With three of the last four Freedom 100’s being decided by mere thousandths of a second, the annual 40-lap (100 mile) Indy Lights race has become a must watch for the 100,000+ raucous fans that stream into the 560 acre Indianapolis Motor Speedway facility for the Carb Day party that kicks off the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing” weekend.

For the first two years of the event, the Freedom 100 was held on the Saturday of second week Indianapolis 500 qualifying. It moved to it’s present home, Carb Day, in 2005, when Indianapolis Motor Speedway moved the final IndyCar practice from Thursday to Friday.

With 24 of the 33 starters in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil being Indy Lights graduates, the Freedom 100 provides fans a great opportunity to catch the Verizon IndyCar Series stars of the future.

Watch the 2016 Freedom 100

Not a race for novices

In 14 Freedom 100s, the race has only been won by rookies on four different occasions, and on only one occasion, has that rookie been making their first ever oval start.

Josef Newgarden, who finished third in last years Indianapolis 500, is the only driver to win the Freedom 100 in his first ever Indy Lights oval start. Jaime Camara (2005), Dillon Battistini (2008), and Dean Stoneman (2016) all won as Indy Lights rookies, but all three had made at least one oval start in the top level of the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire.

Josef Newgarden celebrates his 2011 Freedom 100 win (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Of the seven rookies, two will be making their first ever starts on an oval. Carlin’s Matheus Leist, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Norman. Both drivers were able to test on the oval at Homestead-Miami Speedway in February, and both were quick in Monday’s Indy Lights test. Despite brushing the wall at the exit of Turn 2 late in the session, Leist had the third fastest lap overall, while Norman’s quickest lap speed was seventh best.

“When I first got out there, I thought ‘here I am, this is really big! We tested at Homestead back in March but this is very different,” explained the reigning 2016 BRDC British Formula 3, who is coming off his first Indy Lights podium two weekends ago. “It was very strange in the beginning, with the steering wheel not being straight and the speeds being so much faster than on a road course. I got the pace pretty quickly. We did some qualifying simulations early this afternoon and I set the fastest lap so that’s good. It still feels on the edge to me, with the car moving a lot, but I’m getting used to it. I’m a bit disappointed with my run in all the traffic late in the session but it’s my first day and I think I learned a lot – and brushing the wall is all part of the game.”

Nico Jamin, and Aaron Telitz will both be making their fourth turn left only starts, and both have had success, albeit only on the 0.625 mile Lucas Oil Raceway (LOR) flat oval.

Telitz is the only driver to have a win at LOR, coming from sixth place to take his first MRTI victory in a 75 lap USF2000 race in 2014.

“I won my first MRTI race on an oval in Indy, so I can’t wait for my first Indy Lights race on an oval. And not just any oval, but IMS! The Belardi guys have had lots of success here in the past so we have a lot to live up to this week. But I know that we are going to be fast and can hopefully be the first team to bring the Soul Red Mazda to victory lane in the Freedom 100.”

Jamin, also has a podium at LOR, starting second and fishing second in the 2015 USF2000 race.

Both drivers struggled in Pro Mazda at LOR in 2016, with Telitz finishing a disappointing fifth and Jamin finishing 7th in the series last visit to the Clermont, Ind. track.

Garth Rickards has two-top 10 finishes in his two USF2000 oval starts at LOR. The Carlin rookie finished ninth with Team Pelfrey in 2015, and improved to seventh with Pabst Racing last year.

Nicolas Dapero was impressive in his oval debut during the 90 lap Pro Mazda race at LOR in 2016. The 19 year-old Indy Lights rookie started second and finished third, his first MRTI podium.

Colton Herta, who led testing earlier this week with the only lap above 200mph, started 16th and finished fourteenth in his only MRTI oval outing, a Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2014.

Herta, who has raced in oval free Europe for the last two years, is aware that he needs to learn quickly if he wants to contend for the win in his first Freedom 100.

“The draft was the same in the straight-line everywhere. Obviously, it was a bit more here [rather than Homestead] since we’re going quicker at Indianapolis. The main thing is slipstreaming in the corners. It’s really different from anything I’ve experienced, especially when you’re right behind someone and you put half of a wing out or a quarter of the wing out,” explained Herta. “The balance shift is massive. That’s obviously going to be something all the rookies will have to get used to. I would say down the straights, it’s nothing too different. It’s really crazy when you pull out of the slipstream, how far your head will move down in the car. You get pushed down so much with the wind, and that’s probably the biggest difference I’ve felt. You feel like you’re going that fast the first few laps, but once you kind of get into it, the other cars around you move at a similar pace, so I don’t really think about it.

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing rookie Colton Herta was the only driver to turn a lap faster than 200mph in testing for the 2017 Freedom 100 on Monday (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Despite his inexperience, Herta does have a few intangible assets on his side.

The first is his race engineer Doug Zister. The Canadian engineer has won the Freedom 100 four times; in 2006, 2009, and 2010 with Wade Cunningham and in 2011 with another oval novice, Josef Newgarden.

