March 28, 2014 — series release — Indy Lights photo — PALMETTO, FL – The rejuvenated Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series will commence this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., where all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy will lead the supporting program for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening round of the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series.
Indy Lights represents the third and final step on the Mazda Road to Indy, one of the most successful driver development programs in the world which provides a unique, scholarship-funded path all the way from karting via the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
The St. Petersburg 100, which will take place immediately prior to the weekend’s headline race on Sunday, March 30, has attracted a strong 12-car entry, representing an increase of more than 25 percent over the average starting field in 2013. Incredibly, 10 different nations are represented among the entry list – Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, England, France, Italy, Mexico, the United States and Wales.
Judging by the recent Cooper Tires Winterfest open tests at NOLA Motorsports Park in Louisiana and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, the field is sure to be closely matched, especially at the front. Gabby Chaves and Matthew Brabham were separated by mere fractions of a second at each of the test venues and will start the season among the title favorites.
Miami-based Colombian Chaves led the way at NOLA and is looking to capitalize on a strong Indy Lights rookie campaign in 2013 which netted one win and a close second place in the championship standings, just 11 points shy of champion Sage Karam. Chaves also finished second in the 2012 Pro Mazda title-chase.
“After preseason testing, I know myself and the team are prepared and have what it takes to start the championship with a win in the first race,” said Chaves, 20, who will drive the No. 5 Marca Colombia/Coldeportes car for Belardi Auto Racing. “I believe the experience I have from my last two years in the Mazda Road to Indy in St. Pete will be very beneficial to getting up to speed very quickly and knowing what to expect from the track in order to make myself and my race car faster. Qualifying will be the key to making sure it can be a clean start and hopefully being able to lead from Lap 1 all the way to the finish.”
Brabham, 20, a third-generation racer who was born in Florida and raised in Australia, is equally confident – and looking to continue his remarkable and unprecedented run of success that has included consecutive championship-winning seasons in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda.
“Our off season has been great; we have shown we have good speed,” said Brabham, who will campaign the No. 83 MAZDASPEED/United Fiber & Data car for Andretti Autosport. “If we put everything together that we have learned throughout the off-season I think we will have a strong challenge for the top spot on the podium.
“The Mazda Road to Indy has been absolutely incredible for my career. I owe almost everything to this ladder system and I truly believe this is the best series in motorsports for developing and teaching everything that young drivers need to know. It feels great to have been able to complete the first two stepping stones and win two championships. I wouldn’t be able to describe the feeling of winning all three ladder series. I don’t want it to give me any added pressure so I certainly will be trying not to think about it.”
Other top contenders will include GP2 veteran and erstwhile Formula 1 test driver Luiz Razia, from Sao Paulo, Brazil; Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate Jack Harvey, from Bassingham, England, who was a leading contender in last year’s GP3 Series championship in Europe; Indy Lights veteran Zach Veach (Andretti Autosport), from Stockdale, Ohio, who finished seventh in the 2013 championship and started the final race from pole position; Italy’s Vittorio Ghirelli, the 2013 Auto GP World Series Champion (Team Moore Racing); and Frenchman Alex Baron (Belardi Auto Racing), who burst onto the Mazda Road to Indy scene last fall by winning two of the four USF2000 races he contested.
Competitors will have two 45-minute practice sessions – at 1:00 pm ET on Friday and 9:00 am on Saturday – with Sunoco Pole Award qualifying slated for 1:15 pm on Saturday. The green flag for Sunday’s St. Petersburg 100 will fly at 12:47 pm.
In addition to Timing & Scoring with commentary on the series website – indylights.com – the race will be carried live on the IMS Radio Network to Sirius XM Satellite Radio, indycar.com, indycarradio.com and the INDYCAR app from Verizon. The race will air on the NBC Sports Network at 4:00 pm ET on April 4.