Most predictions for Star Mazda this year focused on just how strong this promising field of junior open wheel drivers would be, and thus far, it has not disappointed. Through the first few race weekends, it was English rookie Jack Hawksworth that received the lion's share of the glory, trailed by drivers Connor De Phillippi and Martin Scuncio.
There's no doubt Hawksworth had a superb start, but after the Night Before The 500 at Lucas Oil Raceway, at least two American stars showed they wouldn't go quietly in this year's all-important Star Mazda Championship battle. DePhillippi won the first of Star Mazda's two oval events this year, and Sage Karam got back on track after an uneven start by finishing a strong second (a third American, Zach Veach, finished third for good measure).
Hawksworth had a 29-point Championship lead going into the Lucas Oil race. Now, De Phillippi only trails by 12 points, with another oval in a couple of weeks at Iowa. For De Phillippi, the significance of his victory couldn't have been more clear.
"Getting back in victory circle was awesome," said De Phillippi after his big win. "After the two Barber races, it was definitely a tough pill to swallow but I knew we just had to focus on working harder for the upcoming ovals. This win meant a lot to me because it was such a team effort and we had to work extremely hard to get the car to be as dominant as we were. And that feeling of accomplishment was the best feeling in the world."
The San Clemente, California native also reflected on the upcoming fight at Iowa.
"Finishing well on the next oval is definitely key. We head into every race weekend looking to win, and we will have the same mindset going into this one. The Juncos Racing guys always have a solid car at Iowa, so I am expecting to have some really good speed for this one."
For his part, De Phillippi's fellow American prospect Karam, now tied with Finland's Petri Suvanto for P6 in the championship (31 points behind De Phillippi), also feels as if the battle isn't anywhere near over.
"The 2nd place finish at Indy puts us right back on track for winning the title. I think that Iowa will bring our chances even closer to the championship. If you take out the Barber result where I got punted on the last lap, I am right in the top three of the standings. Looking at the law of odds, these guys ahead of us haven't had any bad luck yet. With twelve races to go, I am feeling very confident about climbing the standings," stated Karam when asked about his title chances.
Karam also has no illusions as to the talent stacked against him in the field.
"We have drivers with F3, GP3 and even three years Star Mazda experience in the field. It's crazy competitive, which will make doing well mean even more."
Whether Hawksworth prevails, or drivers such as Connor De Phillippi, Martin Scuncio, Gabby Chaves, Sage Karam, or Petri Suvanto manage to wrest the Star Mazda Championship away from their competitors, they will have earned every bit of that accompanying Mazda Road to Indy scholarship. Meanwhile, drivers such as Stefan Rzadinski and Ashley Freiberg also hone their skills, demonstrating the racing here is not only fierce, but instrumental in forming the drivers of tomorrow. The rungs of the American open wheel ladder are showing plenty of talent, and that can only contribute to a bright future for INDYCAR.