Who says you need a huge field to make a competitive race?
Despite a sizable drop from 27 cars at the most recent Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda race at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend to just 12 cars for Friday night’s Mazda Freedom 75 at Lucas Oil Raceway, traffic and drama still were present during the seventh round of the season to kick off the Mazda Road to Indy doubleheader race.
Australia’s Anthony Martin out of Kalgoorlie in the No. 8 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing entry was cagier and more decisive in traffic, using slower traffic to his advantage to pass and beat teammate and polesitter Parker Thompson, in the No. 2 car, out of Red Deer, Alberta.
The decisive moment of the race came on Lap 62. Thompson was leading over Martin before the two drivers encountered Austin McCusker of Chastain Motorsports, the rookie who was running several laps down.
Thompson tried to surpass McCusker exiting Turn 2 but lost momentum on corner exit, which allowed a hole for Martin to pass him for the lead and ultimately, the win.
It was a breakthrough pass for Martin, who had come close on the low side a couple laps earlier through the corners but was unable to pass.
From pole, Thompson led Martin, Victor Franzoni, Jordan Lloyd, Robert Megennis, Yufeng Luo, Ayla Agren, Luke Gabin, McCusker, Lucas Kohl, Dakota Dickerson and Garth Rickards at the end of the first lap.
Minor movement occurred further down the order with Rickards getting Dickerson and later McCusker, with Dickerson also around McCusker by Lap 15. By Lap 20, the overall leaders had caught the Chastain driver.
For a couple laps from Laps 21 and 22, Thompson and Martin ran side-by-side with Thompson able to defend the lead. Gabin, Kohl and Dickerson also had a good battle further down the order.
At halfway on Lap 38, it was still Thompson clear of Martin by 0.6 of a second with Franzoni and Lloyd running unopposed in third and fourth and Megennis seeking to defend fifth from Luo.
While Thompson stretched the lead to north of a second he wasn’t able to fully sustain it when cycling through traffic and by Lap 50, he only had a 0.5 of a second gap to Martin.
It closed to just 0.2196 of a second on Lap 60 with Martin continuing to surge, also having saved his Cooper Tires over the course of the stint, and then came the dramatic moment.
Martin made it past on Lap 62 and led the remaining laps to the finish to secure his second win of the year by 1.3037 seconds.
It’s also Cape’s fifth consecutive win this season and first for the team at Lucas Oil Raceway since Neil Alberico in 2013. A year earlier in 2012, Spencer Pigot beat teammate Matthew Brabham, following a similar, thrilling battle for the lead.
Franzoni ended third for his third podium in a row and fourth this season, with Lloyd fourth and Luo having gotten around Megennis for sixth. Those were the only six drivers to finish on the lead lap.
After the race, Martin admitted the rarity his car was actually more comfortable on the low side of the track and that helped him when it came to making the pass for the win. He was ebullient with a smile as wide as the 0.686-mile oval.
Thompson looked more downcast having lost a sure win, but that being said, noted that a mechanical failure on an already reduced test day on Thursday limited his running and his practice. Although he and Martin are teammates and both ran for single-car teams here last year (JDC Motorsports and John Cummiskey Racing, respectively), the data points aren’t similar because both have such different driving styles. Thompson called the opportunity to lead the Freedom 100 in his Cape car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on the pace laps one of his racing career highlights.
With Franzoni having run alone most of the race, he was pleased to bag another podium. He said the team really needs to make up points at Road America if he is to have any shot of catching the Cape twins for the title.
The 75-lap race ran caution free, complete in just under half an hour.
Results are below.
The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires seventh round of the season, the Cooper Tires Freedom 90, was not the world’s most entertaining race but it still had a fair bit of intrigue to see whether Pato O’Ward’s incredible run of form to start the year would roll on.
Spoiler alert: It did.
The talented 17-year-old out of Monterrey, Mexico took his sixth win in seven races in the No. 80 Gap Guard/Topo Chico car for Team Pelfrey, in a flag-to-flag triumph and first win on an oval in his Pro Mazda career.
Throughout the race, O’Ward defended from Garett Grist, who advanced to second off the start of the race around Juncos Racing teammate Nicolas Dapero. With O’Ward having taken the high line on the start, he had the edge and Grist was able to power past his teammate on the opening lap.
As it turned out, Grist’s pass of Dapero for second was the only pass for position in the entire field, in the entire race. The drivers who started first, then fourth through eighth, all finished directly where they started with the short field.
Grist stayed within a few tenths of a second of O’Ward throughout the race and by Lap 75, he was only 0.2 of a second behind and closing.
But O’Ward controlled the gap and won by 0.4117 of a second.
Grist, in the No. 5 Lander Property Management/Mac Tools/Blacklist Lifestyle car and teammate Dapero, the Argentine rookie in the No. 31 Federal Seguros/American Brocker/S.O.S car, completed the podium and both had their best finishes of the season.
For Dapero, it is his first podium of his Pro Mazda career. It’s also his first top-five finish; the 18-year-old’s best prior result was seventh, twice, at both Barber races.
Jake Parsons and Aaron Telitz finished where they started in fourth and fifth. Telitz, who had been O’Ward’s closest title rival, should hold second in the championship albeit a ways back.
With Will Owen in sixth, Grist will move ahead of him for third in points. Grist entered the race two points behind him and two points ahead of Nico Jamin.
The Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing twins of Jamin and Jake Eidson were non-factors and also ended where they started at the tail end of the field.
The 90-lap race took barely more than 32 minutes to complete and like the USF2000 race earlier, without a caution.
For O’Ward, he was incredibly satisfied to have – along with the Team Pelfrey team – made huge strides with its oval setup compared to last year. Having controlled the race from the start, O’Ward noted how hard it was to save tires over the 90 laps, but his added experience paid dividends. As has been the case with every weekend thus far, he’s hoping for further support to continue his outstanding start to the season. But he called his leading the field in his Pro Mazda car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ahead of the Freedom 100 an amazing moment in his career.
Grist, admittedly, was disappointed with second. The talented Canadian has a good record here – second, first, fourth and second in four starts – but has had to struggle with finishing further behind O’Ward in most race this year. That being said, he knew how to make a move on the start and that was enough to get him into second place.
Dapero blamed his loss of position on the start to a lack of experience. But considering this was his first oval race ever and all he had as a reference point was private testing, he was overjoyed to grace his first podium in the Mazda Road to Indy. It means that all four Juncos Racing drivers have now scored at least one podium finish this season.
Pro Mazda runs next a doubleheader at Road America at the end of June.
Results are below.