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Team Pelfrey Looking to Bounce Back in 2018

By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer

Mark Twain popularized the phrase “There are three kinds of falsehoods; lies, damned lies and statistics,” which he attributed to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.

Statistics was how this writer looked at Team Pelfrey in a recent roundtable discussion.  In it, this writer said that the team had been disappointing because “I did not expect a large organization like Pelfrey to have only one win this season.”

Motorsports Tribune sat down at Watkins Glen with Jonathan Baker to speak about the team’s performances this year and what the outlook is for 2018. Baker is the general manager for Pelfrey’s programs in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 championship powered by Mazda.

Starting from USF2000, 2017 was Team Pelfrey’s third year in the championship. In 2015 the results across all four cars were one podium, seven top five finishes and 45 top 10 finishes out of 64 starts. However, despite these results, no driver returned to the team in 2016. 2016 was a year of challenges with four cars starting the season and only one driver running the full season for the team. Six drivers made starts, two of which would return for 2017.

2017 got off to a great start. Robert Megennis won at St. Petersburg and then it became the Kaylen Frederick show in the team’s second car as the third car had three different drivers in it with Ayla Agren starting the season in the No. 82 Tatuus USF-17. It wasn’t exactly what Baker was expecting.

“We’d be lying if someone had said you’d win one race at the beginning of the year we’d be disappointed,” said Baker. “At the same time, our previous two seasons we had had four podium finishes, four third places, no pole positions so for sure the program has taken a big step forward.

“We wanted to be bigger and we’re going to work on that next year but we’re really happy with how the team’s worked (and) really happy with the drivers. Obviously Robert had a strong start, had a bit of a tough time of it recently and a lot of it is just sort of typical racing momentum, it’s not on his side right now but Kaylen really has shown that he’s a star of the future. We know there’s some areas to work on with him which is very understandable for his age and he’s only going to get better so really encouraging.

“Big disappointment as well for the third car with Ayla’s program not materializing for the full year, it would have been nice to have some continuity there for sure. But overall, taking a step back the program has taken a big step forward and we will only get better on that front.”

Not having a third car was not the best case scenario for the team. Baker said that Agren’s feedback was excellent but not having her in the car meant that Megennis and Frederick had to step up in giving feedback to make their cars better.

“We’ve really been leaning on Kaylen and Rob which is good and in Kaylen’s case in particular, he’s learning so much and while he’s done a great job we can see where he can improve,” said Baker.

“He knows that and we will improve so I think we know we’ve got a great package which will only get better, our drivers are only going to get better so I’m really positive about the future.”

If the USF2000 program had some peaks to climb, the Pro Mazda program had to climb Mount Everest. Two drivers were rookies to Pro Mazda in Nikita Lastochkin and Carlos Cunha, while TJ Fischer drove in USF2000 and Pro Mazda last year for Team Pelfrey. Going against last year’s USF2000 champion Anthony Martin and perennial hard charger Victor Franzoni who already had half a year of Pro Mazda experience, Team Pelfrey were underdogs this year.

“The biggest challenge really has been in Victor and Anthony you’ve got very fast and very experienced drivers that both have won races, battled and won championships respectively and we’ve got three rookies who’ve all had their flashes,” Baker said.

“TJ started the year extremely strongly. TJ I think has enjoyed his best year on the Mazda Road to Indy with a couple of second place finishes and was in the hunt for victory at Road America but we had an engine issue. Carlos is essentially in his first full season in cars and has shown some real promise and I think he’s going to be a player on the Road to Indy for years to come. Nikita has had his best year on the Road to Indy. He had his first podium at Road America, backed it up with another podium at the next race so I think from what we’ve had we’ve had a good year.”

The team is planning on running three cars next year in Pro Mazda. No word has been received on who those drivers will be.

Heading up to Indy Lights, Gary Neal is the primary manager for that side of Team Pelfrey. However, Baker has kept in touch with Neal and kept tabs on progress. The team started the season with Juan Piedrahita and Pato O’Ward driving at St. Petersburg and at Barber but O’Ward had to step aside with no budget.

“Juan has had his best year in Indy Lights,” said Baker. “I think he’s had four top fives and then obviously at Gateway he qualified on pole, finished second, and a great battle with Santi (Urrutia). For sure it would’ve been nice to keep Pato in the car, but that’s pure economics.

“I think Pato and Juan would have been a really good driver lineup but it is what it is and that’s going to be the challenge for the Lights team is trying to make sure you can find two drivers, continue with two drivers and battle at the front.”

On the technical side of the team, the lead man is Tom Knapp. Praised by many drivers as a genius, Knapp was responsible for the team’s Pro Mazda setups in 2016 when O’Ward and Aaron Telitz dominated the championship. This year, Knapp was moved to USF2000 to help that program while Rick Cameron has been in charge of the Pro Mazda side of the team.

Baker was not shy about what the Team Pelfrey’s biggest challenge was in 2017.

“Winning. Pure and simple, and we’ve enjoyed a number of years being successful and we’ve (won) the team championship in Pro Mazda now,” said Baker.

“We’ve had some excellent success with rookies in both (USF2000 and Pro Mazda) so it’s by no means a bad year in my eyes but you want to win. You want to win trophies, you want to put them in the cabinet and that’s what I’m hungry for this winter and I know Tom Knapp is, I know the guys are, I know Mr. Pelfrey is and that’s what we’re going to come out fighting for and it’s the same as everyone.

“All of the other teams are fighting hard and you’ve got to fight harder.”

“We’re just sort of formalizing how our footprint will look for next year in terms of car counts and etc., but the yellow will be back.”

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A 2012 graduate of LSU, Christopher DeHarde primarily focuses on the NTT IndyCar Series and the WeatherTech Sports Car Championship. DeHarde has actively covered motorsports since 2014.