The second, is having the wisdom of his dad Bryan Herta, and team owner Michael Andretti. The elder Herta has been able to guide two of the last six Indianapolis 500 winners to victory as their strategist, and Andretti has led 431 laps on the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

A struggle at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the championship leading team

Since the introduction of the IL-15 two years ago, the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval has not been kind to Juncos Racing.

In 2016: Kyle Kaiser, the current points leader started on the inside of the front row, but made hard contact with the wall at the exit of Turn 4 on the first green flag lap, and rookie Zachary Claman DeMelo finished 13th in his first Freedom 100.

In 2015: Kaiser did manage a top five finish, but clearly had nothing for the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports foursome that finished 1-2-3-4, and Spencer Pigot, the eventual 2015 title winner, was way off the pace, finishing a lap down and ninth of a 12 car field.

The Ricardo Juncos owned team will hope that the move from Brownsburg, Ind. to a new 44,000 square foot shop that is situated only half-a-mile south of the apex of the daunting Indianapolis Motor Speedway Turn 1, will change their luck at the 108 year-old speed-plant.

The current Juncos Racing duo, championship leader Kaiser and Nicolas Dapero, finished Monday’s test with the only 12th and 13th quickest speeds, but Kaiser does not seem worried by the team’s lack of pace in testing.

Juncos Racing veteran Kyle Kaiser gets ready to head on track in preparation for testing for the 2017 Freedom 100 (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“We didn’t really run qualifying trim. Our focus has been working on the race car,” explained the 21 year-old after testing on Monday. “We had a lot of downforce so our trap speeds haven’t been the best, but we’re working on having a good balance in the car. Everyone wants to win this race, whether your last in points or the points leader. I’m just going in trying to build a good race car and we’ll see what happens from there.”

Under the radar????

If you were to look strictly at the current points table, it would be easy to exclude Shelby Blackstock (9th), Dalton Kellett (12th) and Juan Piedrahita (14th) as threats to win the Freedom 100. That would be a big mistake.

Veteran Shelby Blackstock has two podiums in his 13 oval MRTI starts, and will be making his third Freedom 100 start. The Nashville, Tenn. native had an impressive fourth place finish in 2016, after starting 10th.

“I’m really looking forward to our biggest race of the year, the Freedom 100! It’s by far the best race and the one I look forward to the most,” said Blackstock. “Testing has been going good so far, so I’m excited to get back out there and trim more. I want to thank the entire Belardi Auto Racing team for giving us a great starting car.”

Dalton Kellett, who finished third after starting 14th last year, is the highest placed returning driver, and will be making his ninth oval start as part of the MRTI.

Dalton Kellett, who finished third in last year’s Freedom 100, during testing for the 2017 event. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“The best week in racing is here! I’m extremely excited to race in the Freedom 100 this week, and to get on track,” exclaimed the 23 year-old Canadian Kellett. “Indianapolis is a magical place, and as a driver it’s a special feeling running around the oval. Last year, we had quick cars. It was an exciting race, and we were able to run well in traffic. We didn’t get the chance to see our outright speed last year with qualifying rained out, but we’re hoping for good weather this year and hope to see what two laps trimmed out feels like on the speedway. It’s our first oval race of the season, and I know we’ve all been working hard to get to this point and see the team’s hard work pay off.”

Piedrahita, who made his 100th MRTI start during the INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is also the most experienced oval pilot in the 14 car field.

The Bogota, Colombia native will be making his 16th MRTI oval start and fourth in the Freedom 100. Piedrahita has four oval podiums and was poised to take his first victory during the 2016 Freedom 100. The 24 year-old had moved from his 13th starting spot to second place when the yellow flag came out on Lap 36. Piedrahita was balked by leader Dean Stoneman on the Lap 39 restart, almost hitting the pit attenuator, before falling to eighth place.

With an iffy weather forecast for Thursday, these three drivers will really be hoping that qualifying is not cancelled, and they get a chance to start close to the front of the 14 car field.

Three big question marks

The most pleasant surprise of the 2017 Indy Lights season so far? The performance of the Rising Star Racing sponsored Neil Alberico, who heads into the Freedom 100, in fourth place in the championship, only 37 points behind fellow points leader and fellow MRTI veteran Kaiser.

In 2016, Alberico battled engine related gremlins all season, but his seventh place finish (after starting 15th when qualifying was rained out) in the Freedom 100, that included the fastest race of the lap, was a highlight.

Neil Alberico during testing in preparation for the 2017 Freedom 100 (Photo Courtesy of IndyCar)

“Indianapolis is the Holy Grail,” said Alberico, who finished testing on Tuesday with the fourth quickest time. “You head to Indy always wanting a good result. The one race every driver wants to win is the Freedom 100 and we’re working towards that.

