DiZinno: After several years, several MRTI alums get their IndyCar shots
In what’s been a relatively quiet offseason - save for this past weekend at the Performance Racing Industry trade show in Indianapolis - for the Verizon IndyCar Series, it’s been good to see that three of the four drivers confirmed for new seats in 2016 have two things in common:
All three are American, and all three are Mazda Road to Indy alumni and champions.
Indeed Conor Daly has finally - after taking arguably the longest and most winding road since The Beatles’ “The Long and Winding Road” to get to his destination - earned his opportunity in a full-season IndyCar program, with perennial hopeful Dale Coyne.
Meanwhile two drivers who’ve been inextricably linked on the Mazda Road to Indy path, Spencer Pigot and Matthew Brabham, have their first cracks at IndyCar open thanks to several partners and in the exact same year, some four years after dueling for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship as teammates.
So really, if you’ve been paying attention to the ladder system for the last few years, you hoped this day would eventually come where these three would make their way to the top.
It still took near perfect circumstances, a bit of luck, and great timing though for all three to get their shot.
Daly’s road to IndyCar has been the equivalent of a 24-hour endurance race spread over five years, complete with surprises, occasional heartache and frequent overachieving.
He was the dominant champion in the 2010 Star Mazda season (now called Pro Mazda), driving for Juncos Racing and winning eight races. He beat a field that included fellow MRTI veteran and now NBCSN Indy Lights/Red Bull GRC analyst and CoForce co-founder Anders Krohn, eventual Porsche Junior driver Connor De Phillippi, and future Star Mazda and Indy Lights champion Tristan Vautier, who drove for Coyne this past season.
And then the long, winding road began. Daly’s shift in 2011 to a joint North American/European focus began the delayed process of getting to IndyCar. He won at Long Beach and actually led the Indy Lights points after three races, but his first voyage to GP3 began that year too, in hopes of also keeping a door to Formula 1 open. That year’s Indy Lights champion? One Josef Newgarden, Daly’s longtime friend and rival coming up through the karting ranks in Indiana, and a driver who nailed his timing to join Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in IndyCar the next season.
While Newgarden found his footing and eventually blossomed into an IndyCar race winner this past year, Daly’s run through Europe continued to be tortuous. He won in 2012 with ART, but that year’s most notable moment came courtesy of a scary accident in Monaco when he launched over the back of a slower driver, who’d been blocking him through the tunnel, and went airborne before pirouetting into the catch fencing. Mercifully, Daly was OK.
A near GP3 title followed a year later in 2013, along with points in his GP2 weekend debut, his Indianapolis 500 debut. From the GP3 side though, he lost the title to Daniil Kvyat, who wound up advancing into F1 the following year with Toro Rosso.
A full season in GP2 in 2014 was a tough one and the itch to return home to North America on a more full-time basis increased. Daly tried to attend as many IndyCar races as he could, persistent and determined to show his face whenever and wherever he could.
The 2015 campaign was more of the same. He overachieved in a handful of IndyCar starts, all last-minute, and had speed but traditional poor luck in a partial season of sports cars. That “arguably best 17th place finish in recent memory” at Long Beach though was his “wow” moment of the season for the IndyCar paddock, with Coyne, and helped plant the seed for his full-time shot.
For Brabham and Pigot, they’ll have to hope that their road isn’t as winding to make it to full-time seats, after the two were arguably the two top prospects within the Mazda Road to Indy ladder the last four years. And both have taken intriguing roads to get to IndyCar.
Pigot was fast but occasionally fragile in USF2000 in 2012, and despite an eight-four win advantage over Brabham, lost the title to his Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate. The moment of their season came in the Night Before the 500 at Lucas Oil Raceway outside Indianapolis; the two ran side-by-side, neither giving an inch, for nearly 10 laps of the 75-lap race before Pigot eventually prevailed for the lead and the win. It was one of those indelible moments where if you were paying attention, you knew you’d seen something special, and you knew one day both of these two would make it to IndyCar.
The 2013 season saw both advance into Pro Mazda, but with different teams. Brabham enjoyed a record-setting campaign with Andretti Autosport; Pigot won only once with Team Pelfrey. It was Brabham, then, that got the edge on moving into Indy Lights with Pigot staying in Pro Mazda for another season.
But 2014 was nearly the end of their respective open-wheel roads. Brabham was not nearly as at ease with the Indy Lights car as the two previous chassis; he won only once and failed to mount a serious title challenge. Pigot, meanwhile, was faced with the prospect of needing to win the title to advance into Indy Lights.
As such, the nerves and intensity were at their highest at the Sonoma season finale, as Pigot battled Scott Hargrove, the 2013 USF2000 champ who was looking to match Brabham in going back-to-back in two different series. Canadian Hargrove was a worthy opponent; one of the nicest people you’ll meet off the track but aggressive as hell on it.
The drama was ratcheted up and when Pigot emerged as champion over Hargrove after that weekend, it changed both of their respective careers.
Consider Pigot was the only one of the three who had a full Indy Lights season now set for 2015, while Brabham and Hargrove raced only on two and one weekend, respectively. Hargrove also raced in the Porsche GT3 Canada series, a year after he won that series’ title, while Brabham had a bit of everything else in occasional starts - FIA Formula E and Stadium Super Trucks among them.
Pigot - perhaps a year earlier than anticipated with Jack Harvey now cast in the “it’s his second year and he figured to win the title” role Pigot had occupied a year earlier - took the crown at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and earned his latest Mazda advancement scholarship to move into IndyCar.
Pigot’s struck a deal with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing for at least three races, with hopes of more to come. Brabham, meanwhile, has tapped into his Australian roots and will be working with Brett “Crusher” Murray - whose dream of an Indianapolis 500 entry will come true with the new PIRTEK Team Murray effort, run in partnership with KV Racing Technology.
It’s Harvey and Hargrove who are now, currently, on the outside looking in but two more who you hope to see next make the jump into IndyCar, because both have the talent to do so. Sage Karam, another of the Mazda Road to Indy stars the last few years, is another who you hope to see get a second season following his first with Chip Ganassi Racing this past year (budget pending, of course).
Another couple Americans - Neil Alberico and Zach Veach - are others who’ve had four or five years already within the Mazda Road to Indy and are so close to that jump.
But for these three though, it’s obvious. Mazda has helped make their open-wheel careers not only happen, but continue despite challenges, and the fruits of all their labor will come good with their IndyCar shots next year.
Seeing the ladder produce three more graduates is a very good thing.