Mar 26, 2014, 12:00 PM EDT
The three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – now all run and operated by Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions – also kick off in earnest alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series at St. Petersburg this weekend.
Much of the action will be chronicled via the new Road to Indy TV outlet; additionally, NBCSN will have extensive coverage of all three of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda.
Indy Lights opens with a single race while both Pro Mazda and USF2000 will have double-header races.
Here are 10 drivers to watch of note between the three championships this year, following the conclusion of Cooper Tires Winterfest and our projections on some likely championship contenders.
INDY LIGHTS (Full Entry List)
Matthew Brabham, No. 83 Andretti Autosport
Perhaps the highest-touted prospect on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, “Matty Brabs” has the opportunity to capture his third championship in as many series in as many years (Pro Mazda 2013, USF2000 2012). Mature beyond his 20 years, but still with a laid-back demeanor outside of the cockpit, Brabham’s an absolute speed demon once he gets behind the wheel of his car. Andretti Autosport has been close-but-no-cigar to the Lights title the last four years, and Brabham is the guy most likely to break that streak.
Zach Veach, No. 26 Andretti Autosport
Veach is only 19, yet enters his fifth full year on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder in 2014. He’s always excelled at the branding and marketing side of the game; he’s still yet to make that last jump in consistency and performance on-track. After spending two years in USF2000 and a single year in Pro Mazda, Veach’s first year in Indy Lights had sporadic highlights but was otherwise spent learning the ropes. He should improve in 2014, taking his first win (a short oval his best bet), with the goal of attaining podium finishes on a more regular basis.
Jack Harvey, No. 42 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
The next young English talent who seeks to star in North America, Harvey is not Jack Hawksworth, who was the English Jack H who raced for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2013. Harvey, 20, enters the four-time defending championship team from GP3, where he finished fifth last year. Should win multiple races, and we’ll see how he adjusts to ovals.
Luiz Razia, No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
You could argue Razia, the 24-year-old Brazilian, is almost overqualified for Indy Lights since he was on the precipice of a Formula One race seat 13 months ago before funding fell through. Razia has an Esteban Guerrieri-type of feel to me at first glance; a talented and very experienced South American, coming into Schmidt’s team, who should be immediately on the pace. Although he wasn’t the out and out fastest in GP2, he should be in race-winning contention almost from the off in another Schmidt Peterson entry.
Pro Mazda (Full Entry List)
Neil Alberico, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
I’ll pinpoint Alberico more than Scott Hargrove as the guy to watch within Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in Pro Mazda this year. That’s not a slight on Hargrove, who should be a dependable, consistent performer this year and did well in Winterfest. Alberico, 21, has the pedigree where he should have a higher ceiling, in terms of outright pace. He’s also gotten extra seat time this winter in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand. The Rising Star Racing-backed driver and former Team USA Scholarship recipient needs a bit more consistency and luck for his 2014 campaign.
Spencer Pigot, No. 7 Juncos Racing
Pigot, like Veach in Indy Lights, is a guy who’s been around a while on the ladder, and is still only 20. But it’s fair to say he’s the early season Pro Mazda title favorite, with a year’s worth of experience, the championship-winning pedigree of the Juncos Racing team behind him and determination to avenge what was largely a difficult first season in the series. Like Alberico, has the Rising Star Racing support and dominated Winterfest. He has moved to Indianapolis to embed himself within the open-wheel hotbed city.
Shelby Blackstock, No. 28 Andretti Autosport
The son of country music legend Reba McEntire made some key leaps and strides in his jump from USF2000 to Pro Mazda last year. As he enters a second season with Andretti Autosport, he should emerge as the team’s leading driver, provided he keeps talented but young Canadian teammate Garett Grist at bay. Blackstock, 24, has done a great job of accruing seat time as he doubles his open-wheel efforts with racing a BMW M3 for Fall-Line Motorsports in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge GS class (he won at Daytona to open the 2014 season). He could win multiple races and challenge fellow Americans Pigot and Alberico for the title.
USF2000 (Full Entry List)
RC Enerson, No. 7 Team E Racing
The 17-year-old emerged as a surprise champion of Winterfest for his single-car, family team. The question now is whether they’ll have the consistency and performance to back it up over the course of the regular season. Enerson was a midlevel to occasional top-five driver in 2013; in a deep field, he’ll need top-five finishes with more regularity to contend for the full season crown.
Jake Eidson, No. 2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
Eidson, 18, follows Alberico and Pigot as the anointed Team USA Scholarship recipient in a Cape USF2000 seat, and he should be quick from the get-go. He nearly won Winterfest despite not winning a race. He made a handful of starts in USF2000 last year with a midlevel team and overachieved, but with the best equipment at his disposal in 2014, he should contend for regular wins.
Michael Epps, No. 44 Belardi Auto Racing
Epps, the 22-year-old Englishman, certainly has the years most of his USF2000 rivals don’t, and emerged as a potential star toward the end of 2013 and into the 2014 Winterfest. He won twice at Winterfest, and should lead Belardi Auto Racing’s four-car effort this season. He’ll have stiff internal competition from teammates Florian Latorre, Daniel Burkett and Nico Jamin, which should push the team forward. Belardi has been one of the few teams to take it to Cape the last two years, which bodes well for them going into 2014.
OTHERS OF NOTE
Belardi has its best set of Indy Lights drivers in Gabby Chaves and Alexandre Baron, but hasn’t quite had the equipment to match in recent years. We’ll see if that changes this year. Michael Johnson, who is paralyzed, steps up to Pro Mazda with JDC Motorsports and continues to develop as a driver despite his handicap. Italian teammate Vicky Piria, who will race with JDC at least at St. Petersburg, is a promising ex-GP3 shoe. The USF2000 field is very deep, with potentially 10-15 podium-contending drivers, and that makes it hard to pick just three or four to watch. Of the others, Peter Portante and Aaron Telitz (ArmsUp), Clark Toppe (JDC), Henrik Furuseth (JAY) and Victor Franzoni (Afterburner Autosport) should provide some highlights throughout the year.