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MRTI Observations: Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio

During the course of a season, there are races that you forget, and events that are remembered for how they affected the landscape of the year. The Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Powered by Mazda was a memorable one.

With Nico Jamin returning to victory lane, combined with championship contenders experiencing problems, the event had a little something for every single Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires fan. 

Here are some observations from the day.

Back On Top

For the first time since winning two races in the initial five events of the season, Nico Jamin is back on top as he scored the victory on Sunday at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

After a thrilling back and forth battle for the top spot with Colton Herta, he’d take the lead on Lap 2 and leave the field. While Santiago Urrutia was able to close the gap in the closing stages, it was never enough to make a pass, handing the victory to Jamin. 

When the season started, Jamin was strong in the first six races with a pair of victories and four straight top-fives. However, since the Indianapolis Grand Prix in May, he failed to post a top-five in the following six events. This weekend in Mid-Ohio was the perfect turnaround, as he matched the victory with a third on Saturday. 

Championship Struggles

While it was a dreamy weekend for some, the top-two in the standings experienced weekends they’d like to forget.

Points leader Kyle Kaiser finished 12th on Saturday after starting sixth. Then on Sunday, he qualified ninth, putting himself behind the eight-ball early. He was able to make up some ground, moving up to seventh by Lap 12, though a dive inside of Juan Piedrahita resulted in him spinning around and losing valuable track position. He was unable to make it up, finishing 12th once again.

Kaiser’s struggles should have been the perfect opportunity for Colton Herta to gain points, but he had his own problems. After finishing second on Saturday, he battled for the lead early with Nico Jamin before a spin put him behind the field on Lap 3. The incident did not take any speed out of his Mazda, as he caught the back of the field, and drove his way up to sixth by the checkered flag.

Entering the last two rounds of the season, Kaiser leads Herta by 42 points, with Santiago Urrutia just one more marker behind. Although there was some ground gained by Herta, it could have been more if he would’ve equaled the performances he’s been known for this season. If Kaiser puts together two more solid finishes, he will walk away as the champion. But another weekend like this, and the tables could turn at Watkins Glen.

Lap 1 Tangle

Before their race even really got going, it did not start out how Dalton Kellett or Garth Rickards planned, with the pair getting together on Lap 1. Rickards was done for the event, while Kellett carried on to finish 13th, one lap down after a pit stop.

The pair could have done without the incident, as this season has not gone as either would have liked, with both drivers sitting outside of the top-10 in points. Rickards has only four top-10’s in 14 races, while Kellett has eight top-10’s, including two podiums.

With silly season set to be busy through the winter and a bunch of driver changes rumored, both drivers could use a pair of good runs to close out their campaigns.

Returns to Podium

If you are going to struggle through the middle portion of the season, the goal is simply to finish out the year strong. That’s exactly what Shelby Blackstock is doing.

After making the move to Belardi Auto Racing, he began the season with solid finishes, posting five straight top-10’s. However, the summer stretch proved tough, with only two top-10’s in the next seven races. 

This past weekend at Mid-Ohio, Blackstock appears to be finding his groove as he posted a pair of top-fives, placing fourth and third in the two events.

Now moving ahead to closing out the 2017 campaign, after posting a sixth-place finish last year at Watkins Glen, another podium finish – or possibly a win, could make the summer easier to handle.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI Observations: Mazda Iowa 100 Presented by Cooper Tires

On Sunday afternoon at Iowa Speedway, there was no catching Matheus Leist as after taking the top spot on Lap 32, he drove away from the field en route to scoring the Mazda Iowa 100 Presented by Cooper Tires victory.

Here are some observations from the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event.

Matheus Dominates

With three victories in the last four races, Matheus Leist is finding his groove in Indy Lights after a rough start to the season with two finishes outside of the top-10. Now with eight straight top-seven finishes, the Carlin Racing driver has moved up to second in points, 13 markers ahead of Kyle Kaiser.

While Leist’s wins at Indianapolis and Road America were impressive, the victory on Sunday goes beyond those. He did not have the best starting position, qualifying 10th, and managed to build a gap of 2.93 seconds ahead of Santiago Urrutia by the time the checkered flag flew. The gap could have been larger, but Leist elected to back his lap times down once he got the lead to conserve the tires.

