By Steve Wittich
The 2015 edition of the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship saw a thrilling three-way duel between Spencer Pigot, Jack Harvey and Ed Jones come down to the final weekend of the year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the 2016 championship is shaping up to be even better.
There was a total of 16 different drivers that got behind the wheel of the brand new Mazda powered Dallara IL-15 in 2015, with 11 of those being full season entries. With what TSO is hearing from team owners, both of those numbers should increase this year. There are currently eight confirmed drivers, with 16 expected entries and 21 “possible” best case scenario entries.
After falling to seven and eight car grids only two short years ago, breaking the 20 car plateau would be a huge accomplishment for Dan Andersen and his dedicated staff. TSO had one team tell us that 20 entries would go a long way to solidifying the Mazda Road To Indy as legitimate option among top level European talent. That can only help grid size moving forward.
The next official on-track activity for the teams and drivers is an open test on January 26 and 27 that will occur at Homestead Miami Speedway.
Below are some team and driver breakdowns.
- Confirmed (2)
- Total expected (2)
- Total possible (2)
After a false-start that saw three drivers make six forgettable appearances in 2012, Juncos Racing made a proper leap from their Pro Mazda success into the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship in 2015. Leap might not actually be descriptive enough. The two car team led by former driver Ricardo Juncos vaulted into the 2015 Indy Lights championship when Spencer Pigot scored six wins and the championship in his rookie season.
Pigot and fellow rookie Kyle Kaiser were led to six wins, four poles, and 13 podiums by three former drivers: Juncos (team principal), Ernesto Gonella (technical director) and CR Crews (team manager). Pigot, the recipient of the $1million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship has moved onto the Verizon IndyCar Series with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, but Kaiser will return and will be joined by rookie Zachary Claman Demelo.
The 19 year-old Kaiser will be entering his second Indy Lights and fourth overall Mazda Road To Indy season. The Santa Clara, California native made a big jump in performance between his first and second Pro Mazda seasons and will look for a similar improvement between his freshman and sophomore Indy Lights campaigns.
After a standout karting career, Claman DeMelo, a 17 year-old spent 2015 in Europe racing in various Formula 3 and Formula Renault 2.0 series. The Montreal, Quebec native recently participated the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of the Americas and turned in an impressive performance that saw him only one tenth of a second off the top time set by his new teammate Kaiser.
- Confirmed (2) – Dalton Kellett – Shelby Blackstock
- Total expected (3)
- Total possible (4)
After persevering as a one car team in 2015, Andretti Autosport will be back in 2016 with a more traditional multi-car team. Shelby Blackstock returns to the Indianapolis based team in 2016 and the sophomore will be paired up with Andretti Autosport Pro Mazda veteran Dalton Kellett, who is making the step up to Indy Lights. The two-time Indy Lights championship winning team desires to be a four-car effort this year and believes that goal is still in reach.
Blackstock and the team took two-thirds of a season to get their heads around the new IL-15 chassis but the Nashville, Tennessee native showed improved pace beginning at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course; scoring three top-six finishes in the last four races of the year.
The extra data provided by USF2000 and Pro Mazda grad Kellett, a 22 year-old from the Toronto, Ontario area, in the second car should help the team move forward substantially in 2016. Kellett is a veteran of 58 Mazda Road To Indy starts and recently moved to Indianapolis, Indiana after completing a degree in engineering physics at the prestigious Queens University in Kingston, Ontario.
Blackstock and Kellett have been engaged in a vigorous off-season testing program that has seen them turn laps at Circuit of the Americas, Phoenix Raceway, Sebring Raceway and Road America.
- Confirmed (2) – Ed Jones – Felix Serralles
- Total expected (3)
- Total possible (4)
European junior formula stalwarts Carlin didn’t waste any time making their mark in America with the trio of Ed Jones, Max Chilton and Nelson Piquet scoring score four wins, seven poles and 13 podiums during the teams debut Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire season.
