By Steve Wittich
Almost exactly 30 years ago (April 6, 1986) to the day, the forerunner to the current Indy Lights Series, the American Racing Series, made it’s debut on the 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval. A lot has changed in the succeeding three decades, but what hasn’t changed is the that the next to last rung of the American open wheel ladder continues to provide IndyCar with their drivers of the future.
How many of the 16 hopefuls that will take to the track this weekend for the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix will end up competing in the Verizon IndyCar Series? Only time will tell, but of the 14 drivers that started that inaugural race three decades ago, nine of them (Jeff Andretti, Fabrizio Barbazza, Billy Boat, Steve Bren, Wally Dallenbach, Jr., Stan Fox, Mike Groff, Sammy Swindell, & Desiré Wilson) made at least one start in an Indy Car.
The same 16 cars that were entered in St. Petersburg have made the 2000+ mile trip out west, however, there is one driver change. The No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian entry that was piloted by Scott Anderson at the first event of 2016, will be driven this weekend by Heamin Choi.
Choi, a native of Busan, Korea will be making his third Indy Lights start after taking part in the 2015 double-header finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Unlike some of his fellow rookies, Choi is not completely laking in oval experience. The 32 year-old started an impressive 6th in his lone turn left only start at Lucas Oil Raceway Park while competing in USF2000 in 2012. Choi also took part in Indy Lights testing on February 25th and ran 208 trouble free laps while posting the 10th quickest lap.
The odds-on favorite heading into the weekend is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian sophomore driver RC Enerson. The New Port Richey, Florida native led February testing on the Phoenix International Raceway oval with a top speed of 168.214mph and was also the top scoring Indy Lights driver on the ovals in 2015. Enerson, who just turned 19, used 2nd (Milwaukee Milie), 3rd (Iowa Speedway) and 4th (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) place finishes to score 67 total points on the three ovals in 2015, 15 points clear of his nearest returning competitor.
2015 Indy Lights oval points (returning drivers)
- RC Enerson —> 67
- Felix Serralles —> 52
- Ed Jones —> 50
- Juan Piedrahita —> 50
- Kyle Kaiser —> 48
- Shelby Blackstock —> 35
Keeping Enerson honest in the desert should be sophomore Carlin teammates Ed Jones and Felix Serralles.
Serralles is coming off a memorable weekend in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Ponce, Puerto Rico native scored a win, 4th place finish and the early championship lead. Last year’s winner on the oval at the historic Milwaukee Mile, the 23 year-old is coming off a successful Phoenix test where he placed 4th on the final time-sheet.
Jones had a disappointing weekend on the shores of the Tampa Bay, and will be looking to channel a steaming hot July trip to the corn-fields of Iowa. It took until the third oval race of the season for the 21 year-old to wrap his head around ovals, but a 2nd place finish and 13 laps led at Iowa Speedway (the track with the most similarity to Phoenix International Raceway), should have the Dubai, UAE confident heading into the weekend.
In what can only be considered an ode to the U.S.A.C. Bobby Ball Memorial races that took place on the dirt oval at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, Phoenix International Raceway’s predecessor, Jones took to the half-mile clay oval at Perris Auto Speedway in a non-wing sprint car on Tuesday afternoon. A great experience in adaptability for the young driver who grew up with road racing.
If oval experience means anything, and it should, don’t count out the pair of wily third year drivers Zach Veach (Belardi Auto Racing) and Juan Piedrahita (Team Pelfrey).
Coming off a mixed weekend in St. Petersburg that included a last place finish in race one on Saturday and a podium in race two on Sunday, Veach will attempt to use the experience he’s gained in 14 Mazda Road To Indy oval starts, the most oval starts of any driver in the field. Exactly half (7) of the 21 year-olds oval starts have resulted in podiums, including an Indy Lights win on the Milwaukee Mile oval.
The Team Pelfrey No. 2 suffered an engine failure during the February test at Phoenix International Raceway, and the 23 year-old Piedrahita will need to use everything he has learned in 12 oval starts if he wants to stand on an oval podium for the fifth time.