Being almost three seconds ahead was enough to cause some confusion, though, as Urrutia thought he won the event, performing a series of donuts on the frontstretch post-race.

“When I went by (Dalton) Kellett, I thought that I had gotten the lead, so I thought, ‘alright’ because I had never seen Leist,” Urrutia said post-race. “So when I get by Kellett, I tried to save a little and then thought we won at the end. But it’s alright, we struggled today so to get back through there and a good solid finish, is a great result, and hopefully, we can run well in Toronto, too.”

Rough Day for Rickards

Out of the 14 drivers that started, only one failed to finish the event, which was Garth Rickards. He went around for a quick spin on the backstretch at Lap 23, before pulling off shortly after the restart and retiring from the event.

“Right off the start it didn’t feel right,” he said. “It was loose. I tried to use the bars to improve the handling, but it just didn’t work. It felt good in practice, but it was just undrivable there.”

The 14th-place finish adds to the struggles this year for Rickards, who has posted only two top-10’s in his rookie campaign.

Colton Leads Early

Before Leist making his way through the field, Colton Herta led the first 32 circuits from the pole and looked set to score his third victory of 2017 possibly. However, he would fade through the second half of the 100 lap event to a fourth-place finish.

“They had it figured out today,” he said. “The car went loose on us, and there’s not much that you can do on a short oval when that happens.”

Herta started off his season well with two wins and a runner-up in the first four races but struggled with only one top-10 in the following four events. Now with back-to-back top-fives, it seems momentum is back on the young driver’s side as he heads to the streets of Toronto for the first time in his career. The street circuit could be the right ticket to getting back in victory lane; his first career win came on the streets of St. Petersburg.

Debut Put on Hold

Chad Boat was supposed to make his series debut, but that was delayed till Gateway Motorsports Park.

The 25-year-old was not medically cleared by INDYCAR officials to drive due to injuries sustained during a National USAC midget race on Sunday, July 2.

“To say I’m disappointed doesn’t begin to describe how I’m feeling right now, but I trust the doctors and medical staff at INDYCAR and know they have my best interest in mind,” said Boat. “I’ll continue to follow the instructions I’m receiving for recovery and look forward to being back soon. Thanks to Pristine Auction and Belardi Auto Racing for the opportunity.”

Belardi Auto Racing team owner Brian Belardi added that he was “extremely disheartened” by the news, but “remains excited and positive about the future based on his pace in last week’s test.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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EMBURY: Indianapolis 500 Advancement On The Line?

Remember the original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory? Now recall when meek Charlie Bucket realizes he has found the last golden ticket.

Yours truly is not going to sing and dance a-la Charlie and Grandpa Joe, yet a lot is on the table for whoever takes the checkered flag first in Friday’s Freedom 100. The pinnacle event on the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship has often opened the window of opportunity to a future shot at the Indianapolis 500.

Nowhere was this proven more so than in the inaugural running of the support race in 2003. Starting from pole position, Indianapolis’s own Ed Carpenter led all but one of the event’s forty laps to take the historic triumph. Duesenberg Brothers Racing’s Jeff Simmons charged late to finish second, while Panther Racing’s Mark Taylor came home in third

Although no one could have predicted it at the time, but all three podium drivers would take three of the 33 spots in the 2004 Indy 500. A collision between Carpenter and Taylor at the 200-mile mark ultimately allowed Simmons to earn the best result of the trio in that edition, placing 11th.

In fact, each of the first five winners of the sprint race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway eventually qualified for the big dance, with the most notable being Wade Cunningham, the only competitor to date to win the Freedom 100 more than once.

Including Carpenter, three other P1 catchers will be on the main straightaway waiting for Mari Hulman George’s command to start engines. Josef Newgarden comes into Sunday’s race after earning third-place in 2016. Gabby Chaves used his 2014 100-mile race success, to snag Rookie of the Race honors in the Indy 500 two years ago. And after winning the Indy Lights’ big race in 2015, Jack Harvey makes his debut in the Memorial Day battle on May 28th.

So who could join these graduates in 2017? While defending champion Dean Stoneman was unsuccessful in taking a ride for the Indy 500 this month, there is another driver who was also in the running for a spot that could be the favorite to win the 2017 Freedom 100.

Following the announcement of Juncos Racing’s participation in this year’s race, it was believed that their Indy Lights regular Kyle Kaiser would be one of the chauffeurs. The 21-year old from California placed third on last year’s points table with two wins. 2017 has continued the wave of momentum for the prospect; he enters Friday’s event as the championship leader and is the most recent winner taking the second leg of the Liberty Challenge on the  Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. With Ricardo Juncos attempting to promote his team to the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time in 2018, the Freedom 100 could be the boost required to earn the title and the bump up funding a ride next season.

Nico Jamin and Colton Herta are also possibilities from the Andretti Autosport junior squad. Both enter Friday on the heels of Kaiser with each taking a pair of victories in 2017. The French-based Jamin  has been a winning machine, earning successes in IMSA Prototype Challenge and Pirelli World Challenge action this year as well. Herta would join a long line of sons following their fathers into the Indy 500. Colton’s dad Bryan scored two top-fives at the Brickyard, and has won the big one twice as an owner.

Regardless of who joins the victory list on Friday, the chances are good that someone could fire it up against the big guys in the future.

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Andretti Autosport Returns to Championship Form

Even though Andretti Autosport had things going their way in the Verizon IndyCar Series with Ryan Hunter-Reay contending for victories the past couple season, their Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program was faltering. Now with six rounds in the books, it appears the program is back on track.

“We have four talented drivers,” Michael Andretti said on Friday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “We have two that are getting us wins. They’re going to be duking it out the rest of the year, so far.”

The organization came close to winning the championship in 2014, placing Zach Veach and Mathew Brabham third and fourth in the standings. Veach led the points through the first seven rounds boasting a pair of victories, though with only one win in season’s second half saw him drop two positions. Meanwhile, Brabham climbed his way back up after sitting ninth following the season-opener at St. Petersburg, with his season highlighted by a victory in the Indianapolis Road Course Race 1.

It was expected they would contend once again in 2015, but that didn’t happen, with the 2016 season also going down the pipes.

They fielded only one entry full-time in 2015 with Shelby Blackstock behind the wheel, placing 10th in the standings with a best finish of third at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. A year later, Blackstock failed to post a podium en route to finishing eighth in points. Dalton Kellett and Dean Stoneman also ran full-time, and although Stoneman won the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis, success was few and far between with Stoneman placing sixth in points and Kellett in 10th.

Now so far this season, they have two drivers currently in the top-three in points, with Nico Jamin second and Colton Herta third.

Jamin may have started off his season with a pair of finishes outside of the top-five at St. Petersburg, but he’s been doing an amazing job ever since. He scored his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition in race one at Barber Motorsports Park, before finishing third in the second event. Indianapolis went well for him, as well, with a victory in round one followed by a fourth in race two.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” Jamin said. “We want to do this season, win the championship. A win at Barber and a win here – we have momentum going on now.”

He enters the top series on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires after placing third in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last season.

Herta came out of the gate fast right off the bat, with two wins and a runner-up in the first four races to enter Indianapolis with a 16-point lead. However, problems in both races for a pair of finishes outside the top-nine slipped him back to third. Even though success has come quickly, it’s mindful to remember Herta is a series rookie, and original intentions were to go with a two-year program by setting the ground work this year to win a title next season.

“To be honest, it was unexpected,” Herta said following Barber. “We were just going in there hoping just to get some top-five finishes, start the season off right, and get some points.”

Last year, Andretti Autosport won the Freedom 100 – but that was the only highlight of the campaign.

With success coming already, another victory on the first oval of 2017 would solidify their stance of being contenders all year-long.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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MRTI Observations: Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway

After a Friday filled with action for each level of the Mazda Road to Indy, Saturday also delivered with close competition across the board.

Here are some observations from all the on-track action.

Rebound for Thompson

After experiencing mechanical issues in race one, Parker Thompson rebounded in the second race for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Presented by Mazda with a fourth-place finish for his fifth top-five in six events.

The Canadian came just short of winning the championship in his second season of competition last season, winning four races over the season. Now ranked fourth in points, 88 makers behind Oliver Askew, he will need the 16-year-old to have a rough weekend if he hopes to make up ground.