Trevor Carlin did tell TSO at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca that he would like to field four cars in 2016, and with two cars already confirmed that scenario certainly becomes a stronger possibility, although a three car team is also a possibility.
After spending the first four years of his formula car career in Europe, Jones will return to Carlin for a sophomore Indy Lights season and a chance to win the championship that the Dubai born driver missed by only 33 points in 2015. After three wins, seven podiums, three poles, 148 laps led and four quickest race laps in 2015, the 20 year-old will be join RC Enerson as one of the early favorites for the $1,000,000 Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship in 2016.
Joining Jones in Carlin brilliant blue will be fellow Indy Lights sophomore Felix Serralles. The Ponce, Pueto Rico native got his racing start in the U.S.A. (USF2000 and Skip Barber), but in 2011 made the move to Europe where he remained until coming back to race in the Indy Lights championship for Belardi Auto Racing. The 23 year-old had an up-and-down rookie campaign that included one win, two podiums and more often than not, pace that did not equal results. If the Milwaukee Mile winner can cut down on DNF”s, he should find himself in the championship hunt.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian
- Confirmed (1) – RC Enerson
- Total expected (4)
- Possible (5)
The seven-time Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship winning team will be aiming to win their first overall crown since Sage Karam won the title in 2013. TSO has learned that the team who won three races in 2015 is once again planning on a four car assault in 2016.
The team will be led by confirmed sophomore driver RC Enerson who scored a win and five podiums on the way to a fourth place championship finish as an 18 year-old rookie in 2015. The New Port Richey, Florida native and his engineer Doug Zister have formed a cohesive unit and will start the season at St. Petersburg as one of the favorites to win the $1,000,000 Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship and a seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The team is expected to announce their remaining drivers very soon and have tested Santiago Urrutia, Henrique Baptista, Heamin Choi and James French for the remaining seats.
Belardi Auto Racing
- Confirmed (1)
- Total expected (2)
- Total possible (3)
Blaredi Auto Racing had a mixed results in 2015, but were still able to extend their consecutive seasons with a win streak to three when Felix Serralles won the oval event at the Milwaukee Mile. The Brownsburg, Indiana based team joined the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire series for the first time in 2011, and won their first race with Peter Dempsey at the wheel of a thrilling Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2013. The Brian Belardi owned and John Brunner managed team, who captured the 2014 Indy Lights crown with Gabby Chaves, has one confirmed entry and are expected to field a second car, with a third car being a long shot.
Joining the team, rejoining the Indy Lights series, and becoming an automatic championship contender will be Zach Veach. The 21 year-old has three wins, five poles and 10 podiums in two previous Indy Lights seasons with Andretti Autosport.
The Stockdale, Ohio native was forced to miss a season open wheel competition when a potential Verizon IndyCar Series ride failed to materialize at the last minute, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t keep busy. The avid rock climber contested an TUDOR United SportsCar Championship race, served as an instructor at the MINI Performance Motoring School at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, drove an IndyCar two seater, and served as a driver analyst on the INDYCAR Radio Network. (it must be nice to be young)
- Confirmed (0)
- Total Expected (2)
- Total Possible (2)
With the announcement in October that they would be absorbing the 8Star Motorsports Indy Lights program, Team Pelfrey will become the only Mazda Road To Indy team currently competing on all three steps of top level American open wheel ladder.
Team Pelfrey principal Nigel Tuckey did confirm to TSO that their plan was to enter two cars in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire championship in 2016.
The Indy Lights program will be based out of the former 8Star Motorsports shop in Pompano Beach, Florida, while the Pro Mazda and USF2000 operations will continue to be operated out of the team’s current home base in Palmetto, Florida. Team manager Gary Neal, engineer Yves Touron and an experienced team of mechanics from the 8Star operation that won two Indy Lights races in 2015 have remained with the new organization and they should be competitive from the first practice in St. Petersburg.
The team has not confirmed any drivers, but have recently tested with Juan Piedrahita, Scott Hargrove, and Felix Rosenqvist.
- Confirmed (0)
- Total possible (1)
McCormack Racing and team namesake Jack McCormack have a long history in open wheel racing dating from the late 1960’s when the 73 year-old began a long association with Sam Posey. The Cohasset, Massachusetts born McCormack was crew chief for Posey in everything from Can-Am to F5000 to Indy Car before going on to work as a chief mechanic for names like Dan Gurney, Warner Hodgdon, John Menard, George Bignotti and Dick Simon. Based in California, McCormack Racing was a part of the Indy Lights series in the mid-90’s with driver Rob Wilson before McCormack started his own business and scaled back on racing.
— Davey Hamilton Jr (@DaveyHamiltonJr) December 17, 2015
In 2014, the Indianapolis, Indiana based team set up a their race shop and procured a previous generation Indy Lights chassis and also purchased a brand new Dallara IL-15. Over the past year, Davey Hamilton, Jr. (D.J.) has been testing in the old chassis and has recently started to test the IL-15 at Buttonwillow Raceway Park in Southern California. D.J., who recently graduated from high school in Indiana has had some success in high horsepower, high downforce race cars, winning a number of winged sprint car races on the West Coast.
At the same time Hamilton, Jr. was testing the IL-15, Pete Callaway got his first taste of an open-wheel car while testing the previous generation Dallara. Callaway, who has an engineering degree from Northeastern University is the General Manager of California operations for Callaway Cars. Callaway Cars are known for: creating high performance packages for the Chevrolet Corvettes, Camaro and Silverado, providing advanced engineering solutions to automotive OEM’s and building and racing the GT3 Chevrolet Corvette in Europe.
Over the course of his four year Mazda Road To Indy career, Neil Alberico has proven that he certainly has what it takes to step-up the ladder to Indy Lights. The Rising Star Racing sponsored 23 year-old will be getting a chance to show-off his skills behind the wheel while testing with a front-running team next week. Quick hands, a heavy right foot and a positive attitude have led the Los Gatos, California native to 10 wins and 21 podiums in USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
Daniel Burkett, a 20 year-old and a veteran of three season in Mazda Road To Indy recently announced that he would be joining sports car team C.J. Wilson Racing on a full-time basis in 2016. From Winnipeg, Manitoba, Burkett has been tabbed to share a Porsche GT4 Cayman in the Continental Tire Sportscar Challenge GS Class. But… TSO would not be surprised to see him in a few non-conflicting Indy Lights races.
Brazilian native Henrique Baptista tested with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports at Palm Beach International Raceway in December. The 23 year-old has been racing in Europe and has spent the last two years racing in various Formula 3 series.
Had an amazing experience testing this beast in Palm Beach international Raceway! Can't wait to… https://t.co/FKsvgpVlyq
— Henrique Baptista (@HenriqueBaptis1) December 19, 2015
After contesting a partial Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda season in 2012, Heamin Choi spent the next two season successfully racing sports cars in Asia. The South Korean born driver rejoined the Mazda Road To Indy while piloting a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian Indy Lights car in the 2015 finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. The 32 year old has tested with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian during the off-season, and is hoping to put together a full-season deal to run with the Indianapolis, Indiana based team.
James French, an IUPUI Engineering Motorsports major, was the second driver to test a Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian machine during the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of the Americas this past November and was immediately on pace, finishing the test only one second off experienced Indy Lights pilot Kyle Kaiser. The 23 year-old’s name will be a familiar one for fans of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship where he will once again contest a full Prototype Challenge season with Performance Tech. However, the Sheboygan, Wisconsin native did tell Dave Kallmann of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he will at minimum be taking part in the Indy Lights races at his home track of Road America, with an eye to adding more races if the budget can be found. Some sort of ride share with Scott Anderson would make a lot of sense.
After getting a taste of an Indy Lights car with Juncos Racing during the recent Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of the Americas, it appears that Pro Mazda veteran Jose Gutierrez will be making the switch to the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. The 19 year-old announced that he would be joining PRI Motorsports to contest the Tequila Patron North American Endurance Championship in Prototype Challenge machinery.
Scott Hargrove, the 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda champion and 2014 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire vice-champion began the 2015 Indy Lights season with a one-off appearance at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with 8Star Motorsports where he ended the weekend with a solid fourth and sixth. Hargrove could not find the funding to continue for the rest of the season, but did keep himself busy by taking part in the Ultra 94 Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge Canada by Michelin championship. The 20 year-old has 13 wins in 18 races in the last two seasons of the popular one-make championship that utilizes the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup. The British Colombia driver did share with TSO that he had a very successful December test with Team Pelfrey and that he is working every angle to get back in an open wheel car for 2016.
Although Juan Piedrahita has contested an impressive 82 Mazda Road To Indy races across the three series, he is still only 23 years-old. The steady Columbian native who started his Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire career with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian but moved to Belardi Auto Racing last year scored one podium on the way to an eighth place finish in the championship. The driver who is popular among his peers and is always smiling has been testing this offseason with Team Pelfrey and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him end up with the Gary Neal led squad.
After sitting out of top level competition for almost two full seasons, former GP3 driver Ethan Ringel stepped back into the fray by contesting the full 2015 Indy Lights season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian. It took a while, but by the end of the season, the 21 year-old had begun to get the rust knocked off on the road and street course circuit. However, rust was certainly not a problem on the ovals. The Orlando, Florida resident made a stunning oval debut at the Freedom 100 in May, taking the pole and just missed out on a win by placing second to his more experienced teammate. Rob Howden’s very informative Road To Indy Insider blog reported that Ringel’s family has still not made a decision on whether to return to Indy Lights in 2016. This does confirm what TSO has also been hearing.
Reigning FIA Formula 3 European Championship and two time Macau Grand Prix winner Felix Rosenqvist recently tested a Mazda powered Dallara IL-15 with Team Pelfrey. The 24 year old who is managed by former F1 and Indy Car driver (and Scott Dixon’s manager) Stefan Johannsen has scored a remarkable 41 (yes, that reads 4-1) Formula 3 victories over the past four seasons. The native of Varnamo, Sweeden will be contesting the Rolex 24 at DAYTONA in the Prototype Challenge class. A move to the U.S.A. by one of the best European formula car drivers would be a big deal, and that he is even considering it shows the impact that Andersen Promotions is having on the Mazda Road To Indy and the Verizon IndyCar Series.
— Felix Rosenqvist (@FRosenqvist) December 16, 2015
Andretti Autosport Pro Mazda driver Weiron Tan made an immediate splash upon joining the Mazda Road To Indy at Cooper Tires Winterfest in February 2015, as the former Caterham F1 Academy driver won twice and came home second three more times. Tan, from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was one of the quickest drivers all year in Pro Mazda, but got off to a bit of a rocky start before settling down and scoring four wins, including the series only two oval races, on the way to a fourth place championship finish. The 20 year-old’s manager informed TSO that Tan is planning on staying in U.S.A. for 2016 and would like to move up to Indy Lights if the budget can be found, but that a return to Pro Mazda for a championship assault isn’t out of the question.
Not much was known about Uruguayan pilot Santiago Urrutia going into the 2015 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire championship, but that won’t be the case when the smooth and consistent pilot moves up to Indy Lights. After missing Cooper Tires Winterfest, the Eliseo Salazar mentored driver won three times and stood on the podium 10 times on the way to winning the Pro Mazda Championship and Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship that comes with it. The 19 year-old has been testing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian and is expected to be confirmed as a teammate to RC Enerson in the very near future.
We’ll be back soon with Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire and Cooper Tires USF2000 powered by Mazda silly season updates.