Starting this weekend, PaddockScout will begin coverage of the Road to Indy, the United States-based junior ladder leading to North America’s premier single-seater series, IndyCar.
Powered and sponsored by Mazda, Road to Indy consists of three categories: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000. The three championships race on the support bill at IndyCar events, and scholarships are offered to assist series champions in stepping up to the next series.
As well as being a breeding ground for home-grown US talent, Road to Indy is becoming increasingly popular with drivers moving over from Europe. Offering a more structured ladder than what lies below Formula 1 and with budgets often easier to find, it’s a tempting alternative for drivers looking to make a career in single-seaters.
The upcoming season of the Indy Lights series will mark the debut of the Dallara IL-15 chassis, with its predecessor having lasted 13 seasons in the championship.
And it’s safe to say it’s been an up-and-down stint for Indy Lights throughout those years, as the series has served as a launchpad for several stellar careers in its parent series IndyCar, but failed to provide its champions with a reliable way into the top echelon.
Over the 13 years, not a single Lights champion has racked up a victory in IndyCar, albeit JR Hildebrand did come extremely close, losing the 2011 Indy 500 at the final turn. Only two Lights champions from the past chassis’ lifespan have a full-time drive in IndyCar in 2015 ? Josef Newgarden and reigning trophy holder Gabby Chaves, with 2013 winner Sage Karam only confirmed for the opener.
On the other hand, his Andretti teammates Marco Andretti and Carlos Munoz, Ganassi’s Charlie Kimball, AJ Foyt’s Jack Hawksworth and Schmidt Peterson’s James Hinchcliffe have all been successful Lights drivers before joining IndyCar.
They are the ones whose example the 2015 Lights field will be hoping to emulate.
The fact they’ve won seven Lights drivers’ titles in the last 11 years already makes Schmidt Peterson Motorsport the pre-season favorites. That they’ve retained Jack Harvey, however, means they could very well be unbeatable. As a rookie last year, the Racing Steps Foundation protege and 2012 British F3 champion won four of the last five races to finish level on points with Chaves, only losing the title on countback of second places.
His only teammate with substantial Lights experience is Scott Anderson, who took eighth last year with Fan Force United and previously won twice in USF2000 and finished fifth overall in Pro Mazda. Erstwhile GP3 driver Ethan Ringel will also join SPM, having taken ninth in his first and only Lights race thus far in 2013. He spent 2014 in the revived Atlantic Championship where he took fourth. Finally, the lineup is completed by RC Enerson, who finished last year’s USF2000 season as runner-up.
Shelby Blackstock, son of famous country music singer Reba McEntire, is Andretti Autosport’s only full-time Lights driver thus far. Inseparable from Andretti over his three years on the Road to Indy, he was eighth in USF2000 in 2012 before moving on to Pro Mazda, where he took third and fourth.
Another top Road to Indy driver Matthew Brabham is only confirmed with Andretti for the season opener at St. Petersburg, but should easily be among contenders for victory. A USF200 and Pro Mazda champion, he took his maiden Lights win on his way to fourth last year, before being signed as Andretti’s reserve for Formula E.
Last year, Belardi Auto Racing’s two entries were race winners in the hands of champion Gabby Chaves and Alex Baron and the team will surely be hoping to replicate that success. Colombian Juan Piedrahita represents the experienced side of the team’s two-car lineup for 2015, having taken seventh in Lights last year. Joining him is newcomer Felix Serralles. Having endured two mid-pack seasons in FIA F3, the Puerto Rican is reunited with his 2012 British F3 rival Harvey, having finished that campaign in third with five wins.
Carlin are the big addition to the Lights grid in 2015 and need little introduction, having been a top junior single-seater squad for many years now with titles in GP3, Formula Renault 3.5 and British F3. Their debut US campaign will be spearheaded by Dubai’s Ed Jones, who won the 2013 European F3 Open title and took two podiums in FIA F3 in an injury-ridden rookie season.
Carlin’s other entrant? Ex-F1 driver Max Chilton, who was the team’s first race winner in GP2. He’s only confirmed for the opener, but given that like Carlin (which is owned by his father) he is reportedly seeking a future in IndyCar, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him show up for more Lights races.
Juncos Racing might not have raced in Indy Lights since 2012, but the Pro Mazda champions could very well be a serious force. Spencer Pigot will head their Lights assault after winning Pro Mazda in a dramatic final race. Kyle Kaiser has also been promoted by Juncos after finishing sixth in Pro Mazda with a maiden win in the Sonoma finale.
Sportscar racing squad 8 Star Motorsport will be making its debut venture into Indy Lights at St. Pete and have already shown they mean business with their first driver signing. Scott Hargrove has thus far been only confirmed for the opener but the Canadian is a very highly-rated open-wheel driver, having won the 2013 edition of the USF2000 series and almost stole the Pro Mazda title from Pigot in his rookie year.
This year, Pro Mazda will begin its 25th season, although only the third since being renamed from Star Mazda. Being the second step in the Road to Indy ladder, Pro Mazda naturally welcomes some of the best USF2000 drivers every year, however, more and more drivers from the European scene decide to move over to Pro Mazda, making the grid fairly international.
The series has had several well-established champions in the past such as former DTM driver Joey Hand, IndyCar talent Jack Hawksworth or aspiring Indycar driver Conor Daly. Last year, Pigot triumphed to become the first American champion since Daly’s triumph in 2010.
As most of the frontrunners move on to Indy Lights, a new wave of drivers are expected to shine this year. One exception is Neil Alberico, who will spend a sophomore campaign in the championship after being the second best rookie of the previous season with third in the standings.
His team Cape Motorsports, which ran both him and Hargrove in 2014, will expand into a three-car squad, putting two USF2000 drivers alongside Alberico. One of them is champion and one-time French F4 competitor Florian Latorre who graduates to the category thanks to the prize he earned. Completing the team, Canadian Daniel Burkett might have ended last season only in 11th but his dominant Atlantic Championship campaign – in which he won seven out of ten races – makes him one to watch.
Despite running two of the top three drivers last year, Cape weren’t the teams’ champions as they were narrowly beaten by Pigot’s team Juncos, who will combine experienced and rookie drivers in their 2015 lineup. Mexican Jose Gutierrez and Canadian Garrett Grist will both stay in the series after taking seventh and eighth in the standings last year. The team also welcomes one of the six newcomers from Europe, Timothe Buret, who was the runner-up of V de V Challenge in the Endurance Prototype Scratch class. The team will be rounded out by Will Owen, who was 12th in USF2000 in 2014.
Leading American team Andretti Autosport continue their participation in the series with two drivers. German F3 graduate Weiron Tan already signalled his title intentions after missing out on the pre-season Winterfest title by a single point. However, he only lost to Formula Renault 2.0 ace Jack Aitken, who will not take part in the regular season. His teammate will be Dalton Kellett, another driver to be reckoned with as he was the best of the rest in the Winterfest in third.
Team Pelfrey will take on with two promising youngsters coming from the European junior single-seater scene. Uruguayan Santiago Urrutia will arrive from GP3 where he failed to score a point, however, his previous showings in Formula Abarth and Euroformula Open suggest he can fight for victories in Pro Mazda. His teammate will be the 15-year-old Mexican Patricio O’Ward, who was seventh in the competitive French F4 category despite missing the first two events.
The British duo of Raoul Owens, a Formula Renault 2.0 NEC podium finisher, and Alessandro Latif, the Blancpain Sprint Pro-Am champion will both make the move to America.
Owens will race with JDC Motorsports where his teammates will be the sophomore pairing of Kyle Connery and paralyzed racer Michael Johnson who took 12th and 13th in the series respectively last year. The fourth driver at the team is Parker Nicklin who had one guest appearance in the championship last year but his last full campaign was in SBF2000 Summer Series three years ago.
The Expert class for drivers above 30 will have two entries at the season opener, 2014 champion Bobby Eberle and runner-up Jay Horak.