Juncos Racing sophomore Kyle Kaiser is another driver to watch this weekend. The Santa Clara, California native, who is coming off two podiums in the season opening event, has had decent, but not great results on ovals in the past. The 20 year-old’s best oval finish was 4th place at Iowa Speedway in last years Indy Lights race. Currently second on the championship table, only one point behind Serralles, Kaiser was the 6th quickest driver in testing at Phoenix last month.
After a miserable season on ovals in 2015, Andretti Autosport and sophomore pilot Shelby Blackstock have to be excited that the calendar has turned, and also have to be encouraged with testing times at Phoenix that are competitive with their competition. A Nashville, Tennessee native, Blackstock was very competitive on ovals in a Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire machine and if the team has regained their mojo, he should regain the podium form he has shown in the past.
Nine of the 16 drivers will be making their first Indy Lights oval start when the green flag flies on Saturday afternoon, but, not all Indy Lights oval rookies are created equally.
Five Mazda Road To Indy veterans; Carlin’s Neil Alberico (six oval starts with one win and two podiums), Andretti Autosport’s Dalton Kellett (five oval starts with one podium) Team Pelfrey’s Scott Hargrove (three ovals starts with two podiums), Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian’s Santiago Urrutia (two ovals starts) and Choi (one oval start), all have at least “some” oval experience and should face a shorter learning curve.
Phoenix International Raceway has been very kind to young Canadians in the past, so if you believe in destiny, don’t be surprised to see 21 year-old Canadian Scott Hargrove pulling into victory lane on Saturday afternoon. In 1988 it was 19 year-old Paul Tracy who won his first Indy Lights race, and in 1994, it was 19 year-old Greg Moore who won his first Indy Lights race.
That leaves rookies Zachary Claman de Melo (Juncos Racing), Felix Rosenqvist (Belardi Auto Racing), Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian), and Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport) as the four drivers with absolutely zero oval race experience. How have rookies done in their debut oval races after arriving from Europe? Recently, it was current Andretti Autosport IndyCar driver Carlos Munoz who tasted early oval success when he crossed the finish line in 2nd place at the 2012 Freedom 100. One very big positive for all four drivers is that each one of them has at least one very experienced teammate to help reassure them on ovals.
Which of the oval newbies has a chance to surprise during the race on Saturday? European veterans Andre Negrao (3rd quickest) and Dean Stoneman (5th quickest) were both impressive in testing at Phoenix, but raw speed doesn’t always translate to results. The top oval newbie, will be the driver who shows the most patience during first half of the race, before putting what he has learned to use in the second half of the 90 lap race.
Unless qualifying is rained out, the Indy Lights track record should be lowered by a significant margin during qualifying on Friday afternoon. The fastest qualifying lap of 160.755mph was set in 1995 by Claude Bourbonnais and the fastest race lap of 158.402mph was set by Greg Moore in 1995. The top lap turned by Enerson in testing last month was 168.214mph.
Previous winners at Phoenix International Raceway include: Paul Tracy (2), Greg Moore (2), Steve Millen, Fabrizio Barbazza, Jeff Andretti, Mike Groff, Robbie Groff, Adrian Fernandez, Sandy Brody, Mark Taylor, Thiago Medeiros and Jon Herb.
The only current Indy Lights team with a victory in the desert is Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian, who won the 2004 Phoenix 100 with Thiago Medeiros at the wheel.
Our video of the day is the 1988 ARS race from Phoenix International Raceway. It features expert analysis from Bobby Rahal and a inaugural Indy Lights victory for a 19 year-old Canadian who will be in the NBC Sports Network TV Booth as an analyst this weekend.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of the American Racing Series, head on over to the ARS page on www.oldracingcars.com
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire weekend schedule:
Friday, April 1, 2016
- 9am-9:45am – practice #1
- 1pm-1:45pm – practice #2
- 3pm-3:30pm – autograph session
- 4:30pm-5:15pm – qualifying
Saturday, April 2, 2016
- 1:30pm-2:15pm – Indy Lights Grand Prix of Phoenix
Don’t miss any of the action
- On TV – the broadcast will air Thursday, March 24 at 11:00 pm ET.
- live timing – Indy Lights
- on twitter –Indy Lights, Cooper Tire, Mazda Racing and TSOLadder
- via the Road To Indy TV app – Android or Apple iOS
- on all social media channels via the #TeamCooperTire and #MRTI hashtags
- on YouTube: