In the first of three days of competition for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, a new face graced victory lane while another kept his streak rolling.
Rinus Veekay broke through for his first career Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda win to start the day, followed by Victor Franzoni scoring his third straight Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires victory.
Here are some observations from all the on-track action.
After coming close to victory lane at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month, Rinus Veekay made it happen on Friday afternoon as he led 11 laps en route to scoring his first career win. The Pabst Racing driver didn’t have it easy, though, as he had to out-battle David Malukas as the pair went back and forth throughout the course of the event.
The key for Veekay in winning was his ability to get stronger as the race went on, building on his knowledge with each lap around Road America.
“I learned to be very patient in this race,” he said. “I was behind Oliver and David early and sometimes when I made a move, it worked, and sometimes I made a little mistake. But I learned from it. It was a great battle – we touched wheels but it was very fair, a real fight like you want to have. I love this track, it reminds me of Spa, with the long straights with very technical corners. It brings the driving part of you out. I can’t wait for tomorrow!”
Veekay’s success is nothing of a surprise, though, as he has been impressive in his rookie campaign so far this year with only one finish outside of top-five in seven events. Now having closed the gap in the standings down to just 34 points behind Oliver Askew, a hot streak could very well allow him to become a champion this year.
Freaky Fast Franzoni
Franzoni is having a dream season right now in Pro Mazda if you look at the statistics alone. After starting off the year with a pair of runner-ups, he has now scored three straight victories. His event came to him easier than Veekay’s, though, as he was able to get the lead on Lap 3 from Anthony Martin, extending his advantage from there on to the checkered flag.
The success right now means everything for the Juncos Racing driver as he knows what is at stake should he win the championship – a scholarship to compete in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires full-time in 2018,
“This championship is the only chance I have to move up in my career, so I have to win,” he said. “I don’t have too many options.”
While he had everything go his way on Friday, the second event of the weekend on Saturday will be more challenging. He was unable to complete a full quick lap in time trials as a result of two ill-timed red flags in the session, resulting in him qualifying last on the grid. He has the speed, so the question now is can he make up the ground?
Problems for Askew
Since winning the scholarship to compete in USF2000 full-time with the Mazda Soul Red livery, Oliver Askew has been just spectacular. After posting a runner-up in the season opener at St. Petersburg, he followed it up with five straight wins entering this weekend.
Unfortunately, bad luck struck for him as he would have to pit on Lap 9 due to a loose wheel, causing him to finish 17th. While he entered the weekend just 60 points ahead of the field, he is now just 34 markers ahead of Veekay.
Being the first time this year he has faced adversity, it will be critical for him to turn around and post a solid finish on Saturday to prove he is not giving up his advantage quite yet.
Fischer Places Last
After posting only one top-five last year, T.J. Fischer came into this season as one of the front-runners with three third-place finishes and a runner-up, leaving him poised as to break through to victory lane.
However, mechanical problems saw him go two laps down on Friday at Road America, leaving him last on the grid on 15th.
Set to start in second for race number two on Saturday, a victory would allow Fischer to gain valuable back points in the championship with Franzoni starting last.
Nice Rebound, Frederick
The sixth-place finish for Kaylen Frederick gives him only his second finish this year outside of the top-five, but that does not tell the whole story.
The Team Pelfrey driver had to work hard as he qualified 12th, and failed to make up ground in the first half of the race due to going off-track on a couple of occasions. Through the second half, though, he posted some of the quickest lap times, allowing him to make moves and pull off a solid finish.
Frederick admitted when speaking with Popular Speed earlier this past week that the start of the events was his weak point, with a focus on minimizing mistakes moving forward.
He has proven he can be fast – as evidenced by qualifying in the runner-up spot for four races this year. Now if he can do that in Saturday’s morning session, and build on what he showed during the second half of Friday, his fourth podium could be right around the corner.
First Podium Finish
Shout-out to Nikita Lastochkin for scoring his first career Pro Mazda podium finish with a third on Friday afternoon. Starting the event in fourth, he made his way forward in the early stages past Carlos Cunha and remained up front as the field spread out around the road course.
Now with four top-fives in five races, Lastochkin is an excellent choice for a darkhorse as someone that could sneak in for a win before the year is over if the improvement continues on a weekly basis.
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