The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires’ credentials as a production line for future Verizon IndyCar Series stars are evident in its honor roll of graduates – a list including current series champion Josef Newgarden.
The combination of structured progression through three tiers of junior racing, coupled with Mazda scholarships that seeded the careers of IndyCar full-timers such as Spencer Pigot, has long been the standard bearer for tomorrow’s professional racers. For a time, the one drawback was aging equipment – a problem that was solved with the rollout of a ladder-wide refresh starting with the new Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires car in 2015, a new Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda counterpart in 2017, and completed with this year’s debut of the Pro Mazda Prsented by Cooper Tires PM-18.
But in addition to modernizing the tools drivers are working with, the overhaul smoothed out the development curve for those who race through all three rungs. Each step up exposes drivers to increasing levels of power, aero and technical sophistication, but each also demands its drivers learn new skills, ranging from technical feedback to race craft.
It all starts with USF2000. For drivers moving into the series from, say, karts or Formula Ford 1600, the first step on the MRTI ladder also represents a first foray into the world of wings and slicks. But according to Mazda factory driver Joel Miller, who was involved in the development of the USF-17 USF2000 car and the Pro Mazda PM-18, the real differences start before a driver has even pulled on a helmet.
“The USF2000 level is the first foray for some of this kids into proper pro racing, and if they’re coming from karts, it’s their first time in a suspended car,” Miller says. “I think it’s definitely the most overwhelming of the three, because in addition to the chassis it’s the whole environment – it’s running with IndyCar, it’s the tracks. The kids coming in won’t have run on most of our tracks, and they won’t have run on an oval.
‘And being a proper pro series, all of the teams have engineers. So it might be the first time where instead of working with Dad or whoever, they’re working with an engineer – showing up at the track and going through the motions of walking the track on Thursday, learning what to look for. And you only have one practice session before you qualify, so you don’t have the time to have multiple practice sessions before you have to get down and be serious. That USF2000 level is definitely a shock to the majority of the kids, and it often shows who really wants to do this”
Succeed in USF2000, and Pro Mazda beckons next. Although the PM-18 shares a common chassis with the USF-17, the scale of the performance upgrade is evident in the fact that the new car has spent its inaugural season routinely carving multiple seconds off previous Pro Mazda lap records. Part of that speed comes from a 100hp jump in power relative to the USF2000, but those extra horses need to be tamed, as MRTI technical director Daryl Fox explains.
“They’re going notice that there is more horsepower, but then they’ve got to control that additional horsepower,” Fox says. “Because there’s more horsepower, you can probably put your foot flat and use your rear tires up out of every slow corner. You can lean pretty hard on a USF2000 car and you won’t wear the tires down. But in Pro Mazda, if you’re throttle happy, you’re going to pay for it at the end of the race, and that’s even more the case in Indy Lights. And once you get to IndyCar, if you don’t manage those red tires… The extra tire grip is great – but you’ve got to be able to manage it.”
Pro Mazda is also where aerodynamics begin to come into the performance equation.
“The USF2000 has a bit of aero, but that’s mostly for balance – in Pro Mazda, you’re going to get a feeling for performance aero,” Miller explains. “You’ll get some aero wash when you’re behind another car, for example. The adjustability is the same between the two, in terms of what the engineers are allowed to work with, but in Pro Mazda you can start to really feel what the various changes do.
Pro Mazda is where you’ve got to step up technically as a driver and really dig into that engineer/driver relationship, because without it, it’s just not going to work.”
On the track front, Pro Mazda ups the oval ante. Both it and USF2000 visit Lucas Oil Raceway (the 0.68-mile oval just outside Indianapolis), but Pro Mazda also makes a stop at Gateway, a 1.25-miler that’s fast becoming an IndyCar fan favorite – and which offers more valuable oval mileage before a driver moves up to Indy Lights and gets to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I think it’s a huge testament to the Indy Lights platform, being able to run the Freedom 100 and being able to run at the Speedway,” Miller says. “You talk to the guys who’ve just moved up, and Rookie Orientation might be the first time that they’ve averaged over 200mph, but it’s just another day in a racecar for them. Without Lights and that experience…you don’t get that anywhere else. So as a bridge to IndyCar, it’s so important.
“Guys who are in Formula 1, Formula 2, can they jump straight to IndyCar? Sure. But for everybody else, missing out on that Indy Lights level is a huge mistake, and that’s shown by the past history of drivers who have run Lights and how they’ve performed once they got to IndyCar. In Indy Lights you learn even more on the technical side, because there’s even more you can do with the car, especially on the damper side of things.
“Fuel loads are also more apparent as you move up the ladder – you notice them a bit in Pro Mazda, but in Indy Lights it’s huge. Every time you move up a step, you learn something new. And for Lights, that newness is…whether it’s the Freedom 100 and learning to run over 200mph there, the technical side of it, the tire degradation, it’s all super valuable. Indy Lights is the closest thing to IndyCar, and without it, guys are at a huge disadvantage.”
The gradual drip-feeding of technical sophistication helps young drivers to develop their engineering instincts in step. What usually starts as a near-total reliance on team guidance develops into an increasingly reciprocal relationship between engineer and driver as the latter’s feedback skills sharpen.
“Setting the car up does get progessively harder [with each step up the ladder], and that’s why previously we’ve seen some guys jump straight from 2000 to Indy Lights, and they do struggle in that first year,” Fox says.
“When a team has an entry-level driver come in, the engineer is guiding the driver along the way: ‘this is what you’re going to feel.’ And by the time the driver gets through the three rungs of the ladder series, they’re going to start being able to say, ‘OK, I need more aero; I need more mechanical grip.’ They’ll start feeling it themselves and be able to give better feedback.”
Or, in short, they’ll develop another crucial tool for anyone who wants to make a living in the cockpit of an IndyCar. The scholarships remove some of the biggest barriers of entry for young drivers looking to make the big-time – but the skills they pick up along the way can lay the foundation for their whole career.