One thing is certain to me after attending the 2013 Pro Mazda and USF2000 banquet in Houston on October 6: only two drivers, Pro Mazda champ Matthew Brabham and USF2000 champ Scott Hargrove, are truly happy since they will benefit from the champions’ scholarships provided to them by Mazda Motorsports Director John Doonan. And even those drivers are not completely sure of where they will race in 2014 or who it will be for.
Brabham, for instance, knows that he will graduate to the Indy Lights series in 2014, thanks in part to the $636,200 scholarship presented to him that night by Mazda. But beyond that, Brabham has nothing signed for the coming season — and, even more surprisingly, he’s not even guaranteed to return to Andretti Autosport.
“We’re still working on what our possibilities are for next year,” Brabham shared. “I’m sure we’ll make a decision soon, so we’ll see what happens. I’m definitely looking forward to getting into an Indy Lights car because it looks really fun. We’re just going to wait and it’ll start moving forward once Indy Lights gets done with Fontana. All the teams are focusing on that race right now, and once it’s done
I’m sure the teams will start looking towards next year.”
Hargrove, similarly, knows that he will race in the Pro Mazda series next year, and he envisions the type of season that Brabham enjoyed this year. But as of yet, nothing is in play towards that goal.
“I really wanted to focus on making sure this championship was said and done, and I gave 100% of my focus into making sure that happened,” Hargrove said. ”Now that that’s done, we’ll really start to go out and study our options. It’s pregame right now, though, so no deals are done.”
All of the other competitors who didn’t capture the title face a long, hard road ahead to find the necessary money to either repeat next season in the same class or perhaps even move up without the champion’s bonus. Open-wheel racing can be a harsh landscape to navigate, but the carrot of the Mazda scholarship will bring almost all of the main competitors back for another go.
Hargrove’s main championship contender in 2013 was Neil Alberico, and the young American actually scored more wins than the Canadian champion this year by a count of six to four. But as Alberico lamented, the championship is everything in the Mazda Road to Indy, and with the expense of a yearly budget returns aren’t always a sure thing.
“Unfortunately, that’s the way our sport is,” Alberico said. “If you don’t win (the championship), you don’t get the money. But Mazda does a great job with all of that stuff, and we all need to give a big thanks to them for all they do. We’ll work hard and we’ll get there.
“I have zero money right now, though. My parents have made huge sacrifices to get me to the point where I am today. A championship is ultimately what it’s all about, not race wins. We won a ton of races this year, but unfortunately we didn’t win the championship. But next year, we’ll get that scholarship.”
In Pro Mazda, Brabham’s main contenders this year were teammate Shelby Blackstock, Team Pelfrey driver and 2012 USF2000 runner-up Spencer Pigot, and Juncos Racing driver Diego Ferreira. Blackstock and Pigot intend to come back to Pro Mazda for a second year, while Ferreira has his sights set a rung higher up the ladder.
Blackstock will also continue his dual driving roles in sports cars and open-wheel; however, at least one mount will be with a different team. ”This year has been a really, really strong year for Andretti Autosport in Pro Mazda,” Blackstock said. “14 wins and 22 podiums is an incredible stat for the team. Next year I’m definitely coming back to Pro Mazda to go for the championship and try to get the Mazda money to go to Indy Lights. We’re going to do a little Continental Tire Sports Car Championship next year also in the GS class. Roush is looking at some other opportunities right now, and we’re actually going to take our Mustang and run Continental but it definitely won’t be with Roush. It’ll be with a very high class team, and we’ll be looking to go for the championship in GS. We still need to find some sponsorship for that, but it’s looking pretty strong for us.”
Pigot had to adjust to a new engineering team with Team Pelfrey in 2013, and he hopes that continuity in 2014 will guide him to the championship.
“I’ll probably be back in Pro Mazda next year,” he said. “We finished fourth this year, so hopefully will be able to move up and go for the championship next year and the Mazda money that comes with it to move up to Lights for 2015.
“I think we just struggled a bit this year coming to grips with the new tires. It just took a little bit longer than some of the other teams, but once we got the hang of them we were able to win a race and get on the podium. I think we were definitely improving throughout the year, and if we can pick up where we left off this season we can have a great season in 2014.”
Ferreira is mentally locked into a move up to Indy Lights and is just waiting for the confirmation from sponsors in Venezuela to announce his plans — which, interestingly enough, will not include Team Viso in 2014.
“For sure I will not repeat Mazda next season,” Ferreira said. “I think that after this season I am ready for Indy Lights. The first thing that I have to do is figure out the sponsorship for next year. I am going back to Venezuela to work on that. I hope and wish for a shot at Indy Lights next year.
“It (Team Viso) has helped me a lot with the first steps here on the Road to Indy. With this trophy I will be in a better position to pursue the next level. The people know who I am now, so I will be under the Diego Ferreira name now. I have to thank Team Viso for the start, but I think it’s time to go by myself.
“There is an option at Juncos since they have an Indy Lights team as well. I am also in talks with Andretti and all the other teams in the series as well.”