Any driver who suits up for competition has a goal, whether it’s a race win or simply to gain valuable experience. It’s the same for a full season’s expectations as it is for an individual race. As I detailed in my last blog post, we’re now seeing some movement at all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy as drivers reset their own personal goals while we enter the middle of the 2016 schedule. We have new rookies testing the waters in USF2000, some drivers moving teams and others advancing up to Pro Mazda or Indy Lights to prep for 2017.
Five of the six Indy Lights teams tested at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on Tuesday. Tem Pelfrey was not in attendance, as they were at Iowa Speedway with Juan Piedrahita to prepare for the series’ visit to the 7/8-mile track in July. Piedrahita handled the driving duties for the test – Scott Hargrove was not in Newton. My sources tell me that Piedrahita was quick and that the outing was very productive, but it ended on a sour note as the Columbia slapped the wall pretty heavily. Juan was uninjured in the incident.
Other drivers missing the Mid-Ohio test included Belardi Auto Racing’s Felix Rosenqvist and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ RC Enerson and Scott Anderson.
Belardi has stated that Rosenqvist had other commitments that conflicted with the weekday test, but he will return to the #14 later in the year. (Edit – I have updated this to a ‘TBD’ for Rosenqvist’s return)
Andersen had told me earlier in the year that he would run a limited schedule of road course races this season, likely the first three events in addition to testing, which should have put him at Mid-Ohio. That said, I’ve communicated with Scott and let me know that he’s already run the races he had intended and continues to work to find the funding to get back behind the wheel. A quick social media scan included a photo of Scott at the CORE Autosport shop in South Carolina, sampling the seat of one of the team’s new Red Bull GRC Lites cars, so he’s definitely looking at options.
Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams are in the second day of a two-day test at Mid-Ohio themselves, and there is action on this front as well. A noticeable absence from the Pro Mazda testing was Canadian Garett Grist. A race winner at the Ohio road course in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda, Grist returned to the Pro Mazda Championship for a third season with the singular goal of winning the title and the Mazdaspeed scholarship for Indy Lights in ‘17. But, the talented pilot just happened to run directly into a hot driver in a great car and a short field of entries. Team Pelfrey’s Pato O’Ward has six wins in the seven races and has put the title all but out of reach. The Grist camp has done the math, they’ve looked at the minimum number of points O’Ward would get even if he DNF’s every race, and it appears that they will alter their 2016 focus as a result. I’ve learned that Grist remains 100% committed to the MRTI and will very likely re-target his remaining budget on gaining experience at the Indy Lights level. Grist had laid the groundwork to be part of the Indy Lights test on Tuesday, but the program could not be finalized in time. I expect that we’ll see him run only road course events, but I wasn’t able to confirm if he’ll debut at Road America, Toronto or Mid-Ohio.
The revolving door is definitely spinning for Pro Mazda, as it was disappointing to hear that Jacob Eidson has elected to part ways with Cape Motorsports and will, at this time, not be extending his Pro Mazda program with the team. The 2015 USF2000 Championship runner-up is an extreme talent and I am hopeful that he’ll be able to find his way back onto the Pro Mazda grid this year, or in 2017.
While Pro Mazda will likely lose the participation of Grist in the fourth Juncos Racing entry as well as Eidson in the Cape #3, it will gain a new pilot, as it was announced that Team Pelfrey’s TJ Fischer will graduate within the team to take the ex-Weiron Tan seat. Fischer had looked at the Pro Mazda program at the start of the year, but elected to kick off his MRTI career in USF2000, so this is not a total surprise.
In USF2000, Team Pelfrey is currently at the Mid-Ohio test with just a single driver in rookie Robert Megennis, as UK freshman Jordan Cane purchased his Van Diemen and took it to the Cape Motorsports shop to complete the season. Megennis has been the most consistent of the driver quartet that Team Pelfrey had to begin the season, finishing only one race outside the top-10, and I expect to see continued improvement out of this young pilot. It would not be out of the question to see the one of the team’s F1600 drivers in one-off outings in USF2000 before the end of the year.
In addition, Afterburner Autosport is expected to officially announce the late-season participation of top karter Christian Munoz, who is testing with the team at Mid-Ohio alongside Mazdaspeed driver Dakota Dickerson. I’m hearing that Munoz will likely race at Mid-Ohio and the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.