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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: Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto

TORONTO, Ontario — In the tight confines of the streets of Toronto, Kyle Kaiser showcased why he is the current series points leader, as he won both Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix’s of Toronto. As for his competitors, some of them left with smiles while others were frustrated.

Here are some observations from the weekend.

Kool Kaiser

Entering his third season of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition, Kyle Kaiser is coming into his own as a racecar driver. He has been solid on a weekly basis, scoring only one finish outside of the top-six in the first 10 races heading into Toronto.

This past weekend at Exhibition Place, he accomplished something he has not done in his career to date – sweeping a weekend.

In the first race, he led all 35 laps after starting from the pole, followed by running second throughout the second event after a daring three-wide move on Lap 1. until Colton Herta experienced a mechanical problem on Lap 25, handing the lead over to Kaiser. From there on, he drove away from the field en route to the checkered flag.

“This has been a dream weekend,” he said. “I’ve never had a double win weekend before, so I didn’t come into the (second) race – obviously I always try to win, but I was accepting the realistic facts. We were starting third, two really good guys ahead of us, so I was coming in just set to finish the race, and keep it clean.”

The success for Kaiser is no surprise, though, as he entered the weekend with three third-place finishes and a ninth in four previous races.

“We’ve always had a good set-up here,” he said. “Spencer (Pigot) won here two times in 2015 and last year, we had good pace but got caught out in the first qualifier towards the back but raced up to third. I think we’ve always had a good street course set-up, besides St. Pete. We did what we had to do. We attacked and gave everything that we had, and it paid off.”

Now with his third victory of the year, he currently leads the standings, 51 markers ahead of Matheus Leist. If he can remain solid throughout the rest of the season, he could walk away with the championship, and an opportunity to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“I think there are places that I could have done better,” he told POPULAR SPEED on Saturday. “I mean, there’s always room to improve every season. But, we’re leading the championship, and this was a really good day for the points, so I’m very happy. I can’t get too critical of myself.”

Hometown Struggles for Kellett

After scoring a third at Iowa Speedway, Dalton Kellet entered the Honda Indy Toronto weekend hopeful for a successful showing in front of the hometown fans. However, the event did not go as the Stouffville, Ontario native planned.

Going into the event, he was aware of the challenge at hand, telling POPULAR SPEED on Friday that the bumpy track conditions were going to present “a challenge for us to set the car up so we can be competitive.”

On Saturday, he would go off the track on three different occasions, before parking the No. 28 Andretti Autosport entry for a 12th-place finish. Then on Sunday, he ran up in the top-five for the first half of the race, before getting into the tire barrier on Lap 30. He was able to keep going, though crossed the finish line in ninth.

The finishes go along with the way his season has played out so far, running up front but not posting the warranted results with two top-fives and eight top-10’s in 12 races.

“We’ve been really strong on the ovals, and we’ve been quick on the road and street courses, but have not been able to put the results together,” he said.

Kellett will hope to turn things around at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where he posted a ninth-place finish in 2016.

One Happy Canadian

Although Dalton Kellett was left frustrated, another Canadian driver gave the fans a reason to smile. Montreal’s Zachary Claman DeMelo ran up front in both events, posting a runner-up and third place finish.

“It’s a really good feeling to get two podiums in a row in Toronto,” he said. “It’s almost like my second home; I’ve kart raced here since I was eight years old, so it’s a nice city. It’s a shame that we didn’t have the car to win, but I’m really happy with the amount of points we gained.”

Claman DeMelo ran solidly in the runner-up spot in both events, though faded after the Lap 12 restart in the second race to third.

“The track was a bit slick,” he said. “We made some changes to the car, and it felt good at the beginning to challenge Kyle for quite awhile. After the restart, I just didn’t have the pace that he had. I just didn’t get a good restart so Aaron got by me and I tried to pressure him, but couldn’t so I had to settle for third today.”

While his season did not start out as warranted with two finishes outside of the top-10 in the first six races, he has turned it around with a top-10 in each of those that have followed, including a victory at Road America.

“I started off rough, but made a big push through the middle of the season,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “I went to the gym a lot, went and worked with the team a lot, and it’s starting to show as the last two races have been really strong for me. Qualified on the front row at Iowa – the race didn’t go quite how I wanted, and then the win at Road America. So things are going well, and hopefully, we can carry this strong momentum.”

Currently sitting fourth in points, he is only 21 markers behind Matheus Leist for second heading to Mid-Ohio, where he placed seventh in both events last year.

“We just need to stay consistent every race and try to get as many points as we can,” he said. “I think we can challenge for a win at Mid-Ohio there, as well.”

Rough Start to Race 2

Although the first event of the weekend went cleanly, the second race did not start off smoothly with a big wreck on the opening lap, taking out several key contenders.

Going into the first corner, Kyle Kaiser dived left underneath Santiago Urrutia for the second position, while Nico Jamin went to the right. Now three-wide in one of the tightest corners of the circuit, Jamin made slight contact with the outside wall, bottling up the field behind them. As a result, Shelby Blackstock was left nowhere to go as he drove over Jamin’s rear tire, followed by Neil Alberico catching a good piece of the action.

“That was pretty wild,” eventual race runner-up Aaron Telitz said. “Three cars tried to go three-wide all the way around the corner, which obviously didn’t end up going well for them. It bottled up and my teammate Shelby (Blackstock) went up and over Nico (Jamin), and I could see the bottom of Shelby’s car, so I thought it’d be a full course yellow, and sure enough it came out.”

Kaiser would go on to win the race, but Jamin, Blackstock, and Alberico all were done for the event. Urrutia was also able to continue but eventually came to a stop on the front stretch on Lap 12 en route to finishing 11th.

The incident just added to the frustrations of the weekend for Jamin and Blackstock, who both failed to post a top-10 finish in the first race of the weekend. Jamin was running up in the top-five but got front end damage when he ran into Matheus Leist after he spun on Lap 5. Meanwhile, Blackstock began the race with a mechanical issue, going seven laps down before joining the action.

While both drivers were expected to be part of the championship conversation, they have now fallen outside of the top-five in points with Jamin seventh and Blackstock 12th. The pair could use a good run at Mid-Ohio as Jamin has only one top-10 in the last four races, while Blackstock has failed to post a top-10 in the last three.

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.

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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

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.

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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

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.

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BLACKSTOCK: Belardi Auto Racing “Feels More Like Home”

In college and not sure what he should major in, Blackstock made a trip to the Skip Barber Driving School and impressed the coaches with his ability behind the wheel. They suggested he should partake in the Skip Barber Racing School, and from there, Shelby Blackstock hasn’t slowed down ever since.

This coming season, Blackstock will embark on his third season of Indy Lights competition, but with a different team than the past two years. Looking to switching things up, he left Andretti Autosport and joined Belardi Auto Racing.

“Everything has been going extremely well in off-season testing,” he told POPULAR SPEED. “I’m really looking forward to getting to the first race and seeing where we stack up. I know the team has a good street race car so I’m excited to get to St. Pete.”

Belardi Auto Racing is coming off a successful season which saw them score a total of six race wins and finish fourth in points with Zach Veach. The Indiana-based team has had success in Indy Lights before, previously winning the championship in 2014.

Blackstock hopes to repeat the success Veach, and the Belardi line-up produced last year, and feel it’s possible as he has been able to jell well with the team thus far, saying it “feels more like than I was used to.”

“In testing in everything with the new car, we’ve shown speed,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle, especially amongst my teammates throughout the season, and there will be drivers on other teams that will definitely bring their A-game. So there’s no really set expectations except to go out there and do the best that I can. There’s always going to things that you can’t control, and it’s about keeping those to a minimal and having some fun.”

If he were able to have success and be in the top-five, it’d mark a change over the past two years in the series. In 24 starts over the previous two years, he has scored only one podium, which came at Mid-Ohio in 2015. Interestingly, the podium with Andretti Autosport that season came after a test with Belardi Auto Racing.

“He worked extremely well with our engineers back then, and we were impressed in our recent test at Barber Motorsports Park as well,” team owner Brian Belardi said in November. “It’s exciting to have him signed to the team for 2017. He’ll be a great addition to our family.”

Ultimately if everything comes together, Blackstock could walk away with the Indy Lights Championship this season, which would give him a scholarship worth three Verizon IndyCar Series starts for 2018, including the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s what people strive for and try to get to,” he said. “That’s why we’re all out there in the Mazda Road to Indy, to get the scholarship and move on to the next level. Definitely want to go out as strong as I can in my Mazda Road to Indy career to bring confidence into the IndyCar Series.”

