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 (ABOVE), 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 on Thursday 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.
The test is open to the public and spectators can watch the test from 9 a.m. - 6 p.m. ET on the South Terrace stands and Turn 2 viewing mounds.
DAY 1 NOTEBOOK:
Jack Hawksworth tested a racecar in America for the first time at the first Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2011. He returned to the test on Oct. 10 as the Star Mazda Champion, but without his helmet, observing the test from the Team Pelfrey pits.
"Maybe tomorrow," Hawksworth said of his chance to test again at Indianapolis.
All three Mazda Road to Indy series champions were at Indianapolis on the opening day of the test, though none drove on the 2.514-mile road course. Firestone Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier was serving a driving coach for Norwegian driver Ayla Agren, while USF2000 titlist Matthew Brabham will test a Star Mazda car for Andretti Autosport on Oct. 11.
"It's definitely tough watching on the sidelines, especially when it's cold," Brabham said. "The car seems to have a lot of pace. Everyone's been telling me about the cars and how they are so fun to drive here. I'm really looking forward to it."
The scholarship winners aren't the only drivers with an eye on moving up. Gabby Chaves, who is second in Star Mazda Championship points, got his first taste of Firestone Indy Lights car at the test with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
"I really enjoyed today," he said. "It was a great experience. I just wish there would have been a little more track time because at the end of the day when I started to figure everything out the session was over. It was a good day though. A lot of the guys out there have driven the car much more than I have. I'm happy with the result today. I feel like I'm ready to be in these cars and I can't wait."
• 2011 Firestone Indy Lights champion and current IZOD IndyCar Series driver Josef Newgarden will be on hand Thursday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to Indy Open Test to serve as a coach for the drivers testing USF2000, Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights cars.
"It's just good for young drivers to speak with someone who's been through exactly what they're trying to accomplish," Newgarden said. "The Mazda Road to Indy ladder through USF2000, Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights is such a great path to the IZOD IndyCar Series and I want to do my part to help get young talent to IndyCar."
Newgarden's involvement at the test honors someone close to his heart as he worked with Chris Griffis during his 2011 championship-winning season.
"Chris was a huge asset to Sam's team when I was there, and he was one of the best team managers I've ever worked with," Newgarden said. "He made a huge impact on everyone he worked with and I think it's great that this test, which will help a ton of young drivers get started on their next seasons, is in his honor."
• Among the first time drivers at the Chris Griffis Open Test was Brandon Newey, whose father, Steve Newey, is co-owner of Bryan Herta Autosport, which fielded the car which Dan Wheldon drove to victory in the 100th Anniversary Indianapolis 500. For Newey, a Purdue student who currently leads the F1600 Championship, it was his first time to drive on the IMS race course.
"It's an honor to drive at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the Chris Griffis Memorial test and I could not be more excited," said Newey, who experienced driving a car with wings for the first time. "It was a good day."