Double for Davis

Kevin Davis is going to leave Indianapolis possibly singing ‘Ring around the Rosey’ after incidents in both Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires events. In the first race, he went spun on Lap 2 with Charles Finelli, followed by getting turned the wrong way in the second round, due to contact from Jeff Green.

The Illinois-driver fought back to finish 10th for his first top-10 finish of the season after placing 11th in the pair of rounds in St. Petersburg and 12th on Friday. He currently leads the National Class standings.

New Points Leader

After feeling he left something on the table on Friday, Kyle Kaiser put together an impressive show on Saturday, capturing his first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory of 2017. It marked his fourth straight podium finish, giving him the series points lead, 13 markers ahead of Nico Jamin. Jamin won round one for the weekend, followed by a fourth in the second race.

Herta entered the weekend with a 16-point lead ahead of Jamin, but experienced trouble in both races. He had a right rear puncture in round one, followed by going off-track en route to 10th on day two.

First Career Top-Five

After crashing out in the first race of the weekend on Lap 1, Kory Enders rebounded in the second event for a fifth-place finish.

Before Saturday, his season has been up and down so far, with a pair of top-10s matching three finishes outside of the top-14.

Much Needed Podium

After coming just a mere couple points shy of last year’s Indy Lights title, Santiago Urrutia has not performed as expected. Although the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports pilot scored a runner-up at St. Petersburg, it marked his only top-10 of 2017 entering Indianapolis after four events.

This weekend, he put together a pair of solid races with a seventh in round one, followed by a runner-up on Saturday.

“It has been tough to get the car quick and get into the top five,” he admitted post-race. “We tried to get the lead but second place is really good for us. We’re working as a team to figure out where we’re losing time and when we find that, we’re going to be okay. There is still a long way to go in this championship, so we have to get podiums and points, points, points.”

Ran Off-Road

Besides some trouble on the opening lap, the USF2000 put together a clean event – but that doesn’t mean the last lap ran smoothly. The battle for third saw contact, with Robert Megennis hitting Dakota Dickerson and both drivers going off the track. They both fell back several spots, with Megennis finishing seventh and Dickerson in 10th.

The incident just adds to a rough weekend for Megennis who failed technical inspection following Friday’s event, along with his Team Pelfrey teammate Kaylen Frederick. He started off this season well by winning the opening round of the season but now has two finishes outside of the top-10 to his credit.

Dickerson, meanwhile, entered Saturday’s race with momentum after scoring his first top-five 0f 2017 on Friday. He now has three sixth-place finishes, a pair of 10ths, and a fourth to his credit this season.

Last Place for Blackstock

During the second event of the weekend for Indy Lights, Shelby Blackstock was the only driver to experience a significant problem with an off-track excursion in turn one. As a result, he would finish last on the grid – 14th.

Ever since he posted a fourth-place finish in the season opener, Blackstock’s finishes have continued to get worse each passing week, with this being the first outside of the top-10.

The next event for the series is the Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, which saw him finish fourth last season.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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MRTI Observations: Indy Lights Indianapolis Race No. 1

Starting from the pole position, Nico Jamin led flag-to-flag despite a late-race charge from Zachary Claman De Melo, en route to scoring the victory in the Mazda Road to Indy Grand Prix Presented by Royal Purple Supporting Lupus Foundation of America.

Here are some observations from the first of two events this weekend.

Right in Contention

Nico Jamin may have started off his season with a pair of finishes outside of the top-five at St. Petersburg, but he’s been doing an amazing job ever since. The Andretti Autosport driver scored his first career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition in race one at Barber Motorsports Park, before finishing third in the second event.

Now with a second victory, he has put himself second in points, three points behind teammate Colton Herta for the lead.

“That’s what we’re aiming for,” he said. “We want to do this season, win the championship. A win at Barber and a win here – we have good momentum going on now.”

Hiccup for Herta

In just one event for the series, Colton Herta has watched his points lead go from 16 points ahead of Kyle Kaiser to just three ahead of Nico Jamin. Needless to say, he will want to forget how things went on Friday quickly.

The event started off strong for the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing racer, as he quickly moved up to second on Lap 1 after starting sixth. He ran in the runner-up spot for the first 12 circuits, before falling to fourth. He then continued to fall back, eventually pitting on Lap 17 with a right rear puncture.

