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 literally 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.
The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, the middle step on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, is in the midst of a transition with an exciting new Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 equipment package to be introduced next year. Only seven cars attended last week’s Spring Training test at Homestead, but the obvious attraction of a $790,000 Mazda Scholarship to assist in the progression to Indy Lights for 2018 has led to several late additions which should ensure an intriguing start to the 12-race season at St. Petersburg.
Reigning USF2000 champion Anthony Martin, from Kalgoorlie, Australia, led the way at Spring Training for Cape Motorsports and will be seeking to become the first driver since Matthew Brabham in 2012 and 2013 to secure back-to-back Mazda Scholarships in USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
Opposition will stem chiefly from a trio of cars from Team Pelfrey which has guided Santi Urrutia and Aaron Telitz to consecutive Pro Mazda titles. After moving its base from Palmetto, Fla., to Indianapolis over the winter, Team Pelfrey remains focused on yet another crown after retaining TJ Fischer, from Vacaville, Calif., who topped the times in a couple of sessions during Spring Training, and adding Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, who graduates from USF2000, and Brazilian F3 race winner Carlos Cunha.
World Speed Motorsports also displayed good speed at Spring Training with veteran Bobby Eberle, from Houston, Texas, and teenaged newcomer Sting Ray Robb, from Payette, Idaho. The pair will be joined this week by another youngster, Phillippe Denes, from Carmel, Calif., who marked himself as a man to watch by claiming two wins and a dozen podium finishes in last year’s F1600 Championship Series.
Max Hanratty, from Milwaukee, Wis., has joined ArmsUp Motorsports after graduating from USF2000 and finishing fourth in the 2016 IMSA Mazda Prototype Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.
Pittsburgh, Pa., native Matt Machiko is another to be moving up the ladder after sweeping the board last year in SCCA Formula Mazda competition.
A Juncos Racing driver announcement is expected on Wednesday.
The green flag for the opening Hi-Tide Kids on Track Grand Prix of St. Petersburg will fly at 11:50 a.m. on Saturday, March 11, followed by the Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg which will bring the weekend festivities to a close at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Both races will be preceded by individual 30-minute qualifying sessions.
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.