The USF2000 National Championship is the first stop of Road To Indy. Being recognized as an entry-level championship which is available for drivers as young as 14, USF2000 races Formula Ford cars equipped with front and rear wings.
Several IndyCar drivers have raced in the championship including 1999 champion Dan Wheldon, Indy 500 winner Sam Hornish Jr, Charlie Kimball and rising stars such as Sage Karam.
The 2014 season saw an exciting three-way fight amongst French sophomore driver Latorre and the American duo of Enerson and Jake Eidson. The title was decided in the final race of the season at Sonoma where the trio completed the podium with Latorre grabbing both the race win and the title.
Thanks to the title prize Latorre will graduate to Pro Mazda while runner-up Enerson chose an even more ambitious path, entering Indy Lights with three years of USF2000 experience under his belt. 19-year-old Eidson, who spent his first full season in the championship last year will return to the series as the clear title favourite.
Cape Motorsports, teams’ champions of the past three editions will field a strong duo this season. Aaron Telitz enjoyed a great rookie season last year, finishing fourth, while the 2015 Winterfest champion and ex-Formula Renault 2.0 racer Nico Jamin will join him in the squad after finishing his first season on the continent in ninth, and will try to repeat fellow Frenchman Latorre’s success with the team.
Two further from last year’s top 10 will return to the championship. Eidson will move from Cape to Pabst Racing Services this year while Brazilian Victor Franzoni, a Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0 graduate who was fifth in USF2000 last year, will continue his collaboration with Afterburner Motorsport as a single entry. Being second and third in the Winterfest respectively, both Franzoni and Eidson are expected to challenge for the title.
Team Pelfrey will expand their operations to USF2000 with an all-rookie lineup of four cars. Three drivers will graduate from the F1600 Formula F championship which has become a feeder series of USF2000 in the past couple of years.
Series champion Ayla Agren will be the sole female driver in the series at St. Petersburg while runner-up Garth Rickards will be racing alongside her, both of them graduating to USF2000 with the team. 24-year-old Russian Nikita Lastochkin, who was sixth in F1600, will also be part of the team. The final addition to the squad is Australian Luke Gabin, who spent his first year in single-seaters dominating the SBF2000 Summer Series, winning 10 out of 16 races in a championship where Lastochkin also raced in and took third.
Entering three cars, ArmsUp Motorsports are another team with a big lineup. 15-year-old German Keyvan Soori already has a season of experience under his belt, his best result coming at Indianapolis in the form a sixth place. He will be joined by another F1600 graduate, Max Hanratty and the most experienced driver of the field, James Dayson who has been part of USF2000 in some way since 2012.
The final two returning drivers are 21-year-old American Andrew List and 18-year-old Colombian Santiago Lozano who, beside his USF2000 campaign also became the 2014 Latam Challenge champion.
The most notable rookie from the United States is Augie Lerch; the 18-year-old finished third in F1600 last year as a racing newcomer.
John Cumminskey Racing enters with a duo of rookies coming over from Australia. Anthony Martin will definitely be one to watch after taking fourth in the Winterfest to be the best rookie while Jordan Lloyd will begin as the Australian Formula Ford runner-up, narrowly beaten by Toyota Racing Series driver Thomas Randle.
Canadian karting graduate Parker Thompson regularly appeared in the top ten in the most competitive European karting championships two years ago making him another driver worth looking out for.
The field is completed by Chinese rookie Yufeng Luo, who was sixth in the Pacific F2000 championship last year.
28-29 March: St. Petersburg – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
11-12 April: New Orleans – Pro Mazda, USF200019 April: Long Beach – Indy Lights
25-26 April: Barber Motorsports Park – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
8-9 May: Indianapolis GP – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
22 May: Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Indy Lights
23 May: Lucas Oil Raceway, Indianapolis – Pro Mazda, USF2000
13-14 June: Toronto – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
12 July: Milwaukee – Indy Lights
18 July: Iowa – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda
1-2 August: Mid-Ohio – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
12-13 September: Laguna Seca – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000
By Valentin Khorounzhiy and Gruz David