By Road to Indy
BROWNSBURG, Ind. – Parker Thompson and the Exclusive Autosport team are on a roll in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. The popular Canadian from Red Deer, Alb., used his oval experience to excellent effect in this evening’s Cooper Tires Freedom 90, speeding to victory on the 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway oval as part of the traditional “Carb Night Classic – The Race Before the 500.”
Thompson led throughout the 90-lap race but was kept on his toes by Brazilian Carlos Cunha, who took advantage of some lapped traffic to close within 0.2213 of a second at the checkered flag. Juncos Racing teammate Robert Megennis finished third for his second podium finish of the season, narrowly ahead of a third Juncos Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 in the hands of Dutchman Rinus VeeKay.
In warm, sunny conditions and in front of a typically enthusiastic crowd, Thompson made full use of his pole position to streak into the lead ahead of Cunha, who had qualified alongside on the front row of the grid. Behind, a bold move around the outside line in Turn Three saw Megennis jump ahead of oval debutant David Malukas (BN Racing) for third.
By Lap 25, Thompson had stretched his lead over Cunha to around two seconds, with Megennis a similar distance behind in third but under intense pressure from a battling Malukas and Harrison Scott (RP Motorsport Racing), who had started in sixth.
As the race reached toward half-distance, the main focus switched onto the battle for third, with Megennis still battling to remain ahead of Malukas and Scott. The Englishman finally found a way past Malukas on Lap 44, but Malukas refused to give up easily. Next time around, he dived for the inside in Turn One. The two sped into Turn Three virtually alongside each other, whereupon contact was made and both cars careened heavily into the retaining wall on the exit of Turn Four. Fortunately, both drivers emerged unscathed. Their cars were left in rather less than pristine condition.
Thompson again took off into the lead at the restart, only this time Cunha remained virtually in his wheel tracks. The pair remained close together for the next 20 laps or so until Thompson gradually eked out an advantage of almost two seconds as the leaders encountered some lapped traffic.
Then, with the laps ticking away, Thompson encountered some more slower cars, including last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports), who graciously allowed the leaders to pass. Even so, Cunha saw his chance and closed to within just a car length or so as the pair accelerated off Turn Four for the 90th and final time. His victory had been perfectly judged.
Megennis finished a distant third, shadowed by teammate VeeKay, with Sting Ray Robb (Team Pelfrey), from Payette, Idaho, as the only other unlapped finisher. Robb also claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Thompson, who also notched Exclusive Autosport’s third PFC Award for the winning team, now holds a 40-point championship lead over Cunha, 198-158, with VeeKay in third, one more point in arrears. The Pro Mazda championship will reconvene at Road America, in Elkhart Lake, Wis., for a pair of road course races in conjunction with the Verizon IndyCar Series and the entire Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder series, on June 23-24.
Parker Thompson (#90 Exclusive Autosport Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “This is a special race to win – not just because of the extra points but because we’re here in Indianapolis and this is the month of May. And this is my first oval win! Now I have that monkey off my back. But today was tough! It was hard to wait the entire day to go racing, the nerves were really high. We didn’t know where our car was at from yesterday’s practice, but no one did more than a 20-lap run so no one knew how their car would react in the race. We put a burly lap down in qualifying. I was really proud of the car from the Exclusive Autosport team. I didn’t know what we’d have for the race but we knew we had to get away and work lapped traffic.”
Carlos Cunha (#1 Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “When I came to the United States last year, it was really my first year in proper race cars. I’m learning more and more, and we are getting so much closer to my first win. We were so close in qualifying and the race was the same. Parker is doing a good job, he was really fast today, but we are getting there and that’s the best thing I can take away from today. It was a good day for the Juncos team, to have Rob and I on the podium.”
Robert Megennis (#9 Palo Alto Networks-Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “This car is so much fun, it’s so fast and there’s a ton of downforce. And you have to manage the tires on the ovals, which is something you really have to work with – and that’s something I’ve never had to deal with, but it’s something you really have to learn for Indy Lights and IndyCar. Racing on short ovals is really good training. I was just holding off Malukas and Scott early, since they had better cars to race with, but after they went out I was just managing the gap and running my race. A podium here will be good momentum carrying forward to Road America and beyond.”