The rookie has faced adversity once this season, finishing 10th in the first event at Barber Motorsports Park after contact on Lap 1. He rebounded beautifully there with a victory in round two. With a strong qualifying effort on Saturday morning, he could do the same once again.

Career Best for Claman De Melo

Zachary Claman De Melo has continued to get better with each race under his belt, as noted with a stronger average finish through the second half of last year. He hasn’t started off this season so hot with only one top-five in the first four rounds, but the tune may be changing after his performance on Friday.

The Carlin Racing pilot may not have got off to the strongest start on the green flag, but he worked his way through the field over the course of the 30-lap event, crossing the finish line in second for his best career finish. It’s also worth noting that he was closing the gap to Nico Jamin in the closing stages, only 0.8405 seconds behind at the checkered.

Claman de Melo felt he could have given Jamin a run for the win if he had not got caught behind the lap car of Dalton Kellett for awhile, telling the IndyCar Radio Network, “It’s unfortunately what happened with Kellet in that he blocked me. I could’ve had a shot if he hadn’t blocked me there.”

If he continues to run like this, though, it will be one blocked chance left in the rearview.

Poor Piedrahita

Not every driver who was on the entry docket started the event on Friday, as Juan Piedrahita was forced to watch from the sidelines.

Earlier that day in qualifying, he ran into gearbox issues which then led to an accident, with the team unable to make repairs in time for the event. It was reported that Team Pelfrey would possibly have a second car ready for him for Saturday’s event.

In four races this season, the driver of the No. 2 Mazda-powered entry has posted only one top-10 finish.

Third Straight Podium

After posting a pair of runner-ups at Barber Motorsports Park, Kyle Kaiser continued the momentum into Indianapolis with a third-place finish. Like Zachary Claman de Melo, he felt that he had something to challenge Nico Jamin.

“I thought we had a good start,” Kaiser said post-race. “We finished ahead of the points leader, which was my goal for this race. I made a mistake there as I thought we were catching the leader.”

Now entering the sixth round on the schedule, he currently sits third in points, just three markers behind Colton Herta.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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MRTI Observations: Indy Lights Barber Race 2

In the 400th Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event, Colton Herta led every lap en route to his second career victory in four starts.

Here are some observations from the event.

Familiar Faces

Throughout the event, Herta remained unchallenged as he held a lead of at least seven seconds over the field. It marked a solid rebound after a 10th in Race 1 this weekend. The success didn’t come surprising, though, as the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing driver posted a win and runner-up to kick off 2017 at St. Petersburg. Now boasting a 16-point lead over Kyle Kaiser, he’ll look to keep it going into Indianapolis next month.

Kaiser and Nico Jamin finished second and third, to give them both two podiums on the weekend. Jamin won yesterday, while Kaiser finished second.

For Kaiser, he has yet to finish outside of the top-six in the first four races this season, following a sixth and fourth to start this season. Early projections had the Juncos Racing driver as part of the championship battle after finishing third in points in 2016. The California native put together an impressive campaign last year, scoring two wins and nine podiums.

Meanwhile, Alberico was hit or miss at St. Petersburg as he posted a second in Round 1, before finishing 15th in the second event. Now with two podiums at Barber, he certainly has made up some of the lost ground. In his rookie campaign last year, the California native finished 10th in points following six top-10s in 18 races.

Urrutia Left Upset

Santiago Urrutia will will want to forget Barber as soon as possible as he finished outside of the top-12 in both rounds this weekend. He was involved in the first lap incident on Saturday, followed by contact with teammate Shelby Blackstock on Lap 4 causing a spin and front wing change.

Urrutia came into this season hopeful to fight for a title but has started off this season poorly as he finished 13th in Round 1, followed by a runner-up in the second event.

With three finishes outside the top-10 in four races, Urrutia will need to start picking up wins and podiums if he wants to contend this year, given they only run 16 events a season.

Telitz Rebounds

Following a 13th-place finish on Saturday, Aaron Telitz rebounded with a solid fifth-place finish in Sunday’s event.

The Belardi Auto Racing began his rookie campaign with a win and a fifth at St. Petersburg. He enters the series after winning last season’s Pro Mazda Championship.

