By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — After a month off, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires races are back at Barber Motorsports Park with two championship doubleheaders: Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.
Despite the loss of Team Pelfrey in Indy Lights, the Indy Lights field is strengthened by the addition of Alfonso Celis to the Juncos Racing squad. Celis was a test driver for Formula One team Force India and is making his American debut on the 2.3-mile natural terrain road course.
His teammate, Victor Franzoni comes into Barber with an interesting streak. The 2017 Pro Mazda champion has had top five results in his last 26 races dating back to the 2016 USF2000 season’s first race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Santi Urrutia was quickest in the opening practice session while Colton Herta was second ahead of Aaron Telitz and Pato O’Ward. O’Ward and Urrutia won the season-opening races on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Both have also won at Barber in the past. O’Ward swept Pro Mazda in 2016 while Urrutia won the first race of the weekend for Indy Lights in 2016.
Other Mazda Road to Indy winners in the Indy Lights race include Aaron Telitz from USF2000 in 2015 and Colton Herta won the 400th Indy Lights race ever last year.
The Pro Mazda field is 16 cars strong with eight teams fielding the new PM-18s in Pro Mazda’s first appearance in Alabama since 2016.
Series newcomer Rinus VeeKay won both races on the streets of St. Petersburg, but the Juncos Racing driver finished third and fourth in his two USF2000 races in Alabama last year.
Two drivers in the field with success at Barber include Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson and Cape Motorsports’s Oliver Askew, who swept the USF2000 races in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Thompson finished second and fifth in St. Petersburg and was quickest in the opening practice session on Friday morning.
“The competition level’s the same high level that we’re used to,” said Thompson. “The Mazda Road to Indy gathers the best drivers in the world so really we’ve had good practice so far.
“Really that’s all there is to it here is qualifying, once you qualify well, a lot of the time you’re starting at the front and other guys aren’t going to be able to get around you so qualifying is pretty important here if you ask any other competitor or driver.”
That played well into Thompson’s hands as he grabbed the pole for the opening race of the weekend with a new track record of 1 minute, 16.895 seconds.
The new PM-18 uses the same monocoque that the USF-17 from last year has with some modifications. That helps engineers with tuning the car for the twisty track.
“We struggled here a bit last year,” said Thompson. It seemed we couldn’t keep the rears under the car, we were always really loose. This year we have a super tuner, Tim Lewis is our engineer and he’s given me a great race car so far. It’s been a lot of fun to drive. That’s always fun for a driver when you’ve got something that does exactly what you want it to do.”
Askew won the 2017 USF2000 championship and was fifth in the opening practice session. However, the Jupiter, Florida native was ninth in qualifying for Saturday afternoon’s race.
“It’s very possible that we can win this weekend,” said Askew before qualifying. “It’s one of our strongest tracks. We’ve learned a lot from the USF2000 weekend and we’re applying it now.”
Because of the higher amounts of downforce in the newer PM-18, there are a few changes that won’t apply from USF2000, but there will be some similarities.
“Obviously we’re going a lot slower (in USF2000),” said Askew. “There’s some places in the high speed corners where we can’t really take so much data from the USF2000 car but it’s very comparable setup wise and the driving style is very similar.”
Following Thompson in Pro Mazda qualifying was RP Motorsports’s Harrison Scott, BN Racing’s David Malukas and the Juncos Racing duo of Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis.