02.19.2016 – Last week, I detailed the expansion of the USF2000 grid as teams continue to announce new drivers for the 2016 season. Now, it’s time to do the same for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. This year’s theme will definitely be ‘Quality Over Quantity’ as I’m currently predicting between 10-14 cars for St. Petersburg. While the series is light on entries, it’s going to be heavy of hardcore wheel-to-wheel racing. There is a great mix of returning drivers, freshmen arrivals and international representation, and I expect the battle for the title to be waged all year. As it stands, the field will have racers from the US and Canada, Malaysia, France, Argentina and Australia.
The surprise announcement of Weiron Tan’s return to the series, running with Team Pelfrey, certainly blows the championship battle wide open, adding him to the short list of returning drivers that includes multi-time race winner Garett Grist and the ever-improving Will Owen. The rookie crop is strong as well, and includes the top-three drivers from last year’s USF2000 title battle: Nico Jamin, Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz. The arrival of international drivers Jake Parsons and Nic Dapero with Juncos Racing will certainly make things interesting.
Here’s a look at the six teams that have intent on campaigning the Pro Mazda Championship this year, although only three have two or more drivers confirmed for the full schedule.
The winningest team in USF2000 history expanded into the Pro Mazda Championship in 2014 with Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico, and then grew to three cars last year when Florian Latorre and Daniel Burkett joined Alberico to form a solid trio that finished second, eighth and 11th in the final championship standings. Cape will have a totally fresh line-up of pilots for this year. Alberico has moved to Indy Lights with Carlin, Latorre will run the French Porsche Carrera Cup series, and Burkett has transitioned to IMSA sports cars. In their absence, Cape has signed the top-two drivers from the USF2000 series in 2015. They will continue their relationship with French pilot Nico Jamin, who will run the ‘Soul Red’ Mazda colors on his Cape entry thanks to his USF200 title scholarship. They also announced that series runner-up Jake Eidson would run alongside Jamin, presenting a really solid rookie pairing. It will be interesting to see how the drivers perform out of the box at St. Pete. If they come out swinging, both drivers could be in contention for the championship.
Confirmed: Nico Jamin, Jake Eidson
It’s a total surprise to me that JDC MotorSports does not have a confirmed full-time Pro Mazda driver at this time. The squad has won a ton of series races in their history, at the hands of drivers like Gabby Chaves, Connor DePhillippi and Joel Miller, and championships in 2009 with Adam Christodoulou and in 2011 with Tristan Vautier. I spoke with Team Principal John Church and he confirmed that they are indeed in talks with a couple of drivers to start the season, and they will have Expert driver Kevin Davis under the tent for a partial schedule of events in the new National class. Davis took an Expert win at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis last May.
Confirmed: Kevin Davis (partial schedule)
As the first team to announce their drivers and lock in their program for 2016, Juncos Racing has enjoyed a ‘relaxed’ off-season, prepping cars and putting in limited testing. Returning drivers Garett Grist and Will Owen will be strong, and considering his second-half strength in 2015, Grist is certainly a prime contender for the championship. The team has also signed Australian Jake Parsons and Argentine Nic Dapero for the full season, as they will both vie for Rookie of the Year honors.
Confirmed: Garett Grist, Will Owen, Jake Parsons, Nic Dapero
We expect M1 Racing to be back in the Pro Mazda paddock this year with Expert drivers Jay Horak and Carlos Conde, both running limited schedules. Horak is confirmed for St. Petersburg to begin the season, although Conde is still recovering from a back injury sustained in the Ferrari Challenge race last year and he is not yet cleared to race. As it stands, M1 does not have a full-time driver in the series, although they’re definitely keeping busy with an Audi R8 GT program in the Pirelli World Challenge GTA category. Team owner Paul Mata did tell me that he, like other owners, is in discussions with two drivers right now to fill the seats, so there is potential for additional drivers under the M1 tent.
Confirmed: Jay Horak, Carlos Conde (partial schedules)
World Speed Motorsports
I spoke with WSM’s Telo Stewart and he confirmed that he is in talks with a driver who would join Bobby Eberle in the Pro Mazda Championship this year. Eberle has committed to the full schedule and has amped up his fitness regime and will come in at fighting weight this year, with a focus on battling with the younger drivers. The formerly nationally ranked amateur tennis player has a real competitive fire and is dedicated to the craft. I’ll keep in contact with the team to be ready for a driver announcement, if they can confirm a teammate for Eberle.
Confirmed: Bobby Eberle
Last year, Team Pelfrey rolled out with a pair of total MRTI rookies in Santiago Urrutia and Pato O’Ward, and we quickly learned that Urrutia was fast and consistent, while O’Ward was a rapid young 16-year-old with tons of talent. Urrutia would go on to win the Pro Mazda title and will now run with Schmidt-Peterson Motorsports in Indy Lights, supported in part by his Mazda scholarship. O’Ward came on at the end of the year to finish sixth in the standing. Team Pelfrey will not lose any steam rolling into 2016, having signed returning driver Weiron Tan and rookie Aaron Telitz to run their trademark yellow and black entries. Tan won four races last year, scoring on both permanent road courses and ovals. In fact, he swept the Pro Mazda oval races, winning at both Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa Speedway. Telitz is a USF2000 race winner and could easily challenge as a rookie in the series. My sources tell me that the team continues to work on a third car, and a driver could be announced late next week ahead of the official series test at Barber Motorsports Park.
Confirmed: Aaron Telitz, Weiron Tan