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.

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2016 Indy Lights Series Year in Review: Shelby Blackstock

While he had hoped to have a breakout performance in his sophomore season of competition, Shelby Blackstock struggled at times during the season en route to an eighth place finish in points.

 

Points Finish: 8th

Car No.: 51

Driver Name: Shelby Blackstock

Team Name: Andretti Autosport

Total Races: 18

Victories: 0

Podiums: 0

Top-Fives: 5

Top-10s: 12

Average Start: 8.9

Average Finish: 8.8

DNFs: 0

 

After an up-and-down rookie campaign, Shelby Blackstock came into the 2016 season with hopes for a better consistent season. Unfortunately, it didn’t start as planned for the American with three finishes outside of the top-10 to start the year. He was able to bounce back in the five races which followed, though, as he posted five straight top-10s, including a pair of fourths.

The finishes didn’t remain, though, as Blackstock met some rough waters through the summer. In the following five races, he’d post three finishes outside of the top-nine to go with a fifth at Road America. To complete the season, Blackstock posted four more top-10 finishes, including a fifth in Mid-Ohio.

 

Highlight of 2016 – A couple top-five finishes throughout the season prove Blackstock can get the job done if in the right position.

Downfall of 2016 – While his teammate Dean Stoneman was able to branch out and become a star with a big win, Blackstock remained in the shadows as he never truly contended for a true race victory.

Road/Street Course Analysis – In 15 races, Blackstock posted five top-five finishes, with a best-finish of fourth. He’s proven he can be consistent, but needs to go one extra step if he wants to contend for race wins.

Oval Analysis – While he was able to finish fourth at Indianapolis, the other two races didn’t go as planned.

Notes for 2017 – Blackstock announced near the end of November that he’d be joining Belardi Auto Racing for the 2017 season. The team hopes to build on Belardi’s success after Zach Veach led them to a top-five points finish last year. They also have history together, based upon a test in 2015.

“We tested Shelby during the summer of 2015, and he responded by immediately scoring his best finish of the year for the team he was with,” offered team owner Brian Belardi. “He worked extremely well with our engineers back then, and we were impressed in our recent test at Barber Motorsports Park as well. It’s exciting to have him signed to the team for 2017. He’ll be a great addition to our family.”

Belardi Auto Racing has proven they’re one of the best Indy Lights team, right up there with Juncos Racing and Carlin Racing. It’s now up to Blackstock to get the job done behind the wheel.

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.

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Blackstock Joins Belardi Auto Racing

Shelby Blackstock is on the move for the 2017 season as the Nashville, Tennessee native will drive for Belardi Auto Racing.

The 26-year-old drove for Andretti Autosport last season, finishing eighth in points with 13 top-10, five top-five finishes, and the best result being fourth at Barber Motorsports Park and in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

He has driven in each ladder of the Mazda Road to Indy, beginning in USF2000 in 2012 before moving up to Pro Mazda a year later. He scored his first career win that season at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park, before moving up to Indy Lights in 2015.

In 24 starts over the past two years, he has scored only one podium, which came at Mid-Ohio in 2015.

“Going into the 2017 season, there are going to be many changes and challenges to overcome,” Blackstock enthused. “One of the biggest changes and, something I’m very excited about, is that I’ll be joining Belardi Auto Racing for the 2017 Indy Lights season! I have a brief history with the team from 2015, which made the move from Andretti Autosport a bit easier. Belardi has proven to have quick cars, and I really like how the team is organized. There will be a lot of different challenges in the 2017 season. The field will be very stout, as it has in the past, so I’m really excited to see how the team pushes me and how we tackle each challenge together! I’m very thankful and excited for this opportunity and can’t wait to get to work!”

The announcement comes following a successful test recently at Barber Motorsports Park together, as well as the previous history together.

“We tested Shelby during the summer of 2015, and he responded by immediately scoring his best finish of the year for the team he was with,” offered team owner Brian Belardi. “He worked extremely well with our engineers back then, and we were impressed in our recent test at Barber Motorsports Park as well. It’s exciting to have him signed to the team for 2017. He’ll be a great addition to our family.”

Belardi Auto Racing is coming off a successful season which saw them score a total of six race wins and finish fourth in points with Zach Veach. The Indiana-based team has had success in Indy Lights before, previously winning the championship in 2014.

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.