Eliminated Early

Zachary Cleman De Melo and Pato O’Ward saw their races end on Lap 1 as contact from Claman De Melo to O’Ward on Lap 1 sent both drivers off-track, with O’Ward, stuck in the gravel trap for a full course caution. Claman De Melo was able to continue but parked his car on Lap 3 due to damage.

“We were going to the outside of turn two with Alberico and someone behind me – De Melo – accidentally ran into my right side as I don’t think he intended to and bent my front right, and then kind of kept hitting me, so we lost it, we both went out,” O’Ward said. “It’s a shame.”

Claman De Melo said he couldn’t turn the wheel anymore and tried to give him room, but “we just made contact.”

“I started off the weekend behind due to a missed flight through testing,” Claman De Melo said. “We just got better and better, and I was happy with the race pace. I was happy with yesterday’s solid result.”

The Andretti Autosport driver started this season with a seventh, eighth and fifth before this incident.

For O’Ward, he finished top-five in both St. Petersburg races, before placing eighth. While set to run a full IMSA sports car schedule this season, he has yet to announce any additional Indy Lights races for 2017.

“We had a terrible day yesterday, and today is even worse,” O’Ward said. “I don’t know what that’ll do for the next few races. I’ll have to play the next few weeks and see what happens. It’s just a negative weekend all the way around.”

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

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The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

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Herta Grasps His Chance to Win Milestone 400th Indy Lights Race

LEEDS, Ala. – The 400th race in the history of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires might not be remembered as a classic but it will likely never be forgotten by Colton Herta. The 17-year-old son of 1993 Indy Lights champion Bryan Herta made the most of an advantageous opportunity as he led from flag-to-flag this afternoon for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing at Barber Motorsports Park.
 
Herta was presented with his milestone trophy in Victory Lane by James Hinchcliffe, who in addition to winning the 300th race since the series’ inception in 1986 – at Long Beach in 2010 – was the most recent Verizon Indy Car Series race winner, coincidentally also at Long Beach just two weeks ago.
 
Fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser finished second for Juncos Racing, while yesterday’s winner, Frenchman Nico Jamin, completed the podium for Andretti Autosport.
 
Qualifying this morning was canceled due to a waterlogged race track following heavy overnight rain, which meant the grid for today’s second leg of the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires was determined according to championship points. Herta, despite a lowly 10th-place finish yesterday, thereby lined up on the pole ahead of Kaiser, Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) and Jamin.
 
The track was fully dry in time for the noon start, but that didn’t prevent Pato O’Ward (Team Pelfrey) and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) from making contact in Turn Two. Both returned to the pits but neither was able to continue.
 
After a couple of laps run under caution, Herta took off into the lead, chased by Kaiser and Jamin, who had managed to sneak past Telitz prior to the earlier yellow being displayed.
 
Farther back, Santi Urrutia’s miserable run of luck continued on the following lap when contact with the rear of Belardi teammate Shelby Blackstock’s car in Turn Three forced him into a spin and then a visit to the pits for a replacement nose cone. Urrutia resumed at the back of the pack and showed what might have been by regularly matching the race leader’s pace and even claiming the bonus point for fastest race lap. Sadly, he could salvage a 13th-place finish.
 
Herta, meanwhile, was untroubled at the front as he extended his advantage virtually every lap before taking the checkered flag a commanding 9.1465 seconds clear of Kaiser, who claimed the Staubli Award.
 
Jamin finished another couple of seconds back in third, narrowly ahead of Carlin’s Neil Alberico, who followed up his podium finish yesterday by passing Telitz, then closing down the gap to Jamin and placing the winner of the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda under intense pressure in the closing stages.
 
Telitz clung on to fifth ahead of Argentine rookie Nicolas Dapero, who earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award after starting 10th.
 
Herta’s second win of the new season enabled him to extend his championship lead to 16 points, 101-85, over Kaiser with four of 16 races now in the books. At stake is a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million which will guarantee the winner of the top level of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires an entry for at least three races in next year’s Verizon IndyCar Series, including the Indianapolis 500.
 
