It’s good to be back in the office, having just returned from the Performance Racing Industry show in Indianapolis. It was a stellar show, I hosted a few driver announcements on the IndyCar stage, and I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss with many people the ongoing excitement in USF2000, my projected line-up for Indy Lights, and of course, the current state of the Pro Mazda category for 2017. We also pulled the cover off the new Tatuus PM-18 that will debut at the new car for the Pro Mazda Championship in 2018, and it should not be a surprise that this year’s version of the series was a hot topic.
To address that question correctly, I took the stance that we all need to stand back and look at the big picture. In truth, nothing has changed. The Pro Mazda Championship will do exactly what it’s done for the last few years. It will award its champion with a tremendous scholarship for Indy Lights and the remainder of the field will have gained crucial experience.
As a program in the middle of a major equipment transition, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is just one year away from having ‘new’ racecars on-track in all three levels of its development ladder. The Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 made its debut at the start of the 2015 season and, in early October on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, the new Tatuus-built USF-17 broke cover with eight different teams putting the car through its paces during the Chris Griffis Memorial Test. The final piece of the MRTI technical puzzle will be put into place in 2018, when the same carbon tub from Tatuus used in the USF-17 will be the foundation for the new PM-18. The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will feature a new racecar in ’18, completing the technical update of the MRTI ladder and setting the specs for the future of the program.
As such, the full MRTI evolution will not be completed until 2018, so Pro Mazda still needs to get through one more year with the Elan-built Pro Formula Mazda chassis, and this has fueled a great deal of uncertainty. After a couple years of declining numbers, what is in store for Pro Mazda next year? This was the question I was hit with countless times, and my response was consistent.
With new technology on the way, the challenge now is to attract racers to the final year of the current equipment. To begin, in partnership with Mazda and Cooper Tires, Andersen Promotions has put together an incredible prize package to draw racers to the series in 2017. The ultimate goal of winning the championship remains, and Mazda has stepped up with a larger scholarship package to support the titlist in Indy Lights in 2018. The Indy Lights scholarship has been raised to $800,000 and the second and third place drivers in the championship will receive significant prize money as well. The individual race purses have been increased, and the Pro Mazda Rookie of the Year will receive a new Mazda vehicle of his or her choice. These are attractive rewards aimed to ensure Pro Mazda has double-digit grids.
For 2017, Andersen has addressed the Pro Mazda budget by compacting the schedule into just six weekends, which should shrink the overall costs considerably. The schedule kicks off with a well-attended street race at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March and will then take the drivers to four of the country’s most iconic road courses, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen. The Pro Mazda drivers will also be on the MRTI docket at Gateway Motorsports Park in August. It’s a strong schedule that will maintain the level of top-notch training that will be needed to deliver a championship contender to Indy Lights in 2018. The mix of street courses, natural terrain circuits and a speedway oval continues.
I spoke with a couple of the Pro Mazda team owners at both the Chris Griffis test and the PRI Show to determine the current budget being offered to potential drivers, and the numbers varied with surprising distance. One team manager pointed to the bottom line cost of full-time staff to run a program, but you can be sure that Dan Andersen is expecting teams to run part-time efforts with the potential for ‘fly-in’ engineers. This is a time for flexibility and adapting.
During my discussions, the split of concern and confidence was 50-50. The recent announcement of World Speed Motorsports committing to the Pro Mazda Championship with top national kart racer and FormulaCar Challenge grad Sting Ray Robb is a major positive that could start things off in the right direction. We already know that USF2000 champ Anthony Martin will be on the grid in his Soul Red entry.
One of key talking points about the current Pro Mazda is the aging chassis, but it’s hard to argue against the car’s pedigree of aiding in the development of the current crop of IndyCar and Indy Lights pilots. Over the last five years, the top drivers in the Pro Mazda ranks showed very well in Indy Lights, winning races and championships. In 2012, Jack Hawksworth won eight races with Team Pelfrey en route to the Pro Mazda championship, and he would go on to three victories in Indy Lights in 2013 with Sam Schmidt Motorsports before joining AJ Foyt Racing for three seasons of IndyCar racing. Gabby Chaves finished second to Hawksworth in 2012 running with JDC MotorSports, and then was a star in Indy Lights for two years, winning the title in 2014 with Belardi Auto Racing and moving to Bryan Herta Autosport in 2015. Matthew Brabham dominated Pro Mazda in 2013 and finished fourth overall in Lights in 2014. Spencer Pigot spent two years in Pro Mazda with the title with Juncos Racing (2014), and then won the Indy Lights championship in his rookie year. Similarly, Santi Urrutia won the 2015 Pro Mazda title with Team Pelfrey and he came within a lap of besting the Indy Lights veterans for the title this past season. The Pro Mazda car has more than succeeded in preparing its drivers for Indy Lights glory, and for one more season, it will again be charged with that responsibility.
Simply put, the same car that trained the likes of the above, as well as Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Marco Andretti and Conor Daly, is set for one more season of competition. The training aspects remain, the prize fund has been fed significantly and the schedule has been compacted to decrease budgets. Everything is in place to open the door for teams and drivers to maintain their support of the series, which represents the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy. MRTI boss Dan Andersen has sweetened the pot even more, as the first Tatuus PM-18s to land in 2017 will go to teams with drivers running the Pro Mazda Championship series. It’s just another bonus for teams that commit to maintain the validity of this level of competition, which I believe is vital for several different reasons.
While at the PRI show, I heard from more than one driver who was seriously considering the Pro Mazda formula for next year, and should a few names start to fall into place, we may be seeing a surge in support that would put the potential entry lists to between 10-15 for St. Petersburg.