Meet the Road to Indy Contenders

Jack Harvey
Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey

Jack Harvey of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian is one of four drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title heading into the double-header series finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11-13. The champion is awarded a $1 million scholarship toward the Verizon IndyCar Series with three guaranteed races, including the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, in 2016.

PALMETTO, Fla. – After a sterling 2014 rookie campaign that saw him finish tied on points with eventual champion Gabby Chaves, Jack Harvey returned to the series this year with one goal in mind: win the championship and turn the Mazda Road to Indy scholarship into a drive in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series.

The early season favorite, Harvey has earned two victories (the Indy GP and the Freedom 100) and six additional podiums but cannot shake the rookie trio of Spencer Pigot (six points back), Ed Jones (18) and RC Enerson (36).

Harvey, 22, of Lincoln, England, began karting at the age of 9, working his way through the Junior British ranks and racking up no fewer than 10 British and European titles. Moving into formula cars in 2009, Harvey went on to win the 2012 Cooper Tires British Formula 3 International Series title and earned two victories on the 2013 GP3 circuit before turning his attention stateside last season. Invited to join the British Racing Drivers Club's "Rising Star" initiative in 2009, Harvey remembers the moments that led him to become a race car driver.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]"There a few moments, really," said Harvey. "It was always going to be my hobby but in 2006 I won the British Kartmasters Grand Prix and then was the youngest-ever winner of the British JICA Super One series. I was 13 years old and pretty much at that moment I realized I had the ingredients to go further. I just needed the opportunity. That opportunity came in 2008/2009, when the Racing Steps Foundation picked me up. I felt I could be a professional driver, but then I had the opportunity and the backing to actually make it happen, and that was key. Those really stand out as the moments I fully committed myself."

Harvey empathizes with Penske Racing's Juan Pablo Montoya, who earlier this week lost the IndyCar title in a tie-breaker, just as Harvey lost the Indy Lights championship one year ago. He hopes to take that knowledge — and the experience gained last month behind the wheel of Schmidt Peterson teammate Ryan Briscoe's Dallara Indy car — and take the title he missed out on last year.

"I expected the Indy car to feel very different from the Indy Lights car, but it didn't," noted Harvey. "You feel it when your body sinks into the seat; you think it's going to happen too quickly. But it didn't feel that way. The Mazda engine in the Indy Lights car coupled with the extra turbo, you do experience that feeling of your body being pushed back into the car. That was good preparation for the Indy car. I was able to jump into the Indy car and feel comfortable with the speed. Mazda has done a fantastic job of giving us an engine that will help us take that next step. And Dallara delivered a great car. It's much closer in style to the Indy car than the old car was.

"I'm very excited about Mazda Raceway; I've always wanted to race there. It will be a great finale for the entire Mazda Road to Indy. But I've been in this situation before, where I knew I had to win the last race to win the title. Last year, I had two poles and two wins in the last race weekend of the year so I feel very confident in what I can achieve as a driver and I've got massive belief in my team. We were the fastest at Mid-Ohio. I'm excited to get back in the car — I love this time of year. It's just down to me and my team to get the job done. Winning the championship would definitely help our cause progressing forward into IndyCar."

Once the season is over, Harvey can devote a bit more time to his other sporting endeavor, which actually helps him in a race car.

"Clay pigeon shooting is my other passion, but that really gets pushed to the side once race season starts. I went with my dad, enjoyed it and was quite good at it. I picked up on all these subtle bits that actually were helpful toward racing, though that's not why I got into it. But it does keep me sharp in the off-season — you have to be quick, have good hand-eye coordination, understand what you're doing wrong and be flexible. It's like racing; if you get too serious, that can get on top of you. In shooting, if you don't relax, if you go rigid or closed-minded, it doesn't work. The principles that help me be good at that — stay relaxed, be confident, make the right decision and commit to it – cross over to racing and vice versa. I'm lucky that both of my sports overlap!"

Spencer Pigot
Spencer Pigot

Spencer Pigot

Spencer Pigot of Juncos Racing is one of four drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title heading into the double-header series finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11-13. The champion is awarded a $1 million scholarship toward the Verizon IndyCar Series with three guaranteed races, including the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, in 2016.

