By Road to Indy
Driving for Belardi Auto Racing, Santi Urrutia enters the final two races of the season tied for second place in the standings with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta and within mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.
Santiago “Santi” Urrutia came into the 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires as one of the favorites for the championship after finishing an agonizingly close second in 2016. But his title aspirations were dealt a blow in November, when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, with which he had signed a two-year contract, announced its withdrawal from the series. Enter Belardi Auto Racing, which, with help from SPM, honored the second year of Urrutia’s contract and set him back on track.
The team experienced its share of growing pains early on, with Urrutia capturing only two podium finishes in the first seven races. But they have roared back in the second half, taking four podiums and a victory in the last six events to put Urrutia 42 points back of title leader Kyle Kaiser with two races remaining. That the 20-year-old Uruguayan not only survived but thrived under the tutelage of Brian Belardi’s eponymous team is a testament not only to the team’s championship pedigree, but to Urrutia’s passion and determination to reach his goal: the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Urrutia appreciates the chance the 2014 champions gave him to return to the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires in 2017.
“It was difficult at the beginning,” Urrutia acknowledged.” I wanted to do my second year with Schmidt but Brian gave me a chance to race with his team and that was big. He believes in me and helped me race with them. Everything was new in the beginning, since I didn’t know anyone on the team. As soon as I adapted to the way they work, everything was okay.”
Not only was the team new, but so were the teammates – sophomore Shelby Blackstock and rookie Aaron Telitz, who succeeded Urrutia by winning the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last season. Telitz scored the first victory of the season but it took the team chemistry a bit longer to get off the ground – though becoming accustomed to the atmosphere in the United States also has demanded some adaptation for the intense young driver.
“Just like with the mechanics and engineers, it took a while for us to figure it out, but once we did, it really worked. Shelby and Aaron are really good guys. We go out to dinner and talk not just about motorsports but about life. It’s gotten stronger all season and I’m really glad to have them as teammates. We help each other make the cars quicker. Coming from Europe, where the atmosphere is colder, you don’t have relationships with other teams or other drivers. It took me a little while to understand how it is here in America but now I realize how friendly it is, that you can talk to other drivers. I know people still call me ‘ice man’ here, probably because I don’t smile so much, but when I win, I’m happy.”
Urrutia’s season took off at Road America, where he came back from an 11th-place starting position to finish second. He repeated the feat at Iowa, making a nail-biting storm up through the field. But it was the Mid-Ohio weekend last month that cemented his resurgence, as Urrutia took a victory from pole and a second place to close the gap to Kaiser. He knows it’s going to be tough overhauling Kaiser with only two races remaining, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try.
“The goal for the season was to win the championship, but it’s been a tough year. We’ve had weekends with good luck, weekends with bad luck, but we always turned things around. The team never gave up and worked hard, and when you work, the results will come to you. That’s been the key, to put everything together. We’ve gotten wins and pole positions in the second half of the season. I’ve been here in America for three years and, for the third time in a row, I get to fight for the championship. There are two races left to go and who knows what happens from here? We’re stronger than ever and I know it’s going to be difficult for us to win the championship but our goal is to win the next two races then see what happens.
“Each of these last two races will be like a final. We had a good car at the Gateway test so we should be good for the race. And I had the pole at Watkins Glen last year so I think I’m in a good position, the best position I’ve been in this year.”
One constant for Urrutia from last season has been his engineer, Tim Neff. After earning five Indy Lights championships in 17 years with SPM, Neff has a close relationship with Urrutia, who feels the pair have a unique kind of communication.
“I really trust Tim. I don’t have a lot of friends in racing and I can call him my friend. I believe in him and we have a really good relationship. If he makes a mistake, he tells me – and if I make a mistake, I tell him what I did. I can work closely with him and he really helps me. I know he’ll give me 100 percent to make the car as quick as he can, and he knows I’ll drive it as fast as I can. I’m really glad that we were able to do a deal for this year and I hope that if I go to IndyCar I can bring him with me.”
Neff is not the only source of advice for Urrutia, who has made friends with several drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, including fellow South Americans Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. The veteran drivers certainly have a wealth of knowledge about life on the IndyCar circuit to impart.
“I have had a lot of conversations with Helio – he lives in Miami as well, so we’re on the same plane quite a bit. He’s a good guy and he’s given me a lot of tips about racing, about life, about everything. He’s very talented and I really respect him. Juan Montoya was always my favorite driver, and I’ve had many chances to talk to him as well. I really enjoy when he’s on track and around the paddock, so I hope he’ll be at the Indy 500 next year.”
Urrutia holds a special place in the hearts of race fans in his home country. Fans in soccer-mad Uruguay remember another young talent that made his way to IndyCar – Gonzalo Rodriguez, who, tragically, lost his life at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 1999, during his first race weekend with Team Penske. Urrutia was barely 3 years old when Rodriguez died but he knows that Rodriguez paved the way he hopes to follow. He also appreciates the passionate support he receives from his fans, who can be found waving Uruguayan flags at races all over the United States.
“It’s great for the Mazda Road to Indy and for IndyCar to be able to see the support that they have from my country. As you can see from social media, they’re always responding. But it’s not only from the people – I’ve met the president many times and my biggest sponsor is from Uruguay so it means a lot to me to have that support. People are always posting things about me, people come to the airport when I go home, I have lots of interviews. It’s a country that is all about soccer but people are learning more about motorsports and they hope to see another driver in the biggest league, like Gonzalo Rodriguez did in 1999. It’s great for everyone.”
Urrutia recently held a press conference in Uruguay announcing his intention to graduate to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 – with or without the Mazda Scholarship awarded to the Indy Lights champion. With a little help, Urrutia says, he will make it happen. And for those who have come to recognize his grit and determination, few would bet against him.
“I’m already working on next year. Fans at home and fans here in America want to see me in IndyCar next year and we’re working hard toward it. I know it won’t be easy, especially if we don’t win the scholarship, but it’s not impossible. I’m talking to sponsors and to teams, so we’ll see what we can put together. I hope I’ll be able to announce something by the end of the year.”