AUSTIN, Texas — The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will commence with a pair of eagerly awaited races at the Circuit of The Americas Friday and Saturday.
Sanctioned by IndyCar, Pro Mazda represents the second step on the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy development ladder, which offers aspiring champions of the future an opportunity to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. Pro Mazda replaces the Star Mazda Championship that ceased operations in 2012 after 22 years and bridges the gap between the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights.
An intriguing mix of returning veterans and talented newcomers will convene at the challenging 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course, which earned unanimous praise last fall when it hosted its inaugural event, the rejuvenated Formula 1 United States Grand Prix.
Matthew Brabham must be regarded as one of the favorites for top honors. The grandson of three-time Formula 1 World Champion Sir Jack Brabham and son of sports car champion Geoff Brabham is looking to maintain the momentum that saw him win the 2012 USF2000 crown and earn a scholarship from Mazda to graduate into Pro Mazda competition.
Brabham laid down a marker earlier in the month by comfortably setting the pace with his No. 83 Team Andretti Autosport entry during a spate of pre-season test sessions at Palm Beach International Raceway and Sebring Int’l Raceway in Florida and this past weekend at Circuit of The Americas.
“The track is fantastic,” exclaimed Brabham, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Monday. “It is definitely one of the best tracks I have driven on. It is incredibly smooth and has some great elevation changes that are so much fun to drive on.
“Pre-season testing has been going really well for us. We have sorted out the new Cooper tires quite quickly and I have gotten on really well with the guys at Andretti. We have had great speed all through testing and I don’t see why we can’t carry that into this weekend. I’m trying to keep an open mind going into the first race and not have too many expectations. However, we are in a good position going into the first race and my goal as always is to try and win.”
Three other front-runners from last year’s immensely strong USF2000 field have moved up for 2013. Spencer Pigot (No. 81 Doug Mockett & Company/Gap Guard/Parathyroid.com/California Scents/OMP), also 19, from Orlando, Fla., finished just seven points adrift of Brabham, despite winning eight races to his rival’s four, and has been snapped up by defending champion Team Pelfrey to join sophomore Pro Mazda racer Petri Suvanto (No. 82 GetGapGuard.com), from Finland, who placed fifth in 2012 with 10 top-five finishes to his name after winning the USF2000 championship in 2011.
Scott Anderson (No. 44 Neuropathy Testing Center/Laser Nail Centers/OtterCares/Sparco/Bell), from Ft. Collins, Colo., who won the remaining two USF2000 races in 2012, will step up with the 2010 championship-winning team, Juncos Racing, and Shelby Blackstock (No. 28 Team Starstruck), who finished eighth in last year’s hotly contested championship, will continue his progression with Andretti Autosport.
Returning Pro Mazda veterans include Diego Ferreira and Juan Piedrahita, who placed sixth and seventh, respectively, in 2012 and Zack Meyer, who finished 15th. Ferreira (No. 57 Team Vi5o Venezuela/Mindeporte with Juncos Racing), from Maracay, Venezuela, made fine progress, finishing among the top five in each of the final five races. Piedrahita (No. 9 Petrosur/ Sisolec/GFK Motors/Red Line Oil), from Bogota, Colombia, will remain with the 2011 championship-winning team JDC MotorSports, with designs on improving upon his two second-place results alongside teammate Meyer (No. 66 Damis Partners III/Red Line Oil), from Toronto, Ontario, Canada, who claimed four top-10 finishes last season.
Californian teenager Kyle Kaiser (No. #18 InterVision/NetApp/Juniper Networks/Riverbed) — the quickest in testing at COTA this past Saturday with World Speed Motorsports — and California-based Welshman, Lloyd Read ( No. 16 Read Motorsports/Aerocraft Design/Maaco/Red Line Oil with JDC MotorSports), will graduate from the West Coast Formula Car Challenge, where they have excelled in almost identical Pro Mazda cars.
Others to watch include another couple of South Americans — Francisco Cerullo (No. 80 Taller Jackers/Mindeporte with Linares Racing), from Caracas, Venezuela, who won the 2012 LATAM F2000 Challenge Series and finished second in the Panam GP Series, and Colombian National Karting Champion Juan Acosta (No. 11 Studio F/Ela Special with M1 Racing), who also contested two Panam GP Series races last year, winning once.
Additional newcomers to the series include Jose Gutierrez from Monterrey, Mexico, who is part of the Martiga Driver Development program, and PRL Motorsports owner/driver Patrick Linn, of Pittsburgh, Pa., who finished sixth in the USF2000 National Class in 2012. Expert Class drivers, a category for drivers over 30 years of age, include AutoEnginuity’s Jay Horak (No. 37 Star Race Cars) and Jeff Garibotti in the No. 75 entry for Garibotti Racing.