s an honor to be associated with Andretti Autosport, and I’m really looking forward to driving for the team next year in the USF2000 series. My main goal is to become an IZOD IndyCar driver, so there is no better place for me than with this team. With all of the knowledge and experience of Andretti Autosport, I’m very excited to be a part of the family. I learned a lot last year in the Skip Barber National Championship that prepared me very well for the upcoming season. I have to thank everyone at MAZDASPEED Motorsports Development, Skip Barber and Andretti Autosport for giving me the opportunity to move up to the first step in the Mazda Road to Indy program.” — Spencer Pigot

Andretti Autosport continues to show its dedication to developing young American talent and bringing them up through the Mazda Road to Indy program. Good on them, and I can’t wait to see Veach and Pigot on the track next season.

Anders Krohn
The 2010 Star Mazda Championship runner-up, Anders Krohn, announced today that he’d be returning to the Firestone Indy Light Series with a brand new team, Belardi Auto Racing, for the 2011 season.

“Anders Krohn is the kind of driver that inspires team owners, engineers and mechanics to bring their very best to the race track. As an owner, I know that I will get 110% and then some from Anders and could not be more pleased to have him on board at Belardi Auto Racing for the 2011 season. We look forward to working with Anders and all of his sponsors in the pursuit of many trips to victory circle!” — Team Owner Brian Belardi

You can read the entire press release from the Belardi Auto Racing website, and thanks to Junior Open Wheel Talent for breaking the story.

Driver Rumors

JR Hildebrand
Well, as some of you already know. I jump the gun a bit earlier this week after I got excited reading too much into one of Al Unser, Jr.’s tweets regarding the successful testing session by 2009 Firestone Indy Lights champion, JR Hildebrand, for Panther Racing at the Phoenix International Raceway. If you missed it, you can read all about my fanboi-ism here. The team was very pleased with JR’s performance in the car, and it still wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see him in the National Guard car for 2011. Its a really great fit in just about every possible way.

“We took this test very seriously,” Panther co-owner John Barnes said. “And we wanted to make sure we understood the scope of our decision if we eventually decide to make a driver change. What’s important is that whoever drives for us next year fits into the Panther family. The team was encouraged by JR’s intellect and his ability to grasp suggestions from our team and how quickly he adapted to a track he’s never been to. We’ll continue to work with JR to evaluate his skill set and how he could potentially fit into this team.” — Read the Panther Racing article here.

Conor Daly
As a result of the new scholarship announcements, graduating racers from one rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder to the next will get a lot easier. Sage Karam already has a funded ride in Star Mazda as the scholarship for the US F2000 champion was already in place last season. Conor Daly is caught out a bit, though. There’s a lot of work being done on Daly’s behalf to keep him in open-wheel racing, though, so there is hope that we’ll see him in the Firestone Indy Lights for next year. Daly has said that he still doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he does have a promised ride from Mazda in a Grand-Am Mazda RX-8 GT for 2011. I really hope we don’t lose this great talent from open-wheen racing.

Series Rumors

A Thirteenth Event
Right now, there’s not much in the way of rumors, but there is some slowly developing news. We know that there’s going to be a 13th event somewhere. It may end up being Edmonton when the new contract is finally hashed out. However, the league hasn’t been just sitting back and waiting for something to happen. They’ve been beating the bushes looking for alternative venues and events. We’ve been told that some of the possibilities will come as a big surprise, but so far mums the word on just what venues/events those may be.

New Firestone Indy Lights Chassis in 2013

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We all know, and are anxious for the new IZOD IndyCar Series chassis and engines to arrive in 2012, but it turns out that we will also be getting a new car and engine for Firestone Indy Lights as soon as 2013! Nothing is solidified as of yet, but there’s been a lot of talk with Mazda given their increasing multi-year involvement with the Mazda Road to Indy program. Remember that they were involved in the Atlantics Championship, and it seems a natural transition for them to now look at being more involved with Firestone Indy Lights. There is no interest from Mazda at the moment of moving into the IZOD IndyCar Series either with aero kits or engines, and given the rest of their involvement in motorsports, but I think there’s a really good chance that we see a Mazda powered Dallara car for Firestone Indy Lights in 2013. I say Dallara not out of preference, but out of what I expect. If it were up to me, I’d love to see the Swift’s Atlantics car modified/redesigned for high-speed oval racing.

Well, that’s it for this week. Wow! There’s been a ton of stuff happening, and more coming! Its been a busy and exciting off-season. As I said last week, getting these driver announcements so early in the off-season is an encouraging thing.

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