INDIANAPOLIS – Last year’s inaugural Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test previewed what was to be two eventual series champions, and a large crop of other up-and-coming talent that battled for wins all season long.
IndyCar was introduced to Jack Hawksworth, who topped the time sheets and went on to take the 2012 Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, and also learned that Tristan Vautier would be as fierce a competitor in Firestone Indy Lights as he was in Star Mazda.
In year two of the now much-anticipated event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, all teams are on the lookout for the same talent. Over 50 drivers traveled to Indianapolis for the two-day test in hopes of impressing potential teams as they try to set their 2013 plans.
“I think it’s very important because when everybody is here, you can gauge a driver on his talent,” said Andretti Autosport engineer Blair Perschbacher. “Sam Schmidt (Motorsports) is here. (Team Moore) is here and you can compare your guys to their guys on the same day. When we go to other places in the offseason, there are a lot of variables.
“These Open Tests are valuable because you can evaluate new guys against competition and see how they rate. You can look at historical data, but it’s more valuable to put them up against guys like (Peter) Dempsey and guys that competed last year. It makes evaluating talent that much easier.”
Dempsey was fastest in the Firestone Indy Lights morning session. The veteran, who struggled to find a consistent ride early in the 2012 season before landing at Belardi Auto Racing, hopes to compete for a full season with the team in 2013 and make a run at the championship. Also notable was the performance of the newcomers, including 2012 Star Mazda competitor Zach Veach, who was fastest in the afternoon.
“Today being pretty much my second full day in the car, I wasn’t expecting to come in and have the track record today and be P1,” Veach said. “But the guys at Andretti Autosport have put together a really great Indy Lights car. A lot of it is them. I just have the fun job of driving it. We still have some things to work on for tomorrow, but it’s a new day and we’ll just see how we are in the morning and go from there.”
Floridian Spencer Pigot got time in a Star Mazda car with Team Pelfrey after finishing second in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season. He and Shelby Blackstock, another 2012 USF2000 competitor, swapped the top spot before Pigot came out on top in both sessions. Only one driver that competed in Star Mazda in 2012 tested throughout the day; Andres Mendez was eighth-fastest and ninth-fastest, respectively.
Matthew Di Leo returned to a USF2000 car and led the morning practice with a time of 1:30.035. The 17-year-old Ontario native has competed in two seasons in the first step of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, finishing fifth in the championship in his debut season and fourth in 2012. Finland’s Antti Buri, who participated in the test as a result of winning the British Formula Ford championship, was fastest in the afternoon session, an amazing result after running just 16th-fastest in session one. He will take a shot at a Star Mazda car on day two of the test.
“It’s been a great test day,” Buri said. “I immediately felt comfortable in the car. It’s quite close to what I’m used to. So it wasn’t so big a change for me. It’s been good and we’ve been getting better with the lap times and with new tires, the balance was very good. I’m happy with that.”
From this year to last, the size of the field has grown approximately 80 percent, with this year’s car count totaling over 50 entries. Day two will feature more of IndyCar’s rising talent, including USF2000 champion Matthew Brabham’s initial test in a Star Mazda car and former USF2000 champion Sage Karam’s first time in a Firestone Indy Lights machine.