By Steve Wittich
From a financial AND learning standpoint, the 2017 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire Championship currently offers the best return on investment in motorsports.
However, with only one driver confirmed (Sting Ray Robb at World Speed Motorsports) and one more driver in the expected category (Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda champion Anthony Martin) there is “some” understandable concern that the Pro Mazda series could struggle for entries in this transition year.
Here are the reasons that a driver should give the 2017 Pro Mazda Championship a chance.
Return on investment… the $$$
There is not another open wheel ladder championship worldwide where the winning driver has the opportunity to earn at least twice as much as what a full season budget will cost.
The 2017 Pro Mazda Champion will receive a prize package with a value of$889,300. Mazda has increased their portion of the scholarship by $200,000, which equates to a $790,300 package from the car makers. The final $99,000 comes in the form of a new $75,000 award from Cooper Tire and a $24,000 series entry award from Andersen Promotions.
While we won’t give exact funding required to contest the 2017 Pro Mazda season (it varies depending on the team and amount of testing — any potential driver can contact the teams to learn the exact number), the amount required is on par or less than what a driver will pay in similar series in Europe. A full-season 2017 Pro Mazda budget is very similar to what a season in Italian Formula 4, Formula Renault 2.0, EuroFormula Open F3 or the BRDC British F3 Championship will cost, and well under half of what a season in the FIA Formula 3 European Championship or GP3 will set back a driver. And… none of those European series offer a prize package that even comes close to the package that Mazda, Cooper Tire and Andersen Promotions has put together.
Return on investment… the perfect training ground
Despite its age, the current Pro Mazda car is still an extremely valid training tool for drivers looking to scale the final two steps of the American open wheel ladder.
“The Pro Mazda car was the best balance between mechanical and aerodynamic grip, and as a young driver trying to learn it really allowed you explore aerodynamics, and to learn about downforce, but at the same time it was a very mechanically driven car, and what that meant was the racing was awesome,” explained 2005 Pro Mazda alum James Hinchcliffe, who scored three wins and six podiums on the way to a third place championship finish. “As far as wheel to wheel action, I’m not sure there is a better formula that I’ve been in. The race craft that I developed as a young driver in the series with a lot of competitive drivers and a very race-able car has me served me very well for the rest of my career.”
“The Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire Series continued my development as a driver,” explained 2014 series champion and current IndyCar driver Spencer Pigot. “There is a lot you can learn in USF2000, it’s your first car with slicks and wings, and then the Pro Mazda car just takes it to that next level. It’s a bigger car, a little heavier, and you have to drive it a little smoother. In the lower level formula cars, you can get away with throwing the car around and driving a little bit rougher. But, the Pro Mazda car reacts more like a big car, so it gets you in that learning mode and mindset to move forward into Indy Lights and IndyCar.”
Of the 21 drivers that contested Indy Lights races in 2017, 11 of those were graduates of Pro Mazda. The last of names is as follows: Neil Alberico, Scott Anderson, Shelby Blackstock, Heamin Choi, Garett Grist, Scott Hargrove, Kyle Kaiser, Dalton Kellett, Juan Piedrahita, Santiago Urrutia, and Zach Veach.
In 2016, there were 10 Verizon IndyCar Series drivers who took part in the Pro Mazda series at some point in their previous careers, they are: Marco Andretti, Matthew Brabham (2013 champion), Gabby Chaves, Max Chilton, Conor Daly (2010 champion), Jack Hawksworth (2012 champion), James Hinchcliffe, Spencer Pigot (2014 champion), and Graham Rahal.
When a young race car driver reaches a certain point in their career, the desire to get paid to drive Formula 1 or IndyCar machinery develops into a desire to get paid for driving anything with four wheels, and that is where having as much open wheel experience as possible is beneficial.
The majority of top level sports car drivers have experience in open wheel racing. Taking a look at the World Endurance Champions from 2016 and you’ll quickly see that having some open wheel experience is key to being successful.
Marc Lieb, Neel Jani, and Romain Dumas were the winners of the World Endurance Drivers’ Championship while at the wheel of the No. 2 Porsche 919 Hybrid. Before moving into sports cars, Lieb was a regular in Formula Renault competition. Jani, a name that should be familiar to American open wheel fans, had extensive open wheel training, starting out in Formula Renault 2.0 before moving to Formula Renault 3.5 and GP2. From there, Jani moved to the top level Champ Car and A1GP careers before making the switch to Prototypes in 2009. Dumas, the third member of the championship winning Porsche squad spent the early part of his career in Formula Renault 2.0, Formula 3 and Formula 3000 before moving to GT and eventually prototypes.
One member of the FIA Endurance Trophy for LMP2 Drivers winning squad of Gustavo Menezes, Nicolas Lapierre and Stephane Richelmi is particularly relevant to our discussion. Menezes, a 22 year-old Californian, took part in two seasons of Pro Mazda competition before moving to Europe to contest three seasons of Formula 3 competition. 2016 was the first full season of sports car racing for Menezes and he won the 24 Hours of Le Mans and a FIA World Championship. Menezes teammate both got their starts in open wheel racing as well. Lapierre made it as far as A1GP and Richelmi contested two seasons of GP2. It’s also worth noting that Luis Felipe “Pipo” Derani, hailed as one of the top drivers in LMP2 this year with wins overall at Daytona and Sebring, spent half a season in Pro Mazda before moving to his eventual sports car career, where he’s starred.
Even in the world of “tin-tops,” having some open wheel experience is the norm. Nicki Thiim and Marco Sorensen won the World Endurance Cup for GT Drivers while piloting an Aston Martin Vantage GTE in the nine round championship. Thiim, a second generation racer, completed three years of Formula Ford racing before moving to sports cars. Sorensen, a 26 year-old Danish driver, spent nine years on the European open wheel ladder before making the move to the Aston Martin factory team in 2015.
From FIA World Endurance Champions, to WeatherTech SportsCar Prototype Champions, to full-time NASCAR drivers, to Pirelli World Challenge regulars, the Pro Mazda Championship has been a great learning tool for drivers, no matter where there career takes them next. (see full list of Pro Mazda drivers that are competing around the world below this article).
One of those drivers that recently transitioned from Pro Mazda to sports cars is Canadian Danny Burkett. Burkett spent three years in the MRTI (two years in USF2000 and one year in Pro Mazda) before making the jump to the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in 2016. Coming home second in the championship, the 21 year-old had one win, two poles, seven podiums and three quickest race laps while piloting a Porsche Cayman GT4 for C.J. Wilson Racing.
“The cut-throat nature of the Mazda Road To Indy is compared to none,” Burkett told TSO. “You’ve got the best drivers in the world that all come to one place for one goal: To get to IndyCar. It’s definitely the best bang for your buck for training. You’re not racing against gentlemen drivers, you are racing against the best kids your age who are going to eventually be in IndyCar. I definitely do not regret my years in the MRTI, it was a spectacular experience and I think I’m a better driver for it.
Some other advantages to racing in the 2017 Pro Mazda season
- If a driver is worried about missing schooling, the 2017 schedule is a great fit, with only the first four rounds falling within a traditional school calendar.
- For drivers from outside the United States, it’s generally recommend to move to the U.S.A., but with the shorter 2017 schedule, it would be possible to live on another continent and “commute” to the races. There is a two month break between the opening two rounds, a one moth break between rounds three, four and five, and rounds five and six are back-to-back.
- With only one oval (Gateway) on the schedule, the potential for crash damage is lower.
- With Cape Motorsports with /WTR, Juncos Racing, Team Pelfrey and World Speed Motorsports all expected to field teams, a driver is guaranteed to be driving for a professional team with full time mechanics and engineers.
Pro Mazda grads around the world[table “54” not found /]
2017 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire schedule[table “55” not found /]
Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire teams
- Cape Motorsports with /WTR — Website — Twitter — Facebook
- Juncos Racing — Website — Twitter — Instagram — Facebook
- Team Pelfrey — Website — Twitter — Instagram — Facebook
- World Speed Motorsports — Website — Twitter — Facebook
Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire series and partners
- Pro Mazda — Website — Twitter — Facebook
- Mazda — Website — Twitter — Instagram — Facebook
- Cooper Tire — Website — Twitter — Instagram — Facebook