By Road to Indy
The map of Belardi Auto Racing’s 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season might just look like a Richter Scale, with spectacular highs and punishing lows punctuating the year. In the end the team and its three drivers – Shelby Blackstock, Santiago Urrutia and Aaron Telitz – came back from numerous adversities to take four victories and 14 podium finishes, earning their first team championship.
The Indy Lights team is at the heart of its program but Brian Belardi admits that his thoughts have begun to turn more seriously to an entry into the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. It would complete a journey that began in his childhood, one that has fueled his eponymous team from SCCA racing to the top of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with some impressive numbers along the way.
“This team has been in existence for only six years,” said longtime team manager John Brunner, “and we have 49 podiums, 17 wins, two Freedom 100 victories, a driver championship and now a team championship. Those are amazing numbers.”
But numbers only tell part of the Belardi Auto Racing story. The people behind the scenes, from engineers to mechanics to drivers to management, are what matters most to Brian Belardi.
“I’m very lucky in that I have two people who help run this team – John Brunner and my wife, Jill,” said Belardi. “It’s substantial to me, knowing that I have someone like John running the day-to-day functions of the team. And Jill is the glue for all of this. She oversees everything and makes sure the ship is going in the right direction. This is very professional but we try to create a family environment for everyone, which I think is very important.
“I am so proud of this team. Winning the team championship was a big goal of ours. We’ve had an amazing history in a short amount of time, with drivers like Anders Krohn, Peter Dempsey, Gabby Chaves, Felix Rosenqvist and Zach Veach. Sometimes you’re a cheerleader, sometimes you’re a father figure. We’re all following a dream here – there have been ups and downs but we seem to prevail somehow so hats off to everyone who’s ever been with our team.”
The first driver signed for the 2017 season was Blackstock, moving over from Andretti Autosport. The team then signed 2016 series runner-up Urrutia, with assistance from the shuttered Sam Schmidt operation (which saw his car transformed from Belardi red to Arrow black and gold at Barber) and 2016 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires champ Aaron Telitz, in the Soul Red livery.
The team’s title expectations were immediately boosted when Telitz took the first race of the year in St. Petersburg, Fla., in dominant fashion, winning from pole, though Urrutia was eliminated from race two by a Turn One tangle. It would be a harbinger of things to come, as the young Uruguayan was also knocked out of both races at Barber. Suddenly, the championship point deficit appeared nearly too much to overcome, barely four races into the season.
“If Santi had nothing but bad luck, Aaron had such good luck that first weekend,” said Brunner. “For Santiago, it was a tough way to start the season and I’m sure it created some doubt. We knew what his ability was but the series is so competitive that it’s very difficult to recover from early DNFs. He qualified so well at Barber, outside of the front row, then got taken out in Turn One. Those were some tough times, trying to figure out what we had to do to turn things around, but he really came back in the second half of the season. It all has to come together for these young drivers to see results – their attitude, the car, the team, everything.”
Urrutia earned a podium finish at the IndyCar Grand Prix, while Telitz made a run on leader Matheus Leist while taking a hard-fought second place at the Freedom 100. But it was Urrutia’s second-place finish at Road America that ignited the spark.
“We fought back and suddenly we’re at Road America and it was like 2016 again,” said Belardi. “We were in control for the second half of the season. We found our stride, and it was all down to tireless effort by everyone on the team. We’d try to give them a day off and John would go in to do paperwork, and then he’d call me and tell me that the guys were there, working. They care so much and work so hard and we got through the early difficulties.”
Urrutia’s race at Iowa began in unspectacular fashion, as he qualified 11th, just ahead of Telitz and Blackstock. But radio transmissions during the yellow turned around his race, and suddenly, the driver some said had not come to grips with the ovals was driving like a man possessed.
“I was impressed with him, with his engineer Tim Neff and how he handled Santi on the radio, as did his spotter Charles Crews,” said Brunner. “During the yellow, they told him exactly what he needed to do. He changed his driving line, the way he was driving, and he drove straight to the front. That’s why he was so excited – even though I thought I was going to have a heart attack when he did the donuts!”
Urrutia and Telitz both took podiums at Toronto, with Blackstock earning a third-place finish at Mid-Ohio. With two races remaining, Belardi sat in third position in the Team Championship, 16 points out of the lead. Pounding the numbers at their Brownsburg, Ind., shop, the team knew that the only way it could take the title was to win both races, and earn an additional second place finish. And that’s exactly what they did, with Urrutia taking his first oval victory at Gateway, and Telitz earning the season bookend victories by scoring the win at Watkins Glen, with Urrutia hot on his heels.
It is a point of pride for Brunner that all three drivers contributed to the team title, with each accomplishing goals in 2017.
“Winning Gateway meant more to Santiago than anything this year. He wanted an oval win and to get it in that fashion, it was the happiest I’ve ever seen him. And Aaron is the real deal. When he’s on and the car is on, he has a shot no matter what. It really started to click toward the end of the season, so he’ll be a force next year. It also started to click for Shelby in the second half of the season. He is so good with his teammates, even though they were such different people. He is a veteran and he doesn’t let things get to him, which helped everyone. It’s hard not to be in a good mood when you’re around Shelby.”
“That’s why I asked the drivers to come up when we won the award,” said Belardi. “They’re the ones in the car getting the job done, and if I could have, I’d have brought the whole team up, but the whole team wasn’t there. It’s not an award for the owner, it’s for everyone who has ever been a part of this team. It’s something special.”
Planning for 2018 is well underway, with the Indy Lights squad the priority. Three cars appears to be definite, with a fourth being a distinct possibility. And about that Indy 500 bid?
“We will have some drivers returning, so I think we’re in position to fill three seats pretty quickly,” said Belardi. “We’ll be testing hard at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test and assemble our team from there. There’s a strong possibility for a fourth car. Our priority, as always, is to win the Indy Lights championship and move these kids to the next level. And yes, we have thought about graduating ourselves. There are some options on the table, not for a full year in 2018 but possibly the Indy 500. We’re exploring that now, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. It’s a personal goal, to go from USF2000 to the Indy 500, and everything would have to be right to do it, but it would be a dream come true.”