Mazda Road to Indy Wrapup: 1/15 – 1/28

Not a lot has happened since my last update. Not much until this week, that is. A lot of things have started coming together for a variety of teams and drivers, and I’m expecting February to be extremely busy for US F2000, Star Mazda, and Firestone Indy Lights news. Also, in the coming weeks, we plan on having some chats with a variety of drivers and teams about their 2011 plans beginning early next week with Anders Krohn of Belardi Auto Racing. Anders has a very remarkable story, and I hope you’ll find it as interesting and inspiring as I do.

Don’t forget to tune in and watch the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona tomorrow! There are a number of Star Mazda alumni and other open-wheel racers competing in tomorrow’s historic endurance race! Now, on with the wrap-up of the news and happenings in the Mazda Road to Indy for the past couple of weeks.

Driver Tests

Bryan Clausen had his first Firestone Indy Lights test with Sam Schmidt Motorsports down at Phoenix International Raceway. Should be interesting to see how he handled the machine, especially on such a tricky track. He’s got enough experience on pavement, so I expect it went well. As soon as we hear how the test went, we’ll be sure to pass along the news. He will be sharing time with confirmed driver, Victor Carbone and two other prospective drivers, Rusty Mitchell and Giancarlo Vilarinho. Vilarinho was in an Indy Lights car last year for Andersen Racing at Mid-Ohio and Sonoma, but Mitchell, like Clausen, is new to the car. Mitchell spent the 2010 in the Star Mazda Championship with fair results, typically finishing near P10 with the occasional top-5. If he comes on board, he should be a solid addition to the Sam Schmidt Motorsports effort in 20111, but I don’t expect him to be a championship contender. It would be kinda cool for him to prove me wrong, because the way he handles his race car makes him a ton of fun to watch! No word of the earlier rumored Esteban Guerrieri. I’m wondering if perhaps word was leaked prematurely. Sam Schmidt Motorsports certainly released a statement when they signed Vilarinho, but they’ve been silent regarding Guerrieri. I’ll try to follow up on this.

JK Vernay, the 2010 Firestone Indy Lights champion is back in the States and has a test with Conquest Racing on Monday at Sebring International Raceway. The Conquest situation is still extremely uncertain. We had thought that Bertrand Baguette was a lock for one of the two potential seats, and that Sebastian Saavedra had a good shot at the second seat. JK stepping in for a test sure does make both of their prospects look far dimmer, although with a small team like Conquest, the level of funding that JK brings will be key. We know that he has $550k from the recently announced Mazda scholarship package, but that alone is no where near enough to secure a ride.

Team Preparations

Team GDT added some serious talent to its team by hiring Eric Purcell as their Chief Engineer. The team is currently scouting for two young drivers with the aid of Star Mazda veteran, Alex Ardoin, as driver coach and liaison. The best thing about the statement released by Team GDT was the clarification of their philosophy toward hiring their drivers. Many teams in modern motorsports are all to eager to put anyone with a bag of cash in their cars. Paul Mata, team manager, stated that they’re looking for talented and teachable young drivers that they can develop into champions. What a breath of fresh air this is! To see why I’m stoked about Team GDT hiring Mr. Purcell, check out this biography of his career in motorsports.

Belardi Auto Racing announced their primary sponsor for their 2011 Firestone Indy Lights program and partner for their US F2000 program, Liberty Engineering. This, of course, is great news for the team, but the relationship goes farther than just a company sponsoring a race team. Liberty Engineering is seeking to utilize their access through their partnership with Belardi to generate unique candy products targeted toward IndyCar racing. How do gummy IndyCars sound to you? Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me! Hey, I’m a professor in real life. I’m allowed to make cheesy jokes like that.

Rumors and Concerns

American Josef Newgarden was rumored by Racer Magazine to be seeking out at least a partial Firestone Indy Lights schedule to go with a continued GP3 effort. Let’s just put this in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” file. Which brings me to a major concern I have.

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Firestone Indy Lights Car Count is not looking good for 2011. It wasn’t stellar for 2010, with only eight drivers contesting the entire season. Ok, make it 10. I’ll give a Pippa, who was injured, and Speedy Dan, who missed the first race, a pass. With part-time entrants, the season average grid size was 15 with the maximum coming at the Long Beach Grand Prix with 18 on the grid, and the least at Iowa and Edmonton with 13. This is getting perilously close to the grid size of the Atlantic Championship before they closed up shop! I’m not saying that the Firestone Indy Lights series isn’t going to answer the bell in 2011, nor in 2012, but if its to be a viable step in the Mazda Road to Indy, things are going to have to improve. As of right now, there’s been six fully confirmed and announced full-time drivers for 2011, although we can expect that Andretti will field two more, AFS Racing will be able to manage at least one, and O2 Racing will have at least one. That brings us up to ten. Hopefully, February will be full of Firestone Indy Lights announcements, but the cost of the current chassis and engine package is greater than the projected cost of the 2012 IZOD IndyCar chassis and engine! That’s definitely not a good sign for a development series. The return of Firestone Indy Lights to television should help in 2012, but it might be too little, too late for this year.

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BJ (Juice) Johnson, Doug Patterson. Doug Patterson said: #MazdaRoadToIndy – Our weekly wrap up of the #MRTI news, and some concerns about #IndyLights. […]

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