By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
The 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires begins with a host of changes.
Schmidt Peterson Motorsports closed their Indy Lights team, but their cars were destined to see the grid with other teams. Andretti Autosport and Carlin both expanded to four cars, while Belardi Auto Racing expanded to three cars.
Juan Piedrahita returns to the yellow and black squad in the No. 2 entry, while Pato O’Ward has the No. 3 machine at his disposal for St. Petersburg. O’Ward kept himself busy by winning his class at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and was a last minute addition to the field. The Mexican doesn’t know if he will continue if he has a good result but getting two podiums can’t hurt.
Belardi Auto Racing
The 2014 series champion team expands from two to three cars and has two drivers that can easily win the championship. Driving car No. 5 is 2016 Indy Lights runner up Santiago Urrutia, who came within two points of winning the title and is looking to win the championship in his second season. Partnering with Urrutia at the front of the team in car No. 9 is Aaron Telitz, who won the 2016 Pro Mazda crown and earned the right to race the Soul Red Mazda scheme.
The third car on the team has Shelby Blackstock behind the wheel of car No. 51. Blackstock has had a struggling time in Indy Lights with one podium and seven other top five finishes in 34 starts, but a new change of scenery might have a positive influence on Blackstock who had driven for Andretti Autosport since 2012.
The 2016 series champion team has two veterans and two rookies making up their four car lineup. Returning to the team in the No. 22 is Neil Alberico. Zachary Claman de Melo moves over from Juncos Racing to drive the No. 13.
Moving up from USF2000, Garth Rickards will drive car No. 11, while British F3 champion Matheus Leist will be making his American racing debut behind the wheel of car No. 26.
Ricardo Juncos’ team did not constrict their Indy Lights program with their planned expansion into the Verizon IndyCar Series and is running two cars for the third year in a row.
Returning to car No. 18 is Kyle Kaiser, who ran with Juncos in Pro Mazda in 2014 and stepped up with the team to Indy Lights in 2015 and 2016. Joining Kaiser will be Nicolas Dapero in car No. 31. Dapero drove in Pro Mazda for Juncos Racing and progressed well as the season went on.
Expanding to four cars, Andretti Autosport has one of the more diverse lineups in the paddock in terms of drivers and with three rookies there are many unknowns heading into the season.
Driving car No. 28 is the only veteran on the team, Canadian Dalton Kellett, who drove for the team in the 2015 Pro Mazda championship and Indy Lights last year. Moving up from Pro Mazda is the driver of the No. 27 car Nico Jamin, who won the 2015 USF2000 championship and raced the Soul Red Mazda scheme last year to third in the Pro Mazda points.
The other two rookies come from vastly different backgrounds.
In car No. 48 is Ryan Norman, last year’s Atlantics championship winner and winner of the Formula Atlantic class at the SCCA Runoffs last year.
The No. 98 has Colton Herta behind the wheel. The son of two time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner Bryan Herta, Colton went to Europe and ran in what was to become the British F4 championship and then spent a year in Euroformula Open F3. He returns to America running in a partnership between Andretti and Steinbrenner Racing, co-owned by the same family of New York Yankees.
The season starts with the doubleheader race weekends at St. Petersburg and at Barber Motorsports Park. The series then heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course for two races before the first oval race of the season in the Freedom 100.
After nearly a month off, the series heads back to Road America for a doubleheader in late June before racing three times in a week with Iowa on July 9th and Toronto’s doubleheader on July 15/16.
Two weeks after that the series moves on to Mid-Ohio before going back to Gateway Motorsports Park for the final oval race of the year. The series concludes with one race at Watkins Glen International on September 3rd.