PALMETTO, Fla. – Spencer Pigot has become the face of the Mazda Road to Indy driver development system. As a three-time Mazda scholarship winner, Pigot continues to progress up the ladder toward his ultimate goal: driving in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Racing karts from the age of 9 near his family's home in Orlando, Fla., Pigot earned four state, one regional and two national championship titles over the next five years. Moving into formula cars, Pigot's victory in the 2009 Skip Barber Shoot-Out earned him his first Mazda scholarship, propelling Pigot into the BF Goodrich/Skip Barber National Series as an official Mazda Development Driver. Earning three wins, five poles and 12 top-three finishes in 2010 earned him the title and the next step in the ladder, entry into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda where he was vice champion two years running.

Moving into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks in 2013, Pigot went on to take the 2014 Pro Mazda title with his former karting team Juncos Racing, and the Mazda scholarship to help him make the jump to Indy Lights.

But many years ago, a very young Pigot began his racing career on two wheels, not four.

"I started racing dirt bikes — motorcycles and BMX bikes," said Pigot. "I got a go kart when I was a little older (editor's note: "older" is 9 years old.) Mom liked the kart a lot better, as it was obviously the safer option of the two! My dad raced Formula Fords so he was a big racing fan and there were a lot more karting tracks than dirt tracks in Florida, so it was an easy transition.

"The best part about being a race car driver is just driving the car. I've played lots of other sports, but nothing compares to driving a race car – especially at the start, with all these cars around you. Playing soccer is pretty much always the same, but racing is always changing. Every track is different. There's so much excitement, you get so pumped up during a race. It's a unique experience, with all the adrenalin."

Pigot wasted no time making his presence known in the Indy Lights championship this season, earning podium finishes in each of the first three races before sweeping the pole positions and victories in both races at Barber Motorsports Park. He again took both victories in Toronto in June to take the second spot behind Jack Harvey in the title chase. Only six points back going into the final weekend, Pigot knows that he has to finish ahead of Harvey to have a chance at the title.

"We'll go into the final weekend with the same plan we've had all year, to just do our best. Hopefully we can get pole position and stay out front in the races. If we do that, then everything else takes care of itself. In the back of our minds, we know that no matter what, we have to beat Jack. If we don't find ourselves out front, that will be our next goal, to make sure we gain points in the first race and see what we can do in the second race."

Pigot was one of seven Indy Lights drivers to test with an IndyCar team last month, running with Team Penske alongside 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power. He knows that the ladder system he's on is his best bet to one day race against Power in the big cars.

"They've put together a great package for us this year between Dallara, Mazda and Cooper Tires. It's leaps and bounds ahead of the old car. It's much closer to an Indy car, not just in terms of handling but everything in the car: paddle shift, push-to-pass, the buttons on the wheel, different maps you can choose. There's a lot more going on in an Indy car than in the Indy Lights car, but it's definitely a big step forward in every area.

"That's what the Mazda Road to Indy really brings to us. I wouldn't be racing Indy Lights if not for them. They've been fantastic to me. I've been a part of the Mazda family for years. I won my first scholarship when I was 16 years old. It's not just the prize to move up. It's getting to race at all the same tracks as the IndyCar guys, in front of the IndyCar teams. It's the best of the best here and anyone who wants to come to IndyCar, all the best guys are here and that's who you're competing against and judging yourself off of. It's been proven that if you can do well in the Mazda Road to Indy, you can do the job there as well."

Ed Jones
Ed Jones

Ed Jones

Ed Jones of Carlin is one of four drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title heading into the double-header series finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11-13. The champion is awarded a $1 million scholarship toward the Verizon IndyCar Series with three guaranteed races, including the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, in 2016.

PALMETTO, Fla. – If American race fans didn't know much about Ed Jones as the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season began, they certainly did by the end of the first race weekend of the year at St. Petersburg, Fla. The Dubai-based Englishman burst onto the U.S. racing scene by sweeping the race weekend, taking both pole positions and both race victories. Third in points going into the season finale, 18 points behind leader Jack Harvey and 12 behind Spencer Pigot, Jones knows that another sweep may not be enough to win the Indy Lights championship — and the Mazda scholarship that comes with it.

"It would be an amazing achievement, to come to America and win in my first year," said Jones, 20. "That's always the aim, but to make it a reality is another thing. My goal and my dream is to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and winning the championship would allow me to do that. I'm putting everything into it to make sure that happens. The season started off really well but we had a lot of bad luck in the middle of the year. We've had strong pace but things haven't gone our way. I think things will balance out and Mazda Raceway would be a good place for that to happen. We're not as close as we could be in the points, so we're going to go for two pole positions and two race wins. As long as we do that, we've done everything we could. The rest is up to what the other guys do."

This season, however, is not the first time Jones has crossed an ocean to compete on circuits for the very first time against seasoned veterans. The experience gained as a young karting driver led not only to the moment Jones decided that this is what he wanted to do with his life, but to the belief that he could not just compete in America, but win the championship.

"I did the international Rotax karting championships in Italy and it was the first time I'd ever raced outside of Dubai. I was competing against guys who had been racing in Europe all year long but everything was new to me. I had the fastest lap in my first race and finished eighth in the final from starting 28th. I was able to produce results even though I didn't have that much experience. All of the sudden I realized that if I gained experience and was serious about this, there was no reason I couldn't be at the front."

Jones moved into formula cars in 2011 and became the youngest European F3 Open champion in history in 2013, earning six victories and 10 podium finishes. He also finished third in the British Formula 3 National Class with five wins. Progressing up to the FIA Formula 3 European Championships with Carlin last year, Jones had two podium finishes despite missing three races mid-season due to a back injury. Jones and his Carlin team both made the jump across the pond this season.

It's been a learning year for both team and driver and while Mazda Raceway may be one of many tracks Jones has had to learn this year, at least he's been working on it for a while. From age 6, to be exact.

"I've been ‘driving' on Mazda Raceway via PlayStation since I was 6 years old. It's one of those tracks that I remember driving on at such a young age, on a number of games. It will be great to get a chance to drive on it for real! My engineer (Geoff Fickling) has been there with other series, so he has a lot of notes and he's helped me find the best videos of the track. It's hard because we don't have any data for Indy Lights from there. I'll need to get a good baseline immediately on Thursday, then build on that so we have a really good car on Saturday morning."

Jones has already had a taste of what his racing dream might look like, as one of seven drivers who climbed behind the wheel of a Verizon IndyCar Series Dallara several weeks ago for a test at Sonoma Raceway with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. Jones believes it's a testament to the new Dallara IL-15 Indy Lights car that the move to the big car did not turn out to be as great as he had expected.

"I expected the adjustment to be much more than it turned out to be. The main difference is in achieving the maximum amount of downforce and that comes from experience. My aim was to help the team and I think we did that, working through a lot of setup changes. The Indy Lights car is a fantastic car to drive and a great place to learn and prepare for IndyCar. I really felt comfortable from the start."

RC Enerson
RC Enerson

RC Enerson

RC Enerson of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports w/ Curb-Agajanian is one of four drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title heading into the double-header series finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on September 11-13. The champion is awarded a $1 million scholarship toward the Verizon IndyCar Series with three guaranteed races, including the historic 100th Indianapolis 500, in 2016.

PALMETTO, Fla. – RC Enerson's 2015 plan was quite simple: join seven-time Indy Lights champions Schmidt Peterson Motorsports w/Curb-Agajanian and learn, learn, learn. Instead, the 2014 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda vice champion has made his presence felt in the title chase at 36 points behind leader and teammate Jack Harvey. Enerson has 10 top-five finishes, five podiums, a victory — and an unfazed reaction to a "massive crash" in Toronto that belied his 18 years.

Enerson, a native of New Port Richey, Fla., began racing karts at the tender age of 5. As the son of two former Hoosiers, racing came naturally to Enerson, who competed in club races on weekends with a few grand nationals and local winter tours thrown in. But the racing bug bit in earnest at age 14 with his first taste of a race car.

"I did the three-day Skip Barber School at Sebring," said Enerson, "and I did pretty well. That was a turnaround for me. It made me think that I'd like to try to pursue this long-term, to see what I could do with it. Then I tested a USF2000 car and thought it was so much fun to drive. And with the Mazda Road to Indy being a direct path to IndyCar, I got sucked right in!"

Enerson finished third in the 2012 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda National Class. Moving up to the Championship Class in 2013, he finished second last season, earning five victories and ending the season only nine points back. Looking at his options for this year, Enerson felt the opportunity provided by the new Dallara IL-15 was too good to miss, and he skipped the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder altogether.

"The new Indy Lights car leveled out the playing field this year. Nobody had an advantage. So the timing made sense for me to go straight into Indy Lights. Plus, I went into this year knowing that the bar wasn't set very high for us, as far as the expectations of what my results would be. But I picked up on it pretty quickly, though it definitely helped having Jack Harvey as a teammate! To come away with my first win and to be a contender in the championship is a big deal."

Enerson enjoyed a solid first half of the season, earning two podiums and five top-five finishes. But it was his poise in the face of a huge incident in Toronto – replayed on nightly newscasts around the world and earning nearly 180,000 YouTube views to date – that brought him to the notice of the entire motorsports community.

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]"We've had podiums, top-fives, a pole, a win – and a massive crash. That definitely wasn't part of the plan. But the whole thing gave me the confidence to push harder. Since the crash, I haven't been out of the top five. I've been able to find the limits of the car and find the right setups with my engineer. For some reason, everything has been better, almost easier, since the crash."

Enerson has a unique perspective on the championship because of his age and his experience level. Even if he were to win the title, he plans to return to the Indy Lights series for several years to come. As Enerson says, it's a learning thing.

"I definitely need another year of Indy Lights. Even if I won the championship, I would want to figure out a way to stay here, because I need to learn so much more. I'm still pretty young — I could spend three years in this car and I'd only be 21 years old. I have the right team behind me and the right feedback coming toward me. As fast as I've been learning, and given my age, I'd like to learn and get more experience before making that big step up."

As attention turns toward the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Enerson is buoyed by the fact that he is one of a select few drivers with actual race experience on the iconic 2.238-mile road course. Like so many drivers, Enerson's word-association with Mazda Raceway most likely begins with the word "fog."

"In the morning, it can be super foggy, like can't-see-your-hand-in-front-of-your-face foggy. And the afternoons can get really hot. So it's a challenge. The second USF2000 race in 2013 was early in the morning and it was really foggy. We went out when it started to clear in the pit lane, but the Corkscrew is so much higher, it was really wet up there. It took a few laps to figure it out. But I'm looking forward to getting back there — just to drive on that track is amazing."

Urrutia and Alberico

Part one of two

PALMETTO, Fla. — Six different drivers have stood on the top step of the podium to date in this year's Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Four of those drivers — rookies Santiago "Santi" Urrutia of Uruguay, Frenchman Timothe Buret and Malaysian Weiron Tan, along with sophomore American Neil Alberico — have a chance to take the title this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. On the line is a Mazda Scholarship of $590,300 to advance to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016.


Santiago "Santi" Urrutia

Team Pelfrey's Santiago Urrutia made an immediate impact in Pro Mazda competition, finishing second and fourth at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla., and earning his first series victory two weeks later at NOLA Motorsports Park. The 19-year-old Uruguayan comes to the season finale with plans to take home the title — and to honor a fallen countryman.

Urrutia began his racing career riding motocross events at the age of 4. After winning the Latin American Motocross Championship for children aged 4-6, Urrutia moved into karts, earning five karting championships in eight years, including the 2010 Uruguayan Master Category Karting Championship. Switching to cars, Urrutia raced for two years in the Formula Abarth European and Italian series, followed by single seasons in European Formula 3 Open and, in 2014, the GP3 Series in support of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship.

Urrutia tested with Team Pelfrey mere weeks before the first race weekend of the year but wasted no time making his presence felt, adding a second victory at Indianapolis where he took the championship lead. With another win in the most recent event at Mid-Ohio giving him eight total podium finishes, Urrutia leads the championship by 29 points over Alberico, 47 over Buret and 51 over Tan. Despite the success, Urrutia admits this was not a position in which he expected to find himself.

