PALMETTO, Fla. – The eyes of the open-wheel auto racing world will be focused firmly on St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series and all three levels of the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires begin their new season on the challenging 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown street circuit.
More than 50 ambitious drivers from around the globe will converge on the scenic waterside track, each and every one of them looking to make a strong start to their campaigns in pursuit of more than $3.5 million in scholarships and awards which will be up for grabs to assist in the graduation from the grassroots of the sport to the elite level in North America.
Judging by the closeness of the lap times from last week’s Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires Spring Training Open Test at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida, 2017 promises to be a spectacular season for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million will be available to the driver who accumulates the most points from the 16 races on the third and final step on the open-wheel development ladder and will permit the champion to follow in the footsteps of the two most recent graduates, Spencer Pigot and Ed Jones, in guaranteeing at least a three-race deal in next year’s Verizon IndyCar Series, including the Indianapolis 500.
Less than a second blanketed 13 of the 15 drivers on the 2.21-mile Homestead-Miami road course last Thursday, while the entire field had been covered by a scant 0.6105 second when they tested three days previously on the facility’s 1.5-mile oval.
Andretti Autosport has particularly high expectations following the performances of the youngest driver in the field, 16-year-old Californian Colton Herta, and 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda winner Nico Jamin, from Rouen, France, who traded fastest times on both circuit configurations. Herta, the son of 1993 Indy Lights champion and two-time Indy 500-winning car owner Bryan Herta, will be making his return to North American competition with a new Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing partnership after two years in Europe. Andretti also will field cars for 2016 Atlantic Champion Ryan Norman, from Cleveland, Ohio, and series veteran Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada, who was fastest in one of the road course tests last week.
“Most of the Steinbrenner family lives in the St. Pete area, so everyone will be out there,” notes Herta. “The Yankees’ spring training facility is in Tampa Bay and I’m throwing out the first pitch at a game this week. It will be an important weekend for so many reasons. I’ve never driven at St. Pete before because I was too young to race in the USF2000 series in 2014. It’s one of my favorite tracks, it’s such an awesome backdrop. I am at a bit of a disadvantage because most of the other drivers have been there before, but they’ve repaved so hopefully that’s an equalizer. We were quick at the test last week so hopefully we have a good car going into the weekend.”
Another Californian, Kyle Kaiser, also will be among the favorites. Kaiser, who celebrated his 21st birthday last weekend, qualified on the pole last year at St. Pete and notched a pair of podium finishes en route to third in the championship for Juncos Racing.
“I’m looking to put it on pole here again,” declared Kaiser. “That’s the goal every weekend. I love that track. I understand they’ve put some new surfaces down so I’m looking forward to walking the track and getting a feel for it. Hopefully, it’s mostly the same because I was fast on it last year! It was a good start to my season there last year, so I would love to start it off the same way again.”
Belardi Auto Racing has a point to prove, too. The Indianapolis-based squad won more races than any other team in 2016 but missed out on the championship. This year it will field cars for Uruguayan Santi Urrutia, who won the 2015 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and finished a close second in last year’s Indy Lights title-chase; fellow series veteran Shelby Blackstock; and rookie Aaron Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., who succeeded Urrutia as Pro Mazda champion in 2016, earning a Mazda Scholarship worth $601,700 to step up to Indy Lights this year.
The 2016 championship-winning Carlin team will defend its crown with a four-car entry for Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman DeMelo, plus rookies Matheus Leist, from Brazil, who won last year’s BRDC Formula 3 Championship in England, and USF2000 veteran Garth Rickards, while Florida-based Team Pelfrey will enter Colombian Juan Piedrahita and Mexican teenager Pato O’Ward, who along with Telitz claimed a Pro Mazda win for the team at St. Petersburg in 2016.
The Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires will comprise one 35-lap (or 40-minute) race on Saturday and a 45-lap (or 60-minute) encounter on Sunday. In a change for 2017, each will have a dedicated 30-minute qualifying session.
Live timing and live streaming of all sessions will be available on the respective series websites - indylights.com, promazda.com andusf2000.com - as well as on indycar.com and the Road To Indy TV App.