2014 Pro Mazda preview: Title contenders old and new are ready to shine

Mazda Road to Indy, Pro Mazda, Pro Mazda commentary — By on March 26, 2014 8:47 am

The 2013 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires suffered from a severe case of “Brabham-itis” last year as series rookie Matthew Brabham blitzed the field from the first weekend on, setting records all along the way en route to the champion’s crown and resultant Mazda sponsorship.

Brabham, however, has taken that scholarship haul and moved up the ladder into the Indy Lights series this year. Several of his main competitors from last season are returning to Pro Mazda to battle it out for top honors with a few new faces hoping to copy Brabham’s meteoric ascent.

To get a better handle on who to look out for in the Pro Mazda Championship this season, I took time to chat with three of the foremost experts on the subject of the Mazda Road to Indy: Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw, announcer and ‘Voice of the Mazda Road to Indy’ Rob Howden (who also owns the standout racing site eFormulaCarNews.com), and Pro Mazda Championship promoter Dan Andersen. Not surprisingly, Winterfest champ Spencer Pigot was the name that consistently came up, but the trio tabbed a wide variety of drivers as likely title contenders.

Jeremy Shaw: “I’m excited about the Pro Mazda field. I think it’s a credit to Dan Andersen’s organization that the fields seem to be growing, and I believe the racing should be good this year. Of course, that’s not what Spencer Pigot is hoping; he’ll be looking to continue the form he showed at Winterfest, when he might easily have won all four races. Spencer was certainly the man to beat and will continue to be so. He has the right blend of experience and intelligence, has joined a team, Juncos Racing, which matches his intensity and desire, and I believe has what it take to reach the pinnacle of this sport.

“There are several others who will push Spencer to his limits, including Shelby Blackstock, who had no luck at Winterfest but has shown he can be fast, and his Andretti Autosport teammate, Garett Grist, who might have stepped up a year early but I have no doubt he will be competitive. It will be interesting to see how Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico continue their rivalry while moving up with the Cape brothers. Both of them are very talented. Others to watch include Pipo Derani, who raced extremely well at Winterfest in a car that clearly wasn’t as fast as the other front-runners; Kyle Kaiser, who will develop rapidly under teammate Pigot’s wing; Kyle Connery, who could spring some surprises; and Michael Johnson, who is truly an inspiration. Michael set fourth-fastest race lap in the final race at Barber last month, driving entirely with hand controls. Astonishing!”

Rob Howden: “It’s so great to see the resurgence of this program with an expected 18+ drivers in the St. Pete paddock.  The series got saved last year by Dan Andersen, and the teams have responded to the key moves they made with the spec formula, bringing in the consistency and durability of the Cooper rubber and Speedsource engine program.  It’s an A+ grade all around here.  As far as title contenders, Spencer Pigot looked so strong at Winterfest that I’m sure he’ll come out of the gates with a head of steam.  He won at St. Pete in USF2000 and he can do it again in Pro Mazda.  If he gets off to a great start, it could be hard for the rest of the drivers to catch up.  That said, it’s the Cape Motorsports duo of Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico who are my primary wild cards.  The team is new to Pro Mazda, but they’re among the best in the business and are already dialing it in.  If they find the sweet spot with a good baseline, all bets are off.”

Dan Andersen: “Pro Mazda sees the addition of Cape Motorsports, the dominant team in USF2000, moving up (actually expanding) and bringing their two USF2000 drivers from 2013 with them. They will be competitive for sure. Juncos Racing, JDC MotorSports and Andretti Autosport all have strong lineups, and based on Winterfest, Spencer Pigot is the man to beat right now. The cars haven’t changed, though we have changed to slightly smaller front tires to improve lap times and turn-in ability of the cars.”

Before Winterfest, I said that Spencer Pigot was my choice for the Pro Mazda Championship, and wins at NOLA and Barber only confirmed my thinking. The switch from Team Pelfrey to the #7 car at Juncos Racing seems to be sitting very well with the young American standout. I was also impressed by the pace of newcomers Garrett Grist (Andretti Autosport #27), Neil Alberico (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing #2) and 2013 USF2000 champ Scott Hargrove (#3 Cape Motorsports entry). Throw in a returning and ever-improving Shelby Blackstock in the #28 Andretti Autosport entry and Kyle Kaiser in the #18 Juncos ride, and this year’s title fight promises to be much closer than last year’s blowout.

I’ll stick to my pick of Spencer Pigot over Shelby Blackstock in the end, but I think it’s going to come down to the last race of the year. Look for this series to be entertaining and highly competitive all season long.

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