A few years ago, Tony George, Jr. and Jason Penix worked on building a clear and proper ladder system, the Mazda Road to Indy, that would enable young drivers to move up through the formula car ranks in the US and Canada, and eventually become one of the lucky 33 drivers to compete in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Once a young driver is in the Mazda Road to Indy program, talent combined with business acumen (an unfortunate necessity in motorsports today) have allowed many to rise up through the ranks. The biggest challenge facing the program right now is getting young drivers involved in the program. During the tail-end of the 2011 season, and during the off-season, the Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda has grown by leaps and bounds. The Cooper Tires Winter Fest, which ended last weekend with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing dominating each and every race, saw eighteen cars take to the track. Eighteen cars, and that’s just for an off-season mini-series! Right now there are twenty-three cars confirmed for the 2012 season with more likely to be announced as we get closer to the season opener at Sebring.
While this is great news for USF2000, the car counts in Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights have not been as robust. Currently there are sixteen confirmed entries for Star Mazda, which isn’t bad, but it’s well shy of where they were a few years ago when car counts were in the upper twenties. The Firestone Indy Lights Series only has seven confirmed entries, although in our recent conversation with Jason Penix, things look to be on track for car counts to be around sixteen-ish at most races. These are better numbers than we saw last year, for sure, but they also need to improve. More drivers need to be shown a path into these great racing series, and given an opportunity to prove their worth. Juncos Racing is heavily engaged in doing just that!
A couple of week’s ago, we learned that Juncos Racing was recruiting drivers from the Chilean Formula 3 series for their Mazda Road to Indy efforts. While the team doesn’t currently race in USF2000, I think it’s just a matter of time before they do. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them enter a race or two toward the end of this season, in fact. Just this past week, they’ve also announced another program in partnership with IZOD IndyCar Series driver for KV Racing Technologies, EJ Viso. Team owner, Ricardo Juncos, has been working tirelessly over this off-season to open up multiple paths into the Mazda Road to Indy program. To be sure, this benefits his race team, which has expanded from being strictly a Star Mazda team to also participating in the Firestone Indy Lights series, but it also benefits the Mazda road to Indy program as a whole.
Not every interested driver in Chile and Venezuela will have the opportunity to drive for Juncos Racing, but those with enough determination will seek out rides with other teams. The important part here is that these two recruitment programs are spreading the word about open-wheel racing in the US and Canada, and the more people know about the Mazda Road to Indy, the more people will see it as a place to advance their racing careers. Already, this new program has brought two new drivers from Venezuela to join Juncos Racing in the Star Mazda Championship for 2012, Bruno Palli and Diego Ferreira.
“After talking with Ricardo (Juncos) for a long time, we concluded that we would start a partnership to bring young drivers into the Mazda Road to Indy and Star Mazda Championship. On my side, I thought about the best drivers in Venezuela to bring to the series. I believe that Bruno (Palli) and Diego (Ferreira) will get the job done. I’m very proud to say that I started “Team Viso Venezuela”. I created the program to promote young drivers coming from my country so that they can have a bright future in auto racing. My idea is to manage them and give them all the tools I can for them to have successful careers.” — EJ Viso, KV Racing Technologies
Both Bruno and Diego have been extremely successful in karting, having won multiple championships and rookie-of-the-year honors at a variety of levels, both domestically and internationally. They also both have experience in racing in F1600 cars there in Venezuela and tested for the European Formula 3 series. Earlier this year, they’ve both tested the Star Mazda machine and impressed Ricardo Juncos with their performance.
“It is an honor for us to be working with E.J. Viso and the ‘Team Viso Venezuela’ initiative. This partnership is going to be huge for everyone involved, and it is going to give a lot of opportunities for Venezuelan drivers to race in the U.S.A. I’m excited that Bruno Palli and Diego Ferreira will be some of the first drivers to represent ‘Team Viso Venezuela’, and I’m so glad to have signed them to be part of the Juncos Racing team this season. We have been testing with Bruno and Diego, and they have really impressed the team so far. They improved a lot over four days and clearly showed that they will be fighting for the top this season. This is the beginning of really good things for Juncos Racing and ‘Team Viso Venezuela’. We can’t wait to get the 2012 season started.” — Ricardo Juncos, Juncos Racing Team Owner.
The deep level of involvement and commitment to the Mazda Road to Indy program shown not only by Ricado, but also by a current IZOD IndyCar Series driver, EJ Viso, can be nothing but positive for the program. I think Juncos Racing has set the bar high and have show the way for how other teams and drivers can work to not only improve the health of their own teams, but the Mazda Road to Indy program as a whole. My hope is that other teams take note, follow Juncos’ example, and establish recruitment programs of their own. There’s a LOT of talent out there in the US, Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Europe that could benefit from a program like this.