For some, it's a first.
Drivers on all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy will gain their first oval track experience of the season - and for some, the first in their young careers - as they return to Indianapolis this week for the #MRTI FreedomFest.
While the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field will contest Friday's Freedom 100 Presented by Allied Building Products at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, the two junior series, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, will congregate one day later at the nearby Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis for their respective Cooper Tires Freedom 90 and Mazda Freedom 75 races - the traditional events leading up to the 99th Indianapolis 500 in the "Day Before the 500".
As part of the Mazda Road to Indy Summit program, all drivers will benefit from a two-hour Oval Racing Clinic on Wednesday afternoon at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway featuring four-time Indy 500 winner (and long-time Team Penske adviser) Rick Mears, as well as Carlos Munoz and Simona de Silvestro, who will both be among this year's 33 starters in the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing," INDYCAR President of Operations and Competition Derrick Walker and five-time Indianapolis 500 starter Johnny Unser. Additional seminars include "How to Create a Winning Sponsorship Proposal" by Mazda Motorsports and simulator training by Racecraft1.
Pro Mazda points leader to make oval debut
An impressively consistent streak of eight top-four finishes, highlighted by a pair of wins, has propelled Team Pelfrey rookie Santi Urrutia into the lead of the Pro Mazda Championship at the halfway point in the 16-race season. The 18-year-old from Miguelete, Uruguay, leapfrogged American Neil Alberico (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, in photo above) by virtue of a fourth, a second and a win in the recent triple-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course, but faces an entirely new challenge this week as he prepares for his very first experience on an oval.
Alberico, from Los Gatos, Calif., slipped from the championship lead on the Indy road course but has every intention of snatching it back on Saturday at Lucas Oil Raceway, where he won in USF2000 competition in 2013 and last year gained a sixth-place finish in Pro Mazda.
This season has not gone quite to plan thus far for 20-year-old Canadian Garett Grist, with one podium finish to his credit for Juncos Racing, although he, too, has every reason for optimism this week after finishing second in the 2013 USF2000 race at LOR and then gaining his first Pro Mazda victory at the challenging 0.686-mile oval in 2014.
Malaysian Weiron Tan (Andretti Autosport) and Frenchman Timothé Buret (Juncos Racing) are among a strong rookie contingent, and currently hold third and fourth positions in the point standings after claiming one win apiece on the Indy road course. Buret, in particular, is on a roll after finishing on the podium in five of the last six races. Countryman and fellow rookie Florian Latorre (Cape Motorsports) also has momentum on his side after finishing second in one of the races last week at Indy. Latorre has good experience at LOR after qualifying on the pole last year en route to the USF2000 championship title.
The Teams Championship is finely poised with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing currently holding a slender a two-point margin over defending champions Juncos Racing, 203-201, with Team Pelfrey only a further two points in arrears.
Following the Oval Clinic, the Pro Mazda teams and drivers will transfer the few miles to Lucas Oil Raceway for a test day on Thursday, May 21. They will return for an intense day on Saturday, May 23, comprising a 20-minute practice starting at 8:35 a.m. EDT, single-car qualifying at 10:25 a.m. and the 90-lap Freedom 90 race at 2:45 p.m. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available on the new Mazda Road to Indy App and at promazda.com.
Jamin on a roll
Nico Jamin (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing) has taken control of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda following a streak of three consecutive victories, including a double-header sweep on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course. Jamin, 19, from Rouen, France, is seeking to become the second Frenchman in as many years (after Florian Latorre) to clinch the USF2000 title and a MAZDASPEED scholarship to progress up to Pro Mazda for 2016.
Jamin currently holds a 19-point advantage over Jake Eidson (Pabst Racing), whose title aspirations were blunted slightly by an unrepresentative 12th-place finish in the most recent race following a clash with fellow American Aaron Telitz (Cape Motorsports). Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., has one win and five additional podium finishes to his credit this year. He also knows how to win on an oval after fighting his way from sixth on the grid to victory at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2014.
Indianapolis-based Australian Anthony Martin (John Cummiskey Racing) is the best placed rookie, fourth in the standings, and is riding a streak of five top-five finishes. Fellow Aussie Luke Gabin burst to prominence for Team Pelfrey in the two recent road course races at Indianapolis with a fifth and a fourth, while Canadian karting standout Parker Thompson also has made good progress with JDC MotorSports under the tutelage of 2004 Indianapolis 500 winner Buddy Rice.
Other promising youngsters from the international field include Norway's Ayla Agren, who finished sixth in Race One on the Indy road course for Team Pelfrey, Russian teammate Nikita Lastochkin, who finished a season-high seventh in Race Two at Indy, 15-year-old German Keyvan Andres Soori and China's Yufeng Luo (Pabst Racing), who already has a pair of top-five finishes to his name.
The Mazda Freedom 75 week will commence with two and a half hours of testing on Wednesday, May 21. After a day off to pour over the data and soak in the experience, the USF2000 field will practice for 20 minutes on Saturday morning, starting at 8:00 a.m. EDT, then reconvene for qualifying at 9:50 a.m. The 75-lap race will take the green flag at 12:15 p.m. Live timing and commentary for all sessions will be available on the new Mazda Road to Indy App and at usf2000.com.
Mazda Road to Indy