PALMETTO, Fla. – Less than three weeks after another successful season for the world-renowned Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder wrapped up in Portland, Ore., teams, and drivers are already focused on 2019 as the Eighth Annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test takes place this coming weekend, September 22 & 23, at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course.
Almost three dozen drivers representing 15 different nationalities are already signed up for two days of action on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn track in Speedway, Ind., for all three development series – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
The test is held in memory of long-time crew chief and team manager Chris Griffis, who was part of Indy Lights championship-winning teams at Panther Racing and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports before passing away in September 2011.
Race Winner Norman Heads Nine-Car Indy Lights Entry
The quest for an enhanced $1.1M scholarship prize to ensure entry into a minimum of three IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500, begins in earnest this weekend.
The car count has been slim in 2018 but the quality has been extremely high with the top two championship finishers, Patricio O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, and Colton Herta, from Valencia, Calif., both making impressive IndyCar Series debuts last weekend at Sonoma Raceway.
Nine cars are entered at Indianapolis, headed by Aurora, Ohio native Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport), who last month claimed his first Indy Lights victory at Gateway Motorsports Park, and Victor Franzoni, winner of the 2017 Pro Mazda championship.
With his victory for Juncos Racing at Road America, the popular Brazilian added his name to an exclusive club of drivers to have won races on every level of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. Franzoni will join Belardi Auto Racing for this weekend’s test.
The only other entrant with previous Indy Lights experience is Korea’s Heamin Choi (Juncos Racing), who started five races in 2016 and made a return to the series recently at Portland.
A high-quality crop of rookies is set to gain a taste of the 450-horsepower Dallara IL-15, including Rinus VeeKay, Parker Thompson and Oliver Askew, who earned their opportunities after taking the top three finishing positions in this year’s Pro Mazda championship.
VeeKay, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, who celebrated his 18th birthday last week, will remain with Juncos Racing, which guided him to the Pro Mazda title.
“I’ve experienced an amazing and very successful Pro Mazda season with them and I am looking forward to prepare myself for the next level in my Road To Indy,” said VeeKay, who secured a season-high seven wins and six poles en route to the championship crown. VeeKay also won three times on his way to second place in the 2017 USF2000 title-chase.
Askew, the 2017 USF2000 champion from Jupiter, Fla., will test with defending champion team Andretti Autosport alongside fellow USF2000 and Pro Mazda graduate Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., while Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, will join Team Pelfrey, which last week announced plans to move its home base from Florida to Indianapolis with the intention of fielding two cars in next year’s championship.
“I have been dreaming about the chance to get behind the wheel of an Indy Lights car since I started my car racing career,” said Thompson. “I have been in touch with Gary Neal and Dale Pelfrey for quite some time now. It’s an honor to be chosen to lead the team at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test as they look to build a 2019 championship campaign.”
Fellow Pro Mazda graduate David Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., who will turn 17 next week, also will gain his first taste of Indy Lights – with Belardi Auto Racing – alongside USF2000 front-runner Lucas Kohl, from Santa Cruz do Sul, Brazil.
Five Pro Mazda Teams Set to Test
The first year for the new Mazda-powered Tatuus PM-18 chassis witnessed a high-quality championship battle which remained undecided until the final weekend. And with the top five point scorers all stepping up to Indy Lights this weekend, the stage is set for someone else to shine at Indianapolis.
Juncos Racing, which guided Rinus VeeKay to the championship crown (after also winning the title in 2016 with Victor Franzoni), has entered three cars for Sweden’s Rasmus Lindh, 17, who recently clinched an impressive second place in the USF2000 championship in his first full season of car racing; Singapore’s Danial Frost, who showed well in a handful of USF2000 races; and Australian Cameron Shields, who hails from Toowoomba, the same Queensland town as defending Indy 500 champion Will Power.
Shields is a proven race winner in Australian Formula 3, Formula 4 and Formula Ford.
Race-winning squads Exclusive Autosport, BN Racing and RP Motorsport Racing also will field cars for a variety of drivers looking to gain a head-start on their 2019 campaigns.
Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin will move to the Canadian Exclusive Autosport team after claiming a trio of top-five finishes this year, while Colombian Mathias Soler-Obel, who made three Pro Mazda starts at Mid-Ohio and Gateway after moving up mid-season from USF2000, will remain with the Italian RP organization.
USF2000 regular Darren Keane, from Deerfield Beach, Fla., also is slated to taste the Pro Mazda waters with a one-day outing for RP Motorsport on Saturday.
Chicago, Ill.-based BN Racing, which announced recently it will expand its operations to all three levels of the ladder system in 2019, will concentrate its efforts on a pair of Pro Mazda cars at Indianapolis this weekend for 2017 South African F1600 champion Julian Van der Watt and Portland, Ore., native Kyle Dupell, both of whom displayed distinct promise in USF2000.
Mexican-owned, Texas-based DEForce Racing has entered 2017/2018 NACAM Formula 4 champion Moises de la Vara, who continues his graduation after competing in the final five races of this season with a best finish of fourth on the Gateway oval.
Race Winner Baron Returns to USF2000 with New Legacy Team
A solid entry of 14 drivers have signed up for the two-day test in USF2000, only half of whom have previous experience of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.
Prime among them will be proven winner Alexandre “Alex” Baron, who carries dual British and French citizenship but will have a singular purpose in flying the flag for the new Legacy Autosport team which recently announced plans to enter the full championship in 2019 with Baron at the helm.
Baron was the only driver to make a dent in Kyle Kirkwood’s dominance this season, winning two of the first four races. He will be joined by former Skip Barber Racing Series front-runner Andre Castro, from New York, N.Y., who is seeking to make his return after more than 18 months on the sidelines.
After another stellar campaign which brought an astonishing 12th consecutive drivers’ championship, Florida-based Cape Motorsports has expanded its program to field no fewer than three youngsters this weekend. All harbor hopes of following in Kirkwood’s footsteps.
Darren Keane, from Deerfield Beach, Fla., and Colin Kaminsky, from Joliet, Ill., both have solid previous experience in USF2000, while Tyler O’Connor, from New Hartford, Conn., will be stepping up after finishing a very close second in this year’s hard-fought F1600 Championship Series.
Pabst Racing, which has won the Team Championship in each of the past two years, also will field three cars for 15-year-old Yuven Sundaramoorthy, another multiple-time F1600 race winner, plus California-born, New Zealand-raised, Australian-domiciled Hunter McElrea, who leads the Australian Formula Ford Championship with two rounds remaining, and Canadian Logan Cusson, who also has been competing in F1600 this year.
Englishman James Raven, who shone during a one-off outing at Mid-Ohio where he finished second to Kirkwood in one of the races, will drive one of three DEForce Racing entries this weekend alongside Ryan Bjerke, from Warsaw, Ind., who has gained some valuable experience over the past two years in F1600, and Francisco Porto, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who seeks to step up after a partial season in the NACAM and F4 United States championships.
Aside from Legacy Autosport, two more teams – Jay Howard Driver Development and Miller Vinatieri Motorsports – also will be making their official USF2000 debuts this weekend.
Indianapolis 500 veteran and 2005 USF2000 champion Jay Howard has entered a couple of Tatuus-Mazda USF-17s for local racer Zach Holden, who has exhibited tremendous promise in the past, and F4 racer Christian Bogle, from Covington, La.
In addition, locally based former Indy Lights and IndyCar racer Jack Miller and business partner/racing aficionado Adam Vinatieri – better known as an NFL Super Bowl-winning kicker with both the New England Patriots and, more recently, the Indianapolis Colts — will combine to enter a car for teenager Jack William Miller.
Live timing and scoring for all sessions will be available on the respective series’ websites, indylights.com, promazda.com and usf2000.com, as well as the Mazda Road to Indy TV App and indycar.com.
Content and images courtesy of Mazda Road to Indy.