A brief interruption to the silence of the American open-wheel offseason comes with this week's second annual Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy open test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on Oct. 10-11.
More than 50 drivers are expected to test between the three rungs of the ladder – Firestone Indy Lights, Star Mazda and the USF2000 series. The test was held later in October last year, two weeks after the IndyCar season ended in Las Vegas, and takes place this year with three of the four series complete and Star Mazda set to wrap its year at Road Atlanta in two weeks' time.
They'll have a watchful eye in the form of Josef Newgarden (LEFT), who will be serving as a mentor/driver coach and observer for the two-day test. The 2011 Indy Lights champion advanced into IndyCar this season with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing. Although he hasn't driven the IMS road course, Newgarden offered his insights on what to expect.
“It'll be some coaching and advice to anyone who wants or needs it,” he says. “I was happy to do it when asked, because I came from this. I've lived that series, and I want to do whatever I can to help. We need a lot more young talent that comes up to the top level.
“I can imagine there will be absolutely no grip, because it's hardly used,” he adds of the road course. “It probably gets polished. And yeah, it's not gonna come down very quickly in two days. I've not been on it but I assume it's an issue.”
Relative unknowns at this time last year, Jack Hawksworth made his U.S. debut in a Star Mazda entry for Team Pelfrey while Star Mazda champion Tristan Vautier got his first taste of Indy Lights machinery for Team E and Andretti Autosport. There's a handful of series veterans back for another runs, a bit of team swapping and a few others worth taking note of.
Hawksworth – although not officially listed as of Tuesday – should be emulating Vautier's steps in driving a Lights car for the first time. In the meantime, the Star Mazda field gets a boost with both title contenders from the USF2000 season, Spencer Pigot and champion Matthew Brabham, getting opportunities. Pigot, supported by Team Pelfrey in USF2000, will test for them in Star Mazda, while Brabham will test Oct. 11 for Andretti Autosport.
Both have been busy of late. Brabham's just returned from Europe where he was competing in Formula Renault for the Team USA Scholarship program, while Pigot tested a Porsche GT3 Cup car in Porsche Motorsport North America's first annual Young Driver Academy at Barber Motorsports Park last week (more on that to come on RACER.com later this week).
“I'm very interested to see Spencer Pigot,” says Newgarden. “We raced together in karts, I think he's a massive talent and want to see how he does in the next step.
“And Jack Hawksworth, I think he's very interesting to watch come up as well. He has only had a limited amount of time in open-wheel cars in the States. But he has quite a bit of talent and it will be great to watch his progression into Indy Lights.”
The Indy Lights grid has 13 cars listed with five drivers with prior series starts. After two years with Belardi Auto Racing, Jorge Goncalvez will drive one of Sam Schmidt's cars, while his late season Belardi teammate this year Peter Dempsey will have his first test ever with the team. David Ostella, another two-year veteran (RIGHT), shifts to the Fan Force United entry, while Mikael Grenier, Ostella's Canadian countryman, is back in a Team Moore car for his first Lights appearance since 2011 – when he was Dempsey's teammate at the since departed-Genoa Racing. Rodin Younessi also plans to participate in his own car.
Four Star Mazda drivers are set to advance beyond Hawksworth. Andretti Autosport makes the logical picks of its two Star Mazda drivers – Zach Veach and Sage Karam – in its two cars. Veach has two prior tests with the team while Karam, three times a winner this year, makes his initial Indy Lights appearance.
Gabby Chaves steps into the champion's No. 77 Schmidt car, vacated by Vautier, for this test – he's currently second with one win in the Star Mazda season – while Barber race two winner and Juncos Racing driver Martin Scuncio will run that team's entry.
The other rookies are Australian Nick McBride and German Luis Michael Dorrbecker for Schmidt, Diego Ferreira for Bryan Herta Autosport (drove for Juncos in Star Mazda this year) and Giancarlo Serenelli in the Jeffrey Mark (BHA technical support) entry.
Star Mazda's lineup includes only one season holdover from this year – Andres Mendez at GDT – and the rest of the 14 cars with rookies. JDC Motorsports, which recently tested USF2000 star Scott Anderson at Blackhawk Raceway Circuit in South Beloit, Ill. (RIGHT), will split the two days between Finn Antti Buri and Mexican Jose Carlos Sandoval. Buri's an intriguing prospect to watch having been invited as the British Formula Ford champion, and will also test Wednesday in JDC's USF2000 car.
Andretti Autosport's USF2000 driver Shelby Blackstock – who's doubled with racing a Ford Mustang in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge and is better known as country singer Reba McIntire's son – will run Andretti's other Star Mazda car for the second time having tested this weekend at Putnam Park.
Pigot's teammates at Pelfrey are Chris Yano and Luca Orlandi; GDT has two drivers in the top four of the LATAM Challenge Series (Francisco Cerullo, Andre Solano) and Juncos Racing has two other Latin Americans (Brazilian Renan Guerra, Argentinean Julia Ballario) listed in its two cars. World Speed Motorsports will test Kyle Kaiser – the pair raced together at Mazda Raceway in September – and PRL Motorsports also makes it to the test with Pittsburgher Patrick Linn.
The deepest field is USF2000's, which features 28 cars entered compared to 14 (Star Mazda) and 13 (Indy Lights), respectively. Seven of the 28 are Formula Enterprises entries in the National Class. Perhaps surprisingly, two-time defending champion team Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing is not among the teams participating.
That said, quality multicar entries come from Belardi (five drivers), Andretti (three), JDC (five) and Pabst Racing Services (three). Buri should be one to watch, as are Skip Barber graduates Jake Eidson and Danilo Estrela, both in Belardi cars. Norwegian prodigy Ayla Agren and Luca Forgeois will split days for Andretti, and single-car entrant Matthew Di Leo is back to once again threaten the multicar operations. RC Enerson also steps up to the Championship class after sporadic starts in it this past year, but a primary schedule in the National class. Canadian F1600 champs Nathan Blok (Quebec) and Michael Adams (Ontario) will drive for Afterburner Autosport and JAY Motorsports, as the remaining drivers picked to test thanks to Mazda Road to Indy series partnerships.
All told, the second test run in honor of former Schmidt Indy Lights team manager Chris Griffis features nearly a 75 percent increase in entries over a year ago, according to IndyCar's director of grassroots initiatives, Jason Penix.