By Road to Indy
PALMETTO, Fla. – Almost 50 drivers representing 15 different nationalities from around the globe will convene this week in rural Wisconsin, where all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder will feature a pair of races in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Kohler Grand Prix at the historic Road America facility in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
The challenging and undulating 4.014-mile road course marks the halfway point in the season for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
The Mazda Road to Indy is unique in the world of auto racing, each year providing prizes and scholarships valued at over $3.5 million to enable talented young drivers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
There will be a poignant moment on Saturday when Indy Lights racer and reigning Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni paces the Pro Mazda race in his Indy Lights Dallara IL-15 in tribute to Illinois racer Jeff Green, who tragically lost his life during a vintage event last weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park. Green became both a close friend and supporter of the Brazilian during their time together at Juncos Racing last year in Pro Mazda. Team principal Ricardo Juncos will give the command to start engines.
Intense Action in Indy Lights
The effectiveness of Indy Lights is well proven. No fewer than 25 of the 33 starters in last month’s 102nd Indianapolis 500 had graduated from the top step of the Mazda Road to Indy. But in some ways the series has become a victim of its own success. This year three drivers – 2017 champion Kyle Kaiser, Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman DeMelo – and one prominent team, Carlin (which fielded four cars in 2017), have moved on to the Verizon IndyCar Series, leaving a significantly smaller field than usual. Nevertheless, both the quality and level of intensity remain high, as confirmed by a sensational six-car battle for supremacy during the recent Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Second-generation racer Colton Herta, from Valencia, Calif., emerged narrowly on top at the conclusion of the frantic 40-lap race, marking his third successive victory for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing. Herta thereby leads the points table by a slim, six-point margin over Andretti Autosport teammate Patricio “Pato” O’Ward and is seeking to follow in the footsteps of his father, Bryan Herta, who secured the title in 1993.
Fellow teenager O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, who finished second at Indy, will seek to emulate the form that took him to the top step of the podium in three of the first four races, while Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, third in the championship table for Belardi Auto Racing (after finishing second in both 2016 and 2017), hopes to repeat the race victory he claimed at Road America in 2016.
Teammate Aaron Telitz, from Rice Lake, Wis., also has high expectations after sweeping both races at his home-state track in 2016 en route to the Pro Mazda Championship.
“I always look forward to my home race at Road America the most,” said Telitz, who won twice during his rookie Indy Lights campaign in 2017 and has a pair of recent podium finishes to his name after a difficult start to his season. “For me, it’s the biggest race of the year. I get my family and friends to come out along with my biggest supporters from Rice Lake Weighing Systems. We made some serious gains at the series’ test last week and I feel really good about my Belardi Auto Racing car heading into the race weekend. I’ve been building momentum since my St. Pete crash and even though I had a gearbox issue at the Freedom 100, I feel like we’re really coming on strong as a team halfway through the year.”
Franzoni, too, carries some momentum into the weekend after topping the charts during last week’s open test.
“This is the kind of track I really like,” said the Brazilian. “We’re working on a car that’s fast and really suits me well, so I’m very confident going into the race.”
The Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Cooper Tires will commence with a 45-minute practice session at 9:15 a.m. on Friday, June 22, followed by 30 minutes of qualifying later in the afternoon at 4:55 p.m. to set the grid for Race One. A second qualifying session for Race Two will start at 8:00 a.m. on Saturday. The green flag for Race One is set for 12:05 p.m., with Race Two scheduled for 9:50 a.m. on Sunday, June 24. All times are CDT.
Thompson and Exclusive on a Roll
Canadian Parker Thompson has eked out a commanding lead in his quest for this year’s Pro Mazda Championship… and a Mazda Scholarship worth close to $800,000 to assist in graduation to Indy Lights in 2019. Thompson, who finished second in the 2016 USF2000 title-chase and third in 2017, has been on a roll since stepping up to Pro Mazda this season with Canadian-based Exclusive Autosport. He has finished among the top five in each of the seven races, including successive wins on the Indianapolis GP road course and Lucas Oil Raceway oval.
“The entire Exclusive Autosport crew and myself are feeling very confident headed into the summer swing that kicks off in Road America,” said Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb. “We know we’ll have some stiff competition come race time with lots of teams doing their homework after Indianapolis, but that doesn’t change our approach. We need to win as many races as we can. Our philosophy is that the best defense is offense, and we’re ready to do what it takes to fight for more wins in Wisconsin.”
Thompson’s admirable display of pace and consistency has taken him 40 points clear of his nearest challenger, Brazilian Carlos Cunha, who lies just one point ahead of Juncos Racing teammate Rinus VeeKay, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands. The 17-year-old Dutch prodigy already has an enviable record at Road America after winning both USF2000 races in 2017 with Pabst Racing on his way to second in the championship.
Other rivals will include a third Juncos Racing entry for young New Yorker Robert Megennis, who finished third in the most recent race at Lucas Oil Raceway; reigning USF2000 champion Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports), from Jupiter, Fla., who already has three poles to his credit; Sting Ray Robb (Team Pelfrey), who last year claimed a best finish of fourth at Road America; and Chicago’s David Malukas (BN Racing), who proved the effectiveness of the new Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 by circulating more than 3.5 seconds unofficially inside the existing Pro Mazda track record during last week’s Open Test.
“It’s one of my favorite tracks even though I only raced here last year in USF2000,” said Malukas, who qualified on pole for one of the USF2000 races. “My dad raced here when I was a kid; I came here a lot and have a lot of good memories. Being at Road America is really what got me into racing.”
A pair of talented Englishmen, Toby Sowery, aboard a second BN Racing Tatuus, and RP Motorsport Racing’s Harrison Scott, also are expected to shine. Sowery, who showed well last year at Barber Motorsports Park during a one-off USF2000 outing, will be making his Pro Mazda debut following an impressive test last week, while Scott, runaway winner of last year’s Euroformula Open Championship, already has two wins to his name this season.
Raul Guzman, from Guadalajara, Mexico, who finished third in the 2016 Italian F4 Championship, also is set to make his debut in a second RP Motorsport Racing entry.
Another one to watch will be rookie Andres Gutierrez out of the Team Pelfrey camp. The Monterrey, Mexico native was fourth-quickest overall following last week’s test.
The closely matched field will kick off the long weekend on Thursday, June 21, with a 30-minute practice session at 1:15 p.m., followed by qualifying for Race One at 4:40 p.m. and then qualifying for Race Two at 8:40 a.m. on Friday. The pair of 40-minute races which will comprise the Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Cooper Tires will start at 2:20 p.m. on Friday and 2:05 p.m. on Saturday. All times are CDT.
Locally Based Pabst Team Set to Challenge in USF2000
Rookie Kyle Kirkwood and his Cape Motorsports team have already taken a stranglehold on this year’s USF2000 Championship but are sure to face stiff opposition this week from Oconomowoc, Wis.-based Pabst Racing. The local team has high hopes of emulating its form from 2017, when rookie Rinus VeeKay won both races, bringing eventual champion Oliver Askew’s sequence of five wins to a screeching halt.
All four Pabst cars, driven by Kaylen Frederick, from Potomac, Md., Brazilian Lucas Kohl, Guyana’s Calvin Ming and Sweden’s Rasmus Lindh, were fast in last week’s test, with Frederick leading the way with a lap comfortably inside Askew’s existing lap record.
“My teammates helped me to improve – we push each other to go quicker and that improves all of us,” said Frederick, 16, who finished fourth in last year’s championship and has bounced back from a difficult start to his sophomore season by finishing second in the most recent race on the Lucas Oil Raceway oval. “It’s an important race for us, since the team is from here. They were so successful here last year and that gives us even more information about the track and what to expect come race weekend.”
Championship leader Kirkwood, who was comfortably quickest on Day One of the test, remains confident of being able to maintain or even extend his championship advantage.
“We still have the same approach as always,” asserted Kirkwood, whose own streak of five consecutive top-five finishes, including three wins, has taken him to a commanding 61-point lead in the chase for a $325,000 Mazda Scholarship to advance to Pro Mazda in 2019. “I think this entire year we’ve been pretty risk-less. So I believe our current strategy is quite good… in any situation. Technically, we only have to maintain, but we will always strive for wins.”
Alex Baron, from Narbonne, France, who carries dual French and British citizenship, currently holds second in the points table for Swan-RJB Motorsports. His roller-coaster campaign has included two wins and two retirements.
The wide-open nature of this year’s USF2000 title-chase is perfectly exemplified by the fact that drivers from six different teams are represented among the top seven in the points table, with Mexico’s Jose Sierra, in third place for DEForce Racing, being pursued by Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport), the Pabst pair of Lindh and Kohl, and Newman Wachs Racing’s Darren Keane.
Others to watch include Kory Enders of DEForce Racing, Julian Van der Watt of Team Pelfrey and Michael d’Orlando of Team Benik – all of whom posted fast times within the top 10 at the recent test.
Two new drivers will make their first appearances this weekend. Jacob Abel, from Louisville, Ky., will drive for his own family-run team, while Singapore native Danial Frost has joined Exclusive Autosport after shining in the South East Asia Formula 4 series.
The impressive 26-car field will kick off with a half-hour practice session at 8:00 a.m. on Friday, followed by two qualifying sessions later in the day at 12:45 p.m. and 5:35 p.m. The first of two races for the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Road America Powered by Mazda will see the green flag at 1:10 p.m. on Saturday, with the second race set for Sunday morning at 8:00 a.m. All times are CDT.
Coverage of all three series 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, Roku and the Xbox One Official App. Live streaming and live timing is available on the series’ respective websites and indycar.com. Indy Lights is also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.
Sunday’s Indy Lights race will feature same-day coverage on NBCSN at 10:00 p.m. EDT.