By Aaron Bearden, Open Wheel Editor
LEXINGTON, Ohio — Notes, Quotes, Stories and Takeaways from the Road to Indy on Saturday at Mid-Ohio
Talent, Drama… And Respect Among Andretti Autosport Teammates
Make no mistake – Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta want nothing more than to beat each other for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship this year.
But peel beneath their competitive fire and you’ll see something other than intensity and drive shared between the Andretti Autosport duo.
“I think it’s a win-win situation for both of us,” O’Ward told Motorsports Tribune of his battles with Herta. “We both show what we can do if we’re under pressure. We both show what we can do when we’re racing together – our race craft, respect. It’s been that way throughout the whole year. We’ve raced each other with respect, pushed each other as much as we can.”
Both O’Ward and Herta have seen their paths to a title altered and challenged by the other. O’Ward opened the season with a dominant surge to set the tempo early on, but Herta battled back with four-consecutive wins at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Road America, stealing all momentum in the process.
O’Ward has regained the lead with wins in three of the past four races – Saturday’s run at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course included – but Herta’s kept himself within range as the end of the season slowly draws near.
The duo have combined to win 10 of the season’s opening 13 rounds, dominating a series believed to have as many as five or six potential winners in each round despite the slim seven-car field. Their battle has been chaotic, stressful and at times infuriating.
But it’s also helped them both grow.
“Maybe the fans don’t see it as much, but within the team you can tell the amount of pressure and push that we’re giving each other is crazy,” O’Ward said. “And at the end of the day, that’s what is going to make us better.
“I’d much rather have a strong teammate than to have a weak one, because they’re going to push you to your maximum and whenever both of you work within a car, usually the setups will get better. It just makes both of us better.”
Herta would as soon have enjoyed an easy drive to the championship with Andretti Steinbrenner Racing, but the second-generation driver couldn’t deny
“It’s good for the growth,” he admitted after Saturday’s runner-up finish to O’Ward. “Though if I had it my way I’d rather not have to share the championship. I’d rather just walk away with it easily.
“But I think it’s good. I think we both make each other better drivers. We’re increasing our talents every time we get in the car, and I wouldn’t be pushed as hard if I didn’t have Pato as a teammate this year.”
- Santi Urrutia’s difficult Race 1 in Mid-Ohio undid most of the gains he’d made on the lead Andretti Autosport duo with a victory at Toronto. The Uruguayan finished sixth after spinning at the hands of Ryan Norman late in the race, and now trails O’Ward by more than 50 points heading into Sunday’s second race.
- Speaking of Norman, what appeared to be a good race turned sour quickly for the Journey-sponsored shoe. Norman qualified second and held the spot for the opening stint of the race, but he was sent free-falling backward after the race’s lone yellow when teammate Herta, Dalton Kellett and Victor Franzoni all overtook him. Norman then made a mistake that took Urrutia out of contention and ultimately finished a disappointing fifth out of seven cars.
Veekay Pleased With Championship Surge
Rinus Veekay’s victory in Saturday’s Cooper Tires Pro Mazda Mid-Ohio Grand Prix – his third-consecutive Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires victory – finally elevated the Juncos Racing prospect ahead of Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson for the series points lead.
With four races still to contest, Veekay wouldn’t dare talk of the championship or the near-$800,000 scholarship for Indy Lights that comes with it. But the Dutch driver wouldn’t lie about one aspect of the title – after falling so far behind Thompson early on, snagging the championship lead was a feat he could cherish.
“It feels really good, because I think almost everyone would bet their money on Parker to win the championship,” Veekay told Motorsports Tribune. “It’s not there yet, but at least I’m in it again. I took over the lead, and I just want to keep this going.”
Thompson soared into the points lead with a trio of victories in the early rounds of the Pro Mazda season, and entering the summer the Canadian poised himself as the de-facto favorite to claim the series crown.
But a strong stretch to open the summer and sweep of the tour’s Toronto races brought Veekay within range. Now the 17-year-old has ascended to the top spot.
Veekay isn’t getting worrying about the championship just yet, nor does he intend to change his mindset – he claims that his aim is always to “try to win and get everything out of myself and the car. I can not do more than that. All of the rest is out of my hands. Just focus as much as possible on being faultless.”
But while the championship battle is far from over, the young prospect knows that he’s surging at at the right time to secure the valuable for Indy Lights.
“I’m in an amazing flow,” he said. “I think if I keep going like this and getting the points, I can be champion at the end of the year.”
- Saturday’s race could prove as the true turning point for the Pro Mazda title fight. While Veekay was dominating up front, Thompson was sliding back from third. The Canadian lost one spot on the opening circuit, and was eventually overtaken by a second competitor during the lengthy green-flag run.
Kirkwood Staying Mum on Future After Securing USf2000 Crown
Kyle Kirkwood claimed his eighth-consecutive USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires victory on Saturday at Mid-Ohio, surging past polesitter Kaylen Frederick on the opening circuit and driving off to complete yet another dominant showing.
With the series championship already in hand and another seemingly easy win claimed, it would be natural to assume Kirkwood is looking ahead to the greener pastures of Pro Mazda. But the Cape Motorsports star kept his future plans close to the vest after Saturday’s victory.
“I can’t really answer that because of the Mazda scholarship,” he told Motorsports Tribune. “There’s been things in the works, but that’s not really my focus right now. My focus is to finish off the championship strong and keep our winning streak going, really. It’ll be planned out for next year, just put it that way.”
Instead of worrying about the future, Kirkwood is continuing to set his sights on Usf2000 triumphs. The prospect’s season-long stranglehold over the rest of the field has seen him score wins with relative ease through the spring and early summer. But despite the dominant appearance of most wins, Kirkwood claimed that each race has brought its own unique challenges.
“Everyone keeps asking me that,” he said. “Is it getting easy? Is it getting boring? No, we’re still pushing as hard as we can, and we’re still struggling to get these wins. It’s not an easy task. We qualified second that time, and we qualified second again for the next race.
“It’s not like we have a fast qualifying car, but our race car is absolutely incredible, and we pull away so much on the first two laps. Big claps to the Cape Motorsports guys for putting rails under my feet.”
If he can win out, Kirkwood would tie Verizon IndyCar Series veteran JR Hildebrand for the most wins (12) in one USF2000 season. That’s ultimately the goal for the Floridian and Cape Motorsports, but he’s approaching each race
“I’m not trying to put myself under any more pressure than I already have,” he admitted. “If we keep getting wins, great. If we have something happen, you can’t win them all. We’re just going to keep pushing. The season so far has been amazing, and I don’t think anything can put us down right now.”
Struggling to Pass
There were numerous twists and turns throughout the Road to Indy field on Saturday, but one thing remained constant throughout the day – the driver that led Lap 1 also passed every ensuing lap.
O’Ward, Veekay and Kirkwood all soared to the lead on the opening lap, two from pole and the other from second, and then proceeded to lead wire-to-wire in dominant showings.
There were challenges from a host of different drivers – Herta and David Malukas among them – but none were able to overcome the aero advantage awarded to the race leader.
“The way the track is you could only really pass in Turns 2 and 4, and every time I’d get a little bit closer to Veekay in Turn 1 I would get understeer from the bad wind,” Malukas said. “Then I’d lose him going into (Turn) 2, and I would try to go deep in the braking and make sure that I stay away from his bad aero. But I just needed that little bit more. It just wasn’t enough to get him.”
After his Indy Lights victory, O’Ward said the risk of a crash is more worrying than the potential for an overtake.
“Usually it is that way, unless the race car that the leader has is weak or you get hit,” O’Ward said of the day’s dominant runs. “I’ve gotten hit twice already, so I’m not confident until I’m in victory lane, because they can just hit you pretty easily – especially when they have nothing to lose.
“So far that seems to be the trend.”
Should track position prove as vital on Sunday, then Malukas may find himself switching roles with Veekay and going to victory lane in Pro Mazda. The 16-year-old claimed the pole in Saturday’s qualifying session.
“I know we have the speed,” Malukas said of his winning prospects. “Being behind Veekay, we were with him. We could stay within range, but we got stuck behind him in the aero wash and the tires got worn out. Tomorrow we’re starting P1, so hopefully it’ll be a flip-flop.”