Colton Herta (#98 Deltro Energy Mazda/Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing): “I’m so happy to have won the 400th race, and to go into the history books of the series. But the first thing that crossed my mind at the checkered flag was relief – it’s such a physical track so when you’re out in front with a sizable gap, it’s a long race. Having the inside going into Turn One on the first lap was huge, because it’s so hard to pass here. Kyle was close to me on the first lap, but after that I was on my own. I do think that the more experience you have out in front, the better you are at staying calm. I think I’m better at that now because I have been up there in championships in Europe and it hasn’t worked out – and the championship is the focus now.”
 
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About Indy Lights: Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires is the third and final step on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. Sanctioned by INDYCAR, the series is operated by Andersen Promotions, which oversees all three levels of the ladder system. The Indy Lights champion is awarded a scholarship valued at $1M toward the Verizon IndyCar Series. The series has a rich history as a development platform for many of today’s top drivers. For more information, visit indylights.com
 
About Mazda, Mazda Motorsports: Mazda Motorsports boasts the most comprehensive auto racing development ladder system of any auto manufacturer in the world. The Mazda Road to 24 program offers a number of scholarships to advance drivers up the sports car racing ladder, beginning with the Global MX-5 Cup series and culminating with the Mazda Prototype team. The Mazda Road to Indy is a similar program that includes Mazda-powered categories of USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. In grassroots road racing, more Mazdas race on any given weekend in North America than any other manufacturer. Mazda is also the title sponsor of the renowned Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Follow all of the latest news at MazdaMotorsports.com, @MazdaRacing on Twitter, and MazdaMotorsports on Instagram and Facebook. 
 
About Cooper Tire & Rubber Company: Cooper Tire & Rubber Company is the parent company of a global family of companies that specializes in the design, manufacture, marketing and sale of innovative, great-performing tires that you can count on to last for thousands of miles, getting you where you need to go, and back again. Cooper is proud to be the spec tire for all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, a development program within the IndyCar racing series. Cooper tires can also be seen on the track as a sponsor in the short course off-road TORC Series. Headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, Cooper, with its subsidiaries, has manufacturing, sales, distribution, technical and design operations in more than one dozen countries around the world. To connect with Cooper, visit www.coopertire.com, www.facebook.com/coopertire or www.twitter.com/coopertire.
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Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

Rookie Colton Herta Enters Barber with Points Lead

Beginning his rookie campaign, Colton Herta admitted he was taking a cautious approach to the season. However, St. Petersburg went better than anticipated as he finished second and first to take the early points lead.

“It was a good weekend,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “To be honest, it was unexpected. We were just going in there hoping just to get some top-five finishes, start the season off right, get some points and start the season off right. But came out points leaders and the win, which is kind of what we’re expecting going into this round – kind of defend the title and even though it doesn’t mean much right now, we need to be up there.”

Now set for rounds three and four at Barber Motorsports Park, Herta says he’s taking a relaxed approach to the weekend.

“We have the pace, and we’ve tested here before, so I know we can be quick,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting everything together and producing a good clean weekend for some good points.”

Things are going solidly so far as he was fifth quickest in Friday’s lone practice session, despite using old tires compared to the top-three. It’s just a matter of keeping a solid set-up underneath him throughout qualifying and both races.

“There’s a lot of ups and downs in the track, which is pretty tough on traction and tires, and it’s hard to get the car set-up for every corner because every corner is very different here,” he said.

If he can keep producing podium results weekly, it could change the direction originally planned for his career, spending only one season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires versus two. Notably, the champion receives a scholarship valued for three Verizon IndyCar Series events, including the Indianapolis 500.

“We were thinking more of a two-year program in Indy Lights – get going in the first year, and then get the championship fight started in the second year,” he said. “But since we’re in the lead and have a good amount of pace already, it has to lean more towards trying to get it done this season. But we’re in no rush because we can’t do that this year, I’ve got time on my hands.”

For Herta, he got involved in racing at a young age with his father Bryan Herta’s involvement as an owner.

“The transporter and being around Andretti growing up, it was kind of a like a playground for me,” Colton Herta said. “I obviously wanted to do it, and at five years old, I got the chance to step in a go-kart and loved it. I was hooked right then, and it’s become an expensive hobby.”

Despite having success across Europe over the past couple seasons, he says the most memorable moment was St. Petersburg last month.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure coming back from Europe and not knowing if I could get it done, and we proved to everybody that we can,” he said.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.

Categories
Mazda Road to Indy Open Wheel

MRTI OBSERVATIONS: Rookies are Here to Play, and More

This past weekend, the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off their season, with doubleheaders for each of the three divisions on the streets of St. Petersburg. With new faces alongside familiar faces, it was certainly a memorable weekend for some rookies.

Here are some observations from the weekend of action.

 

Rookies are Here to Play

When new talent joins the fray, questions are always asked as to whether they will succeed, or fumble. Thus far, it appears the new talent is going to impress all season.

Fresh off winning the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout, Oliver Askew was able to duck to the inside on a restart in the second Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race and pass Parker Thompson for the lead, never looking back the rest of the way.

Anthony Martin proved that he’s ready for Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires competition after winning the USF2000 Championship last year, sweeping the weekend’s events. He also did it in dominating fashion, as he led flag-to-flag in both races.

Another graduate, 2016 Pro Mazda Champion Aaron Telitz, proved that he was ready for the next jump in his career. He dominated the first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires event by leading right from the start of the race. Meanwhile, MRTI newcomer Colton Herta was able to lead flag-to-flag in the second race, despite the massive number of restarts, to become the youngest series winner.

 

The Highs and Lows of Racing

Robert Meginnis entered the season hoping to do well after partaking in the second half of the schedule last year with some success. This weekend was a mix of two worlds, though.

The first race went well as the Team Pelfrey driver started on the pole, and led every single lap in route to his first career USF2000 victory. The second race, though, was a bit of a different story. He started off strong, moving into third on an early race restart, only to make a mistake on Lap 18. He was credited with a 19th place finish.

While both races didn’t go as planned, it appears as though he’s still in high spirits based on the driveability of the series’ new chassis.

“I can’t say enough about the Tatuus USF-17,” he said. “It’s comfortable to drive; it’s consistent throughout the sessions; you can push it harder. It’s fun and exciting to drive, so I’m really looking forward to the rest of the season.”

 

Pelfrey Strangle on Pro Mazda Broken

Last year, Team Pelfrey won all of the races in Pro Mazda, except for a single event. This year, though, they currently stand zero for two.

It isn’t for lack of speed, though, as the group showed they were fast in the first event, with their drivers finishing third through fifth. Using his experience from last year, TJ Fischer led the team in third, followed by rookies Carlos Cunha and Nikita Lastochkin.

The second event didn’t see the threesome all have success, though. Fischer continued to lead the charge, once again posting a third place finish after posting a best finish of fifth last year in his partial schedule. Lastochkin was also able to put in another solid run, finishing fifth, while Cunha finished 12th following mechanical issues.

With the team showing speed already, it’s only a matter of time before the drivers gain enough experience to find their way to victory lane like Telitz and Pato O’Ward did last year.

 

Rough Start for Carlin

After winning the Indy Lights Championship last year with Ed Jones and having multiple drivers up front throughout the season, this year began strongly as Carlin Racing would’ve hoped. Each of their drivers appeared to have a good race and a bad race this past weekend.

Neil Alberico proved the team is still fast and one to watch this season, posting a third place finish in the first race of the weekend, with teammate Zachary Claman De Melo eighth. Meanwhile, the other half of the team didn’t do as well with Garth Rickards 11th and Matteus Leist in 15th following mechanical issues.

On the flip side, Claman De Melo was the only driver for Carlin in the top-10 at the end of the second event, finishing seventh. Leist completed all the laps this time, finishing 11th; Rickards and Alberico found themselves at the bottom of the charts behind Leist after being involved in an incident during the race.

For Carlin, it’s right now a balance as both Rickards and Leist are entering the series for the first time, as Leist comes from an international background while Rickards is making the jump from USF2000 to Indy Lights, versus running Pro Mazda in between. However, the rookies should learn and improve with having the experience of Alberico and Claman De Melo alongside them. There’s also a good possibility Alberico will be in victory lane before the season’s over.

EMAIL ASHLEY AT ashley.mccubbin@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW ON TWITTER:@ladybug388

The thoughts and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of PopularSpeed.com, its owners, management or other contributors. Any links contained in this article should not be considered an endorsement.