This is a rare race weekend. All three elements of the Mazda Road to Indy are going to be racing on the Streets of St. Petersburg on the same weekend. This will be rounds three and four for the US F2000 National Championship, and the opening rounds for the Star Mazda Championship and Firestone Indy Lights. Driver assignments are pretty much settled now, so lets take a look at the grids and preview this weekend’s Mazda Road to Indy races!
Cooper Tires presents the US F2000 National Championship powered by Mazda
If you missed Race #2 at Sebring, you missed something really special. Unfortunately, I wasn’t at Sebring, but I was able to follow the race on the USF2000 live timing and scoring stream and it looked as though the top six or seven cars were swapping positions at every corner! Reports from those at the track was that it was the most exciting racing action they’d ever seen. The Streets of St. Petersburg can be a tricky and exciting track that can trip up unwary, unexperienced racers. If a driver breaks away from the rest of the field as Zach Veach did in Race #1 at Sebring, you could see a flag-to-flag leader and winner, but don’t be surprised if there’s a furball of cars all fighting for the top honors. Because of this, its hard to make any clear predictions, so let me instead make a couple.
If its going to be break-away win, then I’d put money behind Zach Veach. He’s shown that he has the best speed on the grid, especially when he’s able to run on a clear track. His teammate, Spencer Pigot or Cape Motorsports driver, Petri Suvanto, won’t be too far behind if Zach makes a mistake.
“After winning the first race of the 2011 season, I’m really looking forward to and working hard for St. Pete. With it being my first street course race, it’s definitely going to be a learning experience but a lot of fun at the same time! Being in a three-way tie for second in the championship and only three points away from first, St. Pete is going to be really important for us. The team was really quick there last year, so I’m excited to see what happens.” — Zach Veach, #7 Andretti Autosport
If no one can break free from the pack and it ends up being a furball like Race #2 at Sebring, then all bets are off! Any one of seven drivers could take the top prize. In addition to the three mentioned above, Wayne Boyd and Cole Morgan of Belardi Auto Racing, JDC MotorSports’ drivers Luke Ellery, Sebring Race #2 winner, and Juan Peidraheta.
“Having spent a few years in the cutthroat Formula Ford series in Australia, I had to learn how to get on the pace fast as we only had around 8-10 laps of practice before qualifying at every new track. This will come in handy at St. Pete as the race winner is going to be the person who can maximize their learning curve. Back home in Australia I raced at places like Albert Park for the Australian GP and also the unforgiving Surfers Paradise. At both of these events we were very fast when it mattered, so I feel as prepared as I possibly could be heading into this weekend.” — Luke Ellery, #5 JDC MotorSports
Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear
This will be the first race of the season for the Star Mazda Championship, and at this point, its hard to bet against Tristan Vautier given how well he did in his JDC MotorSports car in testing at Barber Motorsports Park. I think he has to be your favourite going into the weekend. That said, both Joao Horta and Martin Scuncio of Juncos racing will be right there if Tristan makes a mistake or has a mechanical issue. They were quick in testing, but they didn’t quite have enough pace to claim the top of the time sheets. Another driver to keep and eye on is Patrick McKenna of Team GDT.
“Now that I’ve had some test time in the Star Mazda car, I’m definitely working on fine-tuning and getting up to speed. I’m really looking forward to the race this weekend in St. Pete. I had great results there last year, and I hope I can do the same this weekend in the Team Comfort Revolution car.” — Sage Karam, #8 Andretti Autosport
Firestone Indy Lights
Like the Star Mazda Championship, this will also be the first round of the Firestone Indy Lights Series. The grid is certainly smaller than we’d like, but it’s packed full of talent! During testing at Barber Motorsports Park, Sam Schmidt Motorsports driver, Josef Newgarden, was extremely quick. That shouldn’t be too surprising, however, given his driving history and the fact that he’s with the historically best team on the grid. There’s a couple of other drivers that could put up a serious challenge to Newgarden, though. Team Moore’s Gustavo Yacaman was also extremely quick at Barber and was just a couple of tenths off of Newgarden’s time. Last season, Team Moore gave SSM a serious run for the championship coming up just short with James Hinchcliffe.
Although they didn’t have the best of times during testing, don’t ignore the 2010 Star Mazda champion, Conor Daly or the 2009 Star Mazda runner-up, Peter Dempsy. Daly is the son of Irishman and driver Derek Daly, and Dempsey is a Dubliner, so I’ll admit to a slight bit of favouritism, but they have both proven themselves to be extremely quick in an open-wheel car. Dempsey is racing for O2 Racing Technology, so as the team shakes down the car and comes to grips with the series, they may not always be at the sharp end of the grid, but St. Pete has always been a great equalizer.
“I’m very excited to have been given the opportunity to make my Firestone Indy Lights racing debut this weekend,” said Dempsey. “I’d like to thank Mark Olsen and everybody at O2 Racing Technology for giving me this chance. It’s been difficult having to sit out most of this past year, but I always knew if I was patient that I’d be given the chance to compete at the next level.
“The pre-season testing has gone extremely well considering I’ve had very little seat time. There is definitely some great buzz around the team heading into the weekend. It will be important to make sure we finish the race, but our aim will be to finish in the top-five positions. It’s really exciting to have three Irish drivers in each of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder series. I think that shows what a great program Mazda and the Road to Indy have put together.
“I’d like to thank all of my sponsors and supporters—Microbiology International, Motorsport Ireland, The Irish Sports Council, and Juncos Racing for their continued support of my career. It’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited about heading into a race weekend!”
Daly is sort of in the same boat. He didn’t post the best of testing times, but he *is* with SSM, so don’t be at all surprised to see him on the podium. I don’t think he’ll have the dominating season that he did in Star Mazda last year, though. Look for this to be a growth season for Conor.