Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Mazda Road to Indy Drivers Head to the Ovals for ‘Freedom Friday’

By Road to Indy

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Memorial Day weekend is steeped in tradition, especially in Indianapolis where the annual federal holiday held in remembrance of the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces coincides with the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” – the Indianapolis 500. The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – a unique open-wheel development ladder which offers scholarship-funded opportunities for drivers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Indy 500 – pays its own tribute to this nation’s history with the biggest event of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, the Freedom 100, taking place on Friday, May 25, as part of the regular Carb Day activities which include one final practice session for the 33 starters prior to Sunday’s 102nd Indianapolis 500.

In addition, the first two rungs on the ladder, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, will see action in the respective Freedom 75 and Freedom 90 events at Lucas Oil Raceway, in nearby Brownsburg, Ind., on Friday evening.

For all three series, this will mark the first oval-track race of the season. A little extra significance will stem from the fact that 50 percent more championship points will be available in comparison to the regular road and street circuit events.

Indy Lights Protagonists O’Ward, Herta Separated by One Point
The Indy Lights title-chase is finely poised after six races with a pair of victories for second-generation racer Colton Herta two weeks ago on the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit having closed the gap to Patricio “Pato” O’Ward to just a solitary championship point. Up for grabs at the end of the season is a scholarship valued at $1M to ensure entry into at least three races in the 2019 Verizon IndyCar Series, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

But for now the “Brickyard” focus is centered upon Friday’s 40-lap Freedom 100.

“The thrill of being able to race at the Speedway is super-exciting,” says O’Ward, already a three-time winner for Andretti Autosport this season. “It’s going to be my first time so that is the race I’m most looking forward to starting. The oval is so iconic and special in every way. My hopes are obviously to do well – I really want to win that one because it’s basically a mini 500 so I’m going to study and work hard to make it happen.”

O’Ward, 19, from Monterrey, Mexico, posted the second fastest lap, at an average speed of 196.190 mph, during a rain-shortened test yesterday on the historic 2.5-mile oval.

Herta, 18, from Valencia, Calif., already has some speedway experience under his belt, although his debut last year ended prematurely following an incident with Andretti Autosport teammate Ryan Norman. Still, the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing standard bearer has no doubt about the significance of racing at Indianapolis.

“It’s massive, when you work your whole life towards the goal of racing in IndyCar and more importantly the 500,” he says. “There’s so much history within the Brickyard and it makes me feel special just to say I’ve raced on it.

“We run flat-out so it’s more about getting dialed in for the race. The movement of the cars when you’re in dirty air is massive and minimizing that is key. You do this by adding downforce mostly but it’s a trade-off because you want to be able to slipstream and overtake as well, and you do this by running less wing.”

Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, also is in the thick of the title-chase, just six points adrift of O’Ward after winning at St. Petersburg and securing three additional podium finishes for Belardi Auto Racing. Urrutia has raced twice previously at Indy. Last year he secured the Tilton Hard Charger Award after fighting his way from 12th on the grid to fifth.

Teammate Aaron Telitz, from Rice Lake, Wis., has overcome a dismal start to his sophomore season in Indy Lights by finishing fourth, third and second in the three most recent races. He also finished second in last year’s Freedom 100.

Andretti Autosport’s Dalton Kellett also has high expectations after finishing third in each of his two previous Freedom 100 starts. The Indianapolis-based Canadian posted the fastest speed during yesterday’s test session at an average of 198.005 mph.

Two-time USAC champion Chris Windom’s hopes of making his Indy Lights debut were unfortunately dashed yesterday when he crashed in Turn Two, causing irreparable damage to his Belardi Auto Racing with Byrd & Belardi Dallara IL-15. Instead, the oval racing flag will be flown by second-generation racer Davey Hamilton, Jr., from Boise, Idaho, who worked his way up to speed methodically, posting the sixth fastest lap for Team Pelfrey.

Following the rain-out of yesterday’s second planned 90-minute test session, the schedule on Thursday, May 24, has been amended slightly to incorporate a pair of 30-minute practice sessions at 9:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m., prior to single-car qualifying at 1:30 p.m. Friday’s race, to be broadcast live on NBCSN, will start at 12:30 p.m. All times are EDT.

Oval Veteran Thompson Heads Pro Mazda Entry
The new Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 technical package for Pro Mazda has created some sensational action during the opening six races of the season at three different venues. Three drivers have so far featured on the top step of the podium, with Dutchman Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), Englishman Harrison Scott (RP Motorsport Racing) and Canadian Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport) each capturing a pair of wins for three different teams. Four more challengers also have led races – Brazilian Carlos Cunha (Juncos Racing), Mexico’s Andres Gutierrez (Team Pelfrey) and Americans Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports) and David Malukas (BN Racing) – and lap records have been shattered.

Both the qualifying and race lap standards at the tight and challenging 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway, established in 2013 by series champion Matthew Brabham, are expected to be easy pickings when the middle rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder returns to LOR for Friday’s Freedom 90 following a one-year hiatus.

Experience is usually of paramount importance on the ovals, and while an extremely competitive field makes pinpointing a potential winner especially difficult, all eyes will be focused on series points leader Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., who qualified on pole, led 61 of the 75 laps and ultimately finished second in the USF2000 race at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2016. Thompson, though, is keen to play down any advantage.

“Headed into our first oval of the season, a lot of variables will come into play,” he asserts. “Ovals are a completely different animal for the teams and drivers, especially Lucas Oil Raceway. But I’m confident in the team around me. We’re coming off a great performance at the IMS road course and I think we’ll use that momentum to our advantage working together on our oval package.

“Even though I may have experience at LOR, I don’t think I can bring many of my past oval experiences into the Freedom 90,” he continues. “This new PM-18 car is so different from the old USF car, and the USF-17. I am really going to have to rely on the knowledge of my engineer, Tim Lewis, to build confidence with tackling the beast of a Pro Mazda car on the banks of an oval.”

Activity for the Cooper Tires Freedom 90 will kick off on Thursday, May 24, with 90 minutes of testing in two sessions, followed by 60 minutes of official practice. Single-car qualifying will commence at 3:05 p.m. EDT on Friday, with the race set to start at 7:05 p.m.

USF2000 Returns to an Oval Following a One-Year Gap
A new challenge will face almost the entire field of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda drivers this week when they head to Lucas Oil Raceway for Round Five of the 14-race season. The daunting 0.686-mile oval returns to the schedule following a one-year hiatus, with series rookie Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports) currently holding a 13-point margin over Alex Baron (Swan-RJB Motorsports) in the quest for a $325,000 Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship to move up to Pro Mazda in 2019.

“The Capes and I just had our first test together around an oval at Memphis International Raceway,” said Kirkwood, 19, from Jupiter, Fla. “I’d have to say, it was extremely enjoyable! Being honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of oval racing but, after my first test, my view on it has completely changed.

“I don’t have much expectations going into Lucas Oil Raceway Park because I only have two days around an oval,” he continued. “Fortunately, [2017 USF2000 champion and close friend] Oliver [Askew] tested around there last year [for the Cape team] so I’m sure we have a good baseline setup to start with. With 20-plus cars in the field, I know there will be traffic during the 75-lap race, so I’m sure a lot of the race we will be fighting to get around traffic quickly. This is a huge race for the championship with the added points, so staying clean is very important.”

Baron, 23, who carries joint French and British citizenship, is one of only two drivers in the field with any significant previous oval experience, although in his case it came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014, when he finished seventh in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race. Baron spent almost three years away from the sport before rekindling his career while making three USF2000 starts in 2017.

Brazilian Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) is alone among the field in having driven a USF2000 car at Lucas Oil Raceway. Kohl finished 10th in the 2016 edition of the Freedom 75 – albeit aboard one of the older Elan/Van Diemen cars which have since been superseded by the vastly superior Tatuus-Mazda USF-17.

Exemplifying the competitiveness of this year’s USF2000 title-chase, no fewer than 19 drivers already have recorded at least one top-10 finish. In addition to Kirkwood and Baron, who each have two race wins under their belts, Mexico’s Jose Sierra (DEForce Racing), Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport), Florida’s Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), Kohl and Swedish rookie Rasmus Lindh (Pabst Racing) also have made a podium appearance.

Preparations for the 75-lap Cooper Tires Freedom 75 will commence with 90 minutes of testing on Thursday, May 24, followed by a one-hour official practice session starting at 5:45 p.m. EDT. Single-car qualifying will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, with the green flag set for 6:05 p.m.

Indy Lights Champs Newgarden, Kaiser, Karam Headline MRTI Oval Clinic
The first oval race of the season – and for the vast majority of Pro Mazda and USF2000 drivers their very first oval race – will be preceded by a special Oval Clinic hosted by the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires on Thursday morning. The two-hour introduction to oval racing will feature input from reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden and fellow MRTI graduates Kyle Kaiser, winner of last year’s Indy Lights championship, and former USF2000 and Indy Lights champion Sage Karam, who yesterday posted the fastest lap during the first post-qualifying practice session. The trio will be joined by Pro Mazda Chief Steward and five-time Indy 500 starter Johnny Unser, plus Lucas Oil School of Racing instructor Gerardo Bonilla, in offering advice based upon their wealth of experience.

Coverage of all three races can be found on a series of platforms including Road to Indy TV, the Road to Indy TV App and dedicated broadcast channels on demand via Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku and, most recently, the Xbox One Official App as well as live streaming and live timing on the series’ respective websites and Indy Lights is also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209,, and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.

The Freedom 100 Indy Lights race will be broadcast live on NBCSN, beginning at 12:10 p.m. EDT on Friday.

Tags : , , , , , , ,

With coverage extending from ARCA, NASCAR, IndyCar, and Formula 1, Motorsports Tribune is one of the premier outlets for racing news in the United States. We are a team of the hardest-working and most trusted names in the industry that are all about honoring the past, present, and future of auto racing.