"I didn't think I would be fighting for the championship in my rookie year," said Urrutia. "I did only two days of testing with Team Pelfrey before the first race at St. Pete, and I had never raced on a street circuit before. I finished second in my first race and that was good, to know I was competitive already! I knew I had to keep working hard, and I won the first race at NOLA. That was really good for me and for the team. The only big mistake for me was at Lucas Oil Raceway. It was a new experience for me, I'd never raced on an oval before. I touched the wall and didn't finish the race, so that was my worst result.

"It would change so much to win the championship. I could take the scholarship to Indy Lights. I know the big teams are watching the Mazda Road to Indy, so maybe one of the big teams with IndyCar or Indy Lights will notice!"

Urrutia comes to the season finale at Mazda Raceway with thoughts of his countryman, Gonzalo Rodriguez, on his mind. Rodriguez was driving his second race weekend with Penske Racing in the CART FedEx Championship Series when he was killed in a crash during practice on September 11, 1999.

"As a Uruguayan, it is very special for me to come to Mazda Raceway. We lost our biggest driver, Gonzalo Rodriquez, at Mazda Raceway in 1999. I will race with a helmet in tribute to him. He is a hero in Uruguay; he's my hero, too. I am grateful for everything he did for the sport in Uruguay. We are only three million people and he worked hard to get to IndyCar. I am giving the helmet to his Foundation in Uruguay and I hope to one day be the second driver from Uruguay to race in IndyCar."

Neil Alberico

Neil Alberico
Neil Alberico

Neil Alberico is the very picture of California cool. The affable 22-year-old Los Gatos native enjoys surfing, golfing and racing cars. But on the inside burns a competitive fire that belies the cool exterior, a fire that earned Alberico last year's Pro Mazda Spirit Award, presented to the driver or team that embodies the heart of a champion as they strive to reach their goals.

Like so many drivers, Alberico came up through the karting ranks, earning three junior championships and two senior titles. He contested Formula Ford championships in England and Europe in 2011 and earned a Team USA Scholarship which saw him score several pole positions and heat race victories in Formula Ford events in England. Alberico then moved to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, where he finished a close second to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammate Scott Hargrove in 2013 despite six wins, eight podium finishes and 11 front-row starting positions.

Heading up one more rung of the ladder last year with the Cape team, he finished third in Pro Mazda with four podiums and 11 top-six drives. 2014 also saw Alberico, Juncos Racing's Spencer Pigot and IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden named as inaugural representatives for Rising Star Racing, a new organization designed to provide funding and support for select young drivers moving up the racing ladder.

Despite a late start that saw him miss the Cooper Tires Winterfest pre-season test sessions, Alberico came roaring out of the gate this year, sweeping two poles and two victories at the season-opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. After taking another victory at Barber Motorsports Park in April, Alberico endured mid-season misfortune, with mechanical issues and incidents costing him valuable points. Rebounding with a second-place finish and a victory at Mid-Ohio, Alberico knows that, once again, he goes into the season finale with a shot at the title — albeit from 29 points behind Urrutia.

"We are within striking distance of the championship, so we'll go into the weekend with the plan of winning both races, and then whatever happens, happens. I can't control what happens to anyone else, we just have to win some races and hope things work out for us. But I would love to get into an Indy Lights car next year. I think we're ready to move on, regardless of what happens at the finale. The last two years, I've finished second or third. I've been really close and in the title fight coming to the last races. And it would mean so much to win this for the Cape guys. I've been so close with those guys the last several years. It would mean a lot to win the championship for them and for Rising Star, to take the financial burden off of them. It would be great to work with Mazda next year, to have the scholarship. It will be really exciting if we can pull it off."

But the numbers don't tell the whole story for Alberico.

"Racing is so competitive, and there are a lot of aspects to it that are more difficult when seen from the inside rather than from the outside. But my favorite part is just traveling and meeting people. You meet so many cool people in this sport. I love the behind-the-wheel driving part, but it's the friendships that really last."

Buret and Tan

Part two of two

PALMETTO, Fla. — Six different drivers have stood on the top step of the podium to date in this year's Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Four of those drivers — rookies Santiago "Santi" Urrutia of Uruguay, Frenchman Timothe Buret and Malaysian Weiron Tan, along with sophomore American Neil Alberico — have a chance to take the title this weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. On the line is a Mazda Scholarship of $590,300 to advance to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016.

Timothe Buret
Timothe Buret

Timothe Buret

Less than three years ago, Timothe Buret set himself on an ambitious racing program designed to put him into competitive open-wheel racing as quickly as possible. The young Frenchman has seen the fruits of that labor this season in Pro Mazda, earning a victory and eight podium finishes, which sets him third in the championship heading into the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.

The 20-year-old native of Montpellier, France, began riding quads and motorcycles at the age of 3. The young Buret spent entire days enjoying the jumps his father built near the family's home. He quickly began racing in motocross, quads and buggies. Beginning to get serious about racing at the age of 15, Buret was encouraged by his parents to switch to four-wheeled karts. He progressed quickly through French regional and national championships and caught the eye of one of the top teams in the area, which helped him make the transition to race cars in 2013.

"I knew the Palmyr team through a friend of the family, William Cavailhes, who was already racing on the VdeV circuit," said Buret. "Palmyr is the premier team in the south of France, where I am from. I learned a great deal from them."

With an eye toward maximizing his experience in a short amount of time, Buret ran in multiple series over the next two years, including the Caterham French Challenge, VdeV Formula Challenge, VdeV European CN Proto Challenge, and the French Historic Formula Ford cup where he recorded seven victories and 12 podiums. Buret acquitted himself well at the Mazda Road to Indy Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Indianapolis last September and joined Juncos Racing for the 2015 Pro Mazda season. After a difficult opening weekend at St. Petersburg, Buret hit his stride, with eight podium finishes in 12 races, including a victory at the Indianapolis Grand Prix.

Buret lies 47 points behind championship leader Santi Urrutia and knows he can only control his own destiny. Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, like most of the tracks the series runs, will be new to Buret and the rest of the rookie drivers, but that doesn't change Buret's plan.

"My plan for the weekend is to win both races! That is always my plan. Now that I know that victory is delicious, I plan to taste it again. Of course, I have never driven on this circuit, or any of the circuits of the championship this year, but I am working hard and I will count on my ability to adapt to be able to make something happen. But no matter what, this year will have been extraordinary for me, as a driver and as a person."

With only two seasons in karts and two years in formula cars, Buret indeed has been on an accelerated learning curve. His success this year is a reflection of his capacity to progress and adapt quickly.

"I came to the U.S. to show my ability in a competitive championship and to be able to measure myself against other young drivers. The successful experience of my fellow countrymen, Sébastien Bourdais and Tristan Vautier, makes me all the more motivated.

"This is my dream, to make motor racing my ‘job' full time. That's why I feel it is necessary to keep everything in perspective and to realize this chance is not given to everybody. That's why I came to the U.S. to win. It's been a good rookie season — it would be great if fate allows me to win the championship. But for me, to finish on the season-ending podium would be a success."

Weiron Tan

Weiron Tan
Weiron Tan

Weiron Tan wasted no time in making his presence felt during his rookie season in North America, finishing second at the pre-season Cooper Tires Pro Mazda Winterfest with two wins in five races for Andretti Autosport. The 20-year-old from Kuala Lumpur has since won four races and claimed six poles in the regular season title-chase, but finds himself 51 points out of the championship lead going into the season finale.

Tan had a relatively late start in racing. His father took the then 13-year-old and his brothers to a local karting track and soon, Tan began his racing career — but not before earning his brothers' blessing.

"On Sundays I would go to the track just after lunch and spend a few hours there, mainly for fun. In my second year I wanted to enter competitions to see where I stood, and that was when I realized how much more I had to learn and subsequently found more passion for the sport. That's also when I knew I wanted to race for a living. At the time, and even now, racing is very expensive. There was a lot of pressure on me because my mum and dad had to support four kids. I needed the support from my brothers, which I'm so lucky to have. They didn't feel it was unfair that one of their siblings went racing and spent a lot of money doing it. They believe in me. It is also important to me that they didn't doubt my dedication and ability to reach the highest level in motor racing."

After earning two karting championships and a vice championship in the Asian Karting Open, Tan was signed to the Caterham F1 Academy and moved to formula cars in 2011. He relocated to Europe in 2013, finishing second in the Protyre Formula Renault 2.0 series in England, then transferred to the ATS Formel 3 Cup (commonly referred to as German F3) in 2014, earning two victories and five podium finishes. Managed by the same company that handles Verizon IndyCar Series driver and 2012 Pro Mazda champion Jack Hawksworth, Tan followed the Brit's exploits in the U.S. and decided also to follow his lead into the Mazda Road to Indy.

"The Mazda Road to Indy scholarship program is very important to the drivers who can't afford to fund themselves. This is so competitive and at such a high level. It's GP3 in this part of the world. Since we run with the Verizon IndyCar Series all year, it's a great opportunity to show what you have in front of the IndyCar teams. And it definitely helps with Andretti Autosport having Pro Mazda, Indy Lights and IndyCar teams. Inside the Andretti family, we have access to the IndyCar team, which is perfect."

Establishing himself as a pre-season favorite, Tan, like Buret, endured a difficult first weekend at St. Petersburg but rebounded immediately, taking his first series victory at Barber in April. After adding another win at the Indianapolis Grand Prix, Tan then took both oval wins of the season, at Lucas Oil Raceway and Iowa Speedway – each one from the pole position.

"There is no oval racing in Asia or in Europe. I was quite surprised we did that well, but of course Andretti is so good at the ovals. All I wanted to do was keep that record going! The team did a great job at both ovals. If you have a bad car, it can get really scary. It took me a while to get up to speed but once I did, everything changes again. There's so much to learn, driving and engineering, that it's quite a challenge for new drivers. I think we did a pretty good job of that!"

Jamin and Eidson

Four drivers rose above the pack in this year's Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. Frenchman Nico Jamin, Americans Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz, and Australian rookie Anthony Martin have accounted for 39 of the series' 42 podium positions to date, with half of the season's race podiums featuring a combination of Jamin, Eidson and Telitz. Jamin stands poised to set several series records at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca finale, capping a dominating season that could earn him a Mazda scholarship of over $381,000 to graduate to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2016.

Nico Jamin

Nico Jamin
Nico Jamin

Nicolas "Nico" Jamin announced his 2015 intentions — and a precursor of the season — when he earned pre-season Cooper Tires USF2000 Winterfest championship honors. The 19-year-old native of Rouen, France continued his winning ways as the season progressed, earning eight victories (including a sweep of all three races and pole positions in the most recent event at Mid-Ohio) and podium finishes in all but one of the 14 races to date. Jamin has tied Sage Karam's record of 11 poles (2010) and JR Hildebrand's record of 13 podiums (2006) in a season with two races remaining.

Jamin began his career at age 15, racing in the Rotax Max Junior French Karting Championship before moving up to French Formula 4 in 2012 and the Formula Renault 2.0 European Championship the following year. After testing a USF2000 car at Sebring in October of 2013, Jamin decided to head to America. He finished ninth in the 2014 USF2000 series with 10 top-10 finishes and a podium finish of third at the first race of the year in St. Petersburg, Fla. He joined the multiple championship-winning Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team in December of last year, with an eye toward the title chase.

"Obviously, winning Winterfest was a big achievement for me because it was my first title since I started racing cars. I came into the season with a lot of confidence and determination, but I knew it was going be tough as there are a lot of very fast drivers in USF2000, starting with my teammate Aaron Telitz. Also, nobody has won both the Winterfest and the main championship so far, so I want to show that we can win both."

Jamin and teammate Telitz have already helped their Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing team earn the 2015 USF2000 Team Championship. Jamin has a 50-point lead over Jake Eidson in the driver's title chase going into the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but he knows Eidson is not going to make it easy with 66 points up for grabs.

"I am more focused than ever going into the big finale at Mazda Raceway. I have a pretty comfortable gap in the championship on Jake, but anything can happen at the last event so I need to stay out of trouble during the race and score points to secure the championship title. I've never been to this track, but we have four free practice sessions so I'll have time to learn it. I have already played it a few hours on my simulator at home during the summer break. I'm really excited to race there because the track looks awesome. It's definitely the best track for a season finale.

"Winning the championship this year would mean so much to me. It would be a huge achievement for me and the whole team. This is what we have been working for all year. And thanks to Mazda, perhaps I will have the chance to pursue my dream to step up in the Road to Indy and get to IndyCar in a few years."

Like so many athletes, Jamin excels at several sports, including tennis, which he played competitively as a youngster — something he shares with last year's Indy Lights champion, 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series rookie of the year, Gabby Chaves. Naturally, when the two got together for a match last year near Jamin's home, it quickly turned ultra-competitive.

"I played tennis for 12 years (from 3 to 15 years old). I was one of the best players of my age in France and wanted to become professional. But I had knee problems, so I couldn't play tennis at the highest level anymore. I got into racing at the age of 15 because my dad was a gentleman driver in a club series in France. When I tried a go kart, I loved it and knew it was going be my new target, to become a professional race car driver.

"I still play tennis for fun during my off time. In fact, Gabby and I played last year in Florida. It was pretty crazy. I won the game at the tie break of the third set after more than two hours! We fought until the last point of the game!"

Jake Eidson

Jake Eidson
Jake Eidson

In any other season, Jake Eidson's record in USF2000 — four victories and podium finishes in 12 of 14 races — might have been good enough for the championship title. Instead, Eidson lies 50 points behind Jamin going into the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But Eidson has not conceded the title just yet.

The 20-year-old resident of Littleton, Colo., began his karting career at age 12, racing successfully on the regional level before heading to the Skip Barber Racing School in 2010 to begin the transition to race cars. Named Skip Barber Rookie of the Year in the Winter Series in 2011, Eidson won both the 2011-2012 Skip Barber Winter Series and the 2012 Summer Series, which earned him a Team USA Scholarship. He moved up to F1600 in 2013, winning the championship and finished third in last year's USF2000 championship.

Signing with Pabst Racing prior to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Winterfest, Eidson served notice by finishing third in the pre-season event, with two victories at NOLA Motorsports Park and only lost the title due to a rare mechanical problem in the double-points finale. He went on to sweep the opening weekend of the season, taking both pole positions and both race wins in St. Petersburg, Fla. Earning two more victories (at Lucas Oil Raceway and in Toronto), Eidson has been a model of consistency, finishing out of the top four only once.

Eidson has positive memories of his second USF2000 season but has already begun to think of what 2016 might bring. Naturally, the Mazda scholarship that comes with the championship would aid those plans.

"It's been a pretty successful season, but most race car drivers aren't happy unless we're winning. There are races I look back at and I'm pleased with our performance, but of course there are races that I wish I could change. I have a lot of good memories but it's not over. Hopefully we can come away with a good finish at the last event.

"This is my second year in USF2000 and it's been a successful one, so I'm ready to move up. The scholarship would be a career-maker but if we don't get it, we'll keep fighting."

Eidson is one of a handful of drivers who have experience at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Having taken his first Skip Barber Racing School at the iconic track, it was also the site of his first event in a race car. The fact that he was racing at a track that has hosted so many historic events was not lost on the young Eidson.

"I've done at least six Skip Barber races at Mazda Raceway and I have a good history at the track, but I haven't been back in a while. I'm really looking forward to it.

"I remember my first race there: it was almost like meeting a famous person. It was a bit surreal. I'd ‘driven' there so many times on video games and seen it so many times on television that to actually race there was a very cool experience. We went around the track in a van and I remember going through the Corkscrew for the very first time – and I had no idea the elevation change was that much! When people say there's no corner like the Corkscrew, it's really true. Sometimes in the Skip Barber cars, if you hit the corner just right you'd come out of your seat a little bit. It feels like you're falling for a second, like a roller coaster ride!"

If Eidson seems more poised than your average 20-year-old, it's for good reason: but for a slight change of fate, his career path might have fallen along very different lines.

"I was nine or 10 and my sister and I went to an agency in Denver to audition for a couple of kid commercials. We thought it would be something fun to do! She did a few photoshoots for some magazines but I, unfortunately, didn't get anything. I auditioned for an AT&T commercial and I was bummed not to get it. Then, a few months later, I see a kid on an AT&T commercial and I think he was in the same room I was in. I guess he got the part!"

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