How Santiago Urrutia will perform on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, is one of the big question marks heading into the Freedom 100. After a disappointing start to the his sophomore campaign, the 2016 Indy Lights vice-champion has moved into a tie for seventh. However, Urrutia’s results have been middling in his four oval events. The Uruguayan made his first oval start at Lucas Oil Raceway in Pro Mazda in 2015, and was only able to finish 15th.

After winning the 2015 Pro Mazda championship, the 20 year-old made the jump to Indy Lights, and was unable to finish in the top three in his three oval starts. That included a rough Freedom 100 in which Urrutia’s Soul Red car end the day with a mechanical issue after spin in the second half of the race.

“I am very much ready for the Freedom 100, it is the biggest race of the year,” said Urrutia. “I believe that it will be important for us to unload a good car from the hauler on Thursday, so that we can work on it and improve on it. We need a really good car so that I can be right at the top to get the crucial points we need for the championship.”

Which version of Carlin sophomore Zachary Claman DeMelo will show at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this weekend?

The Claman DeMelo who drove mistake free races at Barber Motorsports Park (Race 1) and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course (Race 1), or the mistake prone driver that shows up on occasion. There is no question that the 19 year-old has the pace to be a factor for race wins, having top five quickest laps in five of six race so far this year, but need to find some consistency if he wants to be a constant threat for the podium.

DeMelo started his Freedom 100 weekend off on the right foot, scoring the sixth fastest lap in testing last Monday.

Who replaces Schmidt at the top of the heap?

In 14 tries, a Sam Schmidt owned entry has visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Victory Podium after taking the Freedom 100 checkered flag first. The Indianapolis, Ind. based team shuttered their Indy Lights team late in 2016, and for the first time won’t field a car in the race.

Among teams entered in this year’s Freedom 100 only Belardi Auto Racing and Andretti Autosport have collected Indy Lights Victories on the 2.5 mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

Belardi Auto Racing’s two victories are the two most exciting finishes in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history. In 2013, Peter Dempsey, who is currently an engineer with the Juncos Racing Indy Lights program, won a four-wide drag race, beating Gabby Chaves to the line by a scant 0.0026 seconds to score the Brian Belardi’s first win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In 2014, it was Chaves turn to cross the yard of bricks first 0.0050 seconds ahead of Matthew Brabham in another photo finish.

A Michael Andretti owned entry made it’s first Freedom 100 appearance in 2005, when current Verizon IndyCar Series driver Marco Andretti finished 16th after starting tenth.

Over the course of the next decade, Andretti Autosport collected seven podiums at the Freedom 100 (Jaime Camara (2), Matthew Brabham, J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, Carlos Munoz, and Zach Veach), but did not score their first win until last year, when Dean Stoneman beat Carlin’s Ed Jones to the line by a minuscule .002 seconds.

That leaves Carlin, Juncos Racing, and Team Pelfrey as the squads still looking for that coveted first win on Carb Day.

Freedom 100 – Wins By Team

  • Schmidt Peterson Motorsports —> 8
  • Belardi Auto Racing —> 2
  • A.J. Foyt Racing —> 1
  • Andretti Autosport —> 1
  • Brian Stewart Racing —> 1
  • Panther Racing —> 1

Conclusions and predictions

Despite plenty of passing, the Freedom 100 is still a race that has been won from one of the first six starting spots on all but one occasion (Esteban Guerrieri won from 15th in 2012). That means that an engineer and crew that is able to rub every little bit of friction out of the Mazda powered Dallara, and a driver that is the bravest during the two white knuckle laps will have an advantage when race downforce is added back to the car for the 40-lap Carb Day race.

Aaron Telitz leads a group of four cars during a hectic Monday test session in preparation for the Freedom 100 (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

This has to be one of the more difficult Freedom 100’s to handicap, there are at a bare minimum 10 drivers that will have a shot to cross the “Yard of Bricks” ahead of their rivals. If someone absolutely forced me (Steve), to pick three drivers for the win, it would be veterans Kyle Kaiser, Neil Alberico, and Dalton Kellett. Having experience with the draft, while not mandatory, is a learned skill, and one that is key to performing well on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval.

Freedom 100 schedule

Thursday, May 25

  • 9am – 9:30am – Indy Lights Practice 1
  • 11am – 11:30am – Indy Lights Practice 2
  • 1:30pm – 2:30pm – Indy Lights Qualifying

Friday, May 26

  • 10am -10:30am – Indy Lights Autograph Session
  • 12:30pm – Indy Lights Freedom 100 (40 laps)

Freedom 100 qualifying order

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire points headed into the Freedom 100

1 Kyle Kaiser 140
2 Nico Jamin 126
3 Colton Herta 121
4 Neil Alberico 103
5 Aaron Telitz 97
6 Matheus Leist 89
7 Zachary Claman DeMelo 87
8 Santiago Urrutia 87
9 Shelby Blackstock 80
10 Nicolas Dapero 75
11 Ryan Norman 71
12 Dalton Kellett 64
13 Pato O’Ward 58
14 Juan Piedrahita 55
15 Garth Rickards 54

Don’t miss any of the action: