The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires is the middle rung on the three-step Mazda Road to Indy ladder and has helped launched the careers of many top-line drivers in recent years. Marco Andretti, Jack Hawksworth, who won the championship as recently as 2012, James Hinchcliffe and Graham Rahal are just four of the Pro Mazda graduates plying their trade in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and virtually all of the contenders in this weekend's pair of races has every intention of following their footsteps.

The 2014 season began with young American Spencer Pigot very much in the ascendency. After marking his talent with 11 wins in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda during 2011 and 2012, Pigot won once in his rookie season of Pro Mazda and has used that experience to excellent effect since joining 2010 championship-winning team Juncos Racing for this year. He won the four-race Cooper Tires Winterfest preseason mini-series comfortably, then dominated the opening four races of the "regular season" - two contests apiece at St. Petersburg, Fla., and Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama - to open up a 41-point advantage over his rivals.

Pigot continued to pace the field through the middle portion of the 14-race season, but a series of misfortunes - including a couple of incidents on the road course at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a flat tire on the Lucas Oil Raceway oval - opened the door for some other championship aspirants. Take Scott Hargrove, for example. The 19-year-old from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, won last year's USF2000 championship and is seeking to follow in the footsteps of Matthew Brabham by winning consecutive MAZDASPEED Driver Development Scholarship prizes.

Hargrove, who has stepped up to Pro Mazda with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, finished on the podium in each of his first four races. He then claimed back-to-back wins on the Indianapolis road course, a second-place finish at Lucas Oil Raceway and another win at Houston to vault into the championship lead.

Ten different drivers earned podium finishes during the first eight races in what has developed into one of the most competitive seasons in the history of Pro Mazda (formerly Star Mazda) dating back to 1991. Other contenders to watch this weekend will include Hargrove's teammate, Neil Alberico, and Juncos Racing's Kyle Kaiser, both of whom hail from the Bay Area; Andretti Autosport teammates Garett Grist and Shelby Blackstock; Brazilian Nicolas Costa and Canadian Dalton Kellett (Team Pelfrey); South Carolina's Ryan Booth (JDC MotorSports); Mexican teenager Jose Gutierrez (Juncos Racing); and a couple of talented young ladies, Julia Ballario, from Argentina, who will also drive for Juncos Racing, and Michele Bumgarner, from the Philippines, who will fly the flag for locally based World Speed Motorsports.

Watch out, too, for the inspirational Michael Johnson (JDC MotorSports), who shows an astonishing turn of speed despite being paralyzed from the chest down following a motorcycle racing accident at the age of 14.