For the eighth straight year, the Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire series visits the 1.8-mile, 14 Turn, Streets Of St. Petersburg street circuit early in the chase for season title, which this year is a generous $790,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship prize package.

With a “lame-duck” car and a long offseason, Pro Mazda fans had a six months to ponder the two big question marks facing the series headed into the 2017 campaign. Would Juncos Racing remain in the series, or call it quits on their eight year run? How many cars will turn-up at the first event, and will it be enough to have a championship?

The answer to the first question was answered in the affirmative just yesterday, and with six teams entering 14 cars, the final year of the venerable Mazda Renesis/Star chassis combination will be allowed a proper send-off.

The 14 drivers taking part in Saturday’s Hi-Tide Kids On Track Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Sunday’s Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg represent three countries and seven states.

Team and driver previews

Perennial USF2000 champions, Cape Motorsports made their first foray into Pro Mazda Championship in 2014, and over the last thee seasons the team has collected 10 wins, and 32 podiums, but has yet to win a championship. The St. Petersburg, Fla. based team enters the 2017 season with a one car entry for 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda champion Anthony Martin, who will pilot the Soul Red, Mazda and Burgess BLA sponsored No. 8.

Martin led way with seven wins and nine poles during the 16 race 2016 USF2000 season. The 21 year-old has made 32 MRTI starts in two seasons and half of those starts have resulted in a visit to the podium. At the recent two-day test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the Kalgoorlie, Australia had the quickest lap time after struggling to find speed during the first day of the test, and heads into the opening round of the Pro Mazda season as one of the favorites to win the championship.

Team Pelfrey, who recently moved their Pro Mazda program from Palmetto, Fla. to Indianapolis, will be starting their seventh season on the second rung of the MRTI ladder, and are in search of their fourth series title (2012 – Jack Hawksworth, 2015 – Santiago Urrutia, and 2016 – Aaron Telitz). The Jonny Baker and Tom Knapp led team will look to duplicate the success of the 2016 season that saw the Mazda Renesis powered yellow and black machines of Team Pelfrey dominate while visiting victory lane in 13 of 16 races. The Russkaya Mekhanika sponsored No. 80 will be piloted by Nikita Lastochkin, while the No. 81 Team Pelfrey entry will be driven by Carlos Cunha, and the Project O2 sponsored No. 82 will have TJ Fischer behind the wheel.

The 26 year-old Lastochkin, who didn’t start racing until 2013, will be spending his third season with Team Pelfrey, after contesting one season of F1600 Formula F Championship Series and one season of USF2000 before moving to Cape Motorsports for the 2016 USF2000 campaign. The super-steady and consistent Los Angelis resident has collected an impressive 25 top-10 finishes and only one DNF in 30 USF2000 starts.

Cunha, from Campinas, Brazil scored two wins and twelve podiums on the way to a pair of top-five championship finishes in past two seasons of the ultra-competitive Brazilian Formula 3 Series. The 17 year-old also recently completed a successful Euroformula Open (F3), If the effusive and eager youngster can adapt to the Pro Mazda car, and racing in the U.S.A. quickly, don’t be surprised to see him making many visits to the podium. Combine that with the strength that Team Pelfrey has shown in the past two years, and Cunha has the perfect opportunity to be a dark horse championship contender.

Fisher, the third Team Pelfrey entry, made his MRTI debut in 2016. The former collegiate quarterback who resides in Vacaville, California split time between the USF2000 and Pro Mazda grids last season, collecting an even dozen top 10 finishes along the way. The 23 year-old who was a stand-out karter in Northern California, won the 2013 Formula Car Challenge before spending the next two seasons racing in Europe. Fisher, who has his own podcast,, lead one session during the recent series test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, and should have the opportunity to contend for podiums and the championship in 2017.

After running a very limited Pro Mazda schedule in 2016, World Speed Motorsports returns with a vengeance for 2017. The Sonoma Raceway based team will have: Bobby Eberle behind the wheel of the TITLE Boxing Club sponsored No. 13, rookie Sting Ray Robb piloting the Red Apple Marketplace sponsored No. 14, and recently announced Phillippe Denes will be driving the team’s No. 15 entry.

Eberle, who has won the last three Pro Mazda Expert Class Championships, has 26 Expert Class wins in his 44 Pro Mazda starts across the last four seasons. The 48 year-old from Houston, Texas only started racing in 2012, and through his dedication to fitness and seat time has steadily improved to the point his lap times are getting very close to his younger competition.

The Mazda Renesis powered Star designed car that the 15 year-old Robb will pilot this year will not be completely new to him. After making six starts, including a win on the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma weekend in the FormulaSPEED category of the Formula Car Challenge, Robb made two starts (with two podiums) in Pro Formula Mazda (Pro Mazda) category at the series season finale at Auto Club Speedway. After winning multiple karting championships, the Payette, Idaho native kept busy racing anything and everything in 2016. Robb was found behind the wheel of K&N Stock Cars on ovals and road courses, modifieds on dirt and pavement, Skip Barber Racing Series cars, and the aforementioned FormulaSPEED and Pro Mazda machinery. Robb will be in learning mode early in the season, but if his improvements during the Homestead-Miami Speedway test are any indication of his ability to learn quickly, the high-school freshman should find himself at the pointy end of the grid on many occasions.

Late signee Denes, who finished the 2016 F1600 Formula F Championship Series season in third spot with two wins, and 12 podiums, has made two MRTI starts in his career. The 17 year-old contested the “Soul Red Finale” USF2000 races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 2016 and brought home impressive seventh and 11th place finishes. The Carmel, California resident won the 2014 Formula Car Challenge FormulaSPEED National Championship only one year after he started karting in 2013. Denes has been successful in everything he’s driven, and it should not be surprising if he catches on quickly and contends for podiums at some point in 2017.

“Ever since I was three I have dreamed of becoming a professional race car driver, and with joining World Speed Motorsports for this season I am now one step closer to that dream,” said a happy Denes. “After not knowing if I would even be racing this year, all the stress has lifted off my shoulders and I am extremely humbled to have this opportunity.

I have been preparing myself mentally and physically for the season, and although I have not raced for quite some time, I feel I am ready for the challenge. I’m very confident we can win this championship. In 2014, I won the FormulaSPEED National Championship with World Speed Motorsports support. The history and experience of Telo and the WSM team, which includes multiple Pro Mazda titles, proves we can take the fight to the other teams and finish on top this year.”

After a successful run as a karting team, Juncos Racing made the transition to cars and the Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire championship in 2009, and won championships in the category with two current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers (2010 – Conor Daly, and 2014 – Spencer Pigot).  During a busy off-season that saw the team move into a brand new 40,000 square foot shop in Speedway, Ind, and  announce their intention to enter the 2017 Indianapolis 500, it did not appear that the team would not be part of the Pro Mazda grid for the first time in eight years.  But, on the eve of the season, the Ricardo Juncos owned team announced that Victor Franzoni will pilot the No. 23 entry and Jeff Green will pilot the No. 60 entry.

After one season of competition in Europe, Franzoni made the move to the U.S.A. in 2014 and in the past three racing seasons has made a total of 45 MRTI starts (including 9 in Pro Mazda). The 21 year-old has five wins, 17 podiums and eight quickest laps in 36 USF2000 starts that includes finishing third in the 2016 championship behind Anthony Martin and Parker Thompson. The Sao Paulo, Brazil native, who also races a vintage stock car with his family in Brazil, should be one of three or four drivers that should be in contention for the $790,000 prize package when the championship ends at Watkins Glen International on Labor Day Weekend.

The second Juncos Racing entry will be piloted by Green, a vintage racer from Peoria, Ill.

ArmsUp Motorsports, a USF2000 stalwart based in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., will be making it’s first foray into the Pro Mazda ranks with fellow Badger State resident Max Hanratty at the wheel of the MPH Enterprise sponsored No. 6 entry. Hanratty, who has a total of 24 USF2000 starts, spent the 2016 racing season contesting the IMSA Mazda Prototype Lites, where the 23 year-old finished fourth while scoring six podiums.

The final Championship class entry, piloted by Matt Machiko is the No. 3 Machiko Motorsports Development sponsored entry that will race within the Fat Boy Racing! stable. Machiko is a long-time Sports Car Club of America competitor from Pittsburgh, Pa.

The final three entries of Brenden Puderbach (No. 31 Fat Boy Racing!), Kevin Davis (No. 44 Davis Racing) and Charles Finelli (No. 83 Fat Boy Racing) will take part in the National Class.

Some notes and questions about the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda season

Who is better at St. Petersburg, Juncos Racing or Team Pelfrey?

Combining to win five of the last seven championships, Juncos Racing and Team Pelfrey have a rivalry that is epitomized by their battle to reign over the 1.8 mile, 14-Turn Streets of St. Petersburg circuit.

Tale of the tape at St. Pete – Juncos Racing vs. Team Pelfrey

WINS 4 4
LAPS LED 109 111

In our eyes, that’s a draw, and you’ll have to check back in after the last race on Sunday to see which team (if any) has gained an edge.

Can success early in the season on the streets of St. Petersburg foreshadow a championship?

It appears that it does. The Pro Mazda drivers have been part of the seven events (12 races) on the Streets of St. Petersburg since 2010, and in five of those seven years, one of the race winners has gone on to claim the Pro Mazda Championship. Pro Mazda champions who have won in St. Petersburg include: Aaron Telitz (2016), Spencer Pigot (2014), Matthew Brabham (2013), Jack Hawksworth (2012) and Conor Daly (2010)

Pro Mazda race winners on the Streets of St. Petersburg

2016 Race #2 Aaron Telitz Team Pelfrey
2016 Race #1 Pato O’Ward Team Pelfrey
2015 Race #2 Neil Alberico Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2015 Race #1 Neil Alberico Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2014 Race #2 Spencer Pigot Juncos Racing
2014 Race #1 Spencer Pigot Juncos Racing
2013 Race #2 Matthew Brabham Andretti Autosport
2013 Race #1 Matthew Brabham Andretti Autosport
2012 Race #2 Jack Hawksworth Team Pelfrey
2012 Race #1 Connor De Philippi Juncos Racing
2011 Connor De Philippi Team Pelfrey
2010 Conor Daly Juncos Racing

Don’t miss any of the action: