By Steve Wittich
As the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire series travels to the 1.25 mile oval for the seventh time, all eyes are on junior Juncos Racing driver Kyle Kaiser.
Kaiser, who currently holds a 42 point championship advantage over Belardi Auto Racing sophomore Santiago Urrutia, and Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing rookie Colton Herta, is attempting the first Indy Lights driver to guarantee themselves the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship before the final race of the season since 2011. That year, current Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader Josef Newgarden clinched the title at Kentucky Motor Speedway, one race before the Las Vegas finale.
The easiest way for Kaiser to clinch early is to bring the No. 18 Juncos Racing Mazda/Dallara across the finish line in fourth or better in Sunday evening’s 75 lap Mazda St. Louis Indy Lights Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires.
If Kaiser finishes outside the top four on Sunday, he can still celebrate if Valencia, Calif. native Herta, and Miguelete, Uruguay denizen Urrutia finish off the podium and fail to collect any bonus points.
Phew… got all that.
Here are what the three combatants are saying:
Kaiser: “Going into Gateway, I feel very confident. We had a really strong test day and I know we’re going to have a good baseline starting the weekend. I know we have a car to win, so if everything falls in place that’s the result I’m expecting. I’m aware of the championship implications but that isn’t the focus for this race. I’m going to go out and drive the best I can and let the rest take care of itself.”
Urrutia: “I feel the test went very well at Gateway, I drove it to the edge to get everything out of my car. I’m going into the race with confidence, ready to win, and then head to Watkins Glen winning there too, to win the Championship.”
Herta: “I’m really excited to get back on an oval, this weekend at Gateway. It sounds like the repaving went very well and I loved Gateway when I tested there. I’m looking forward to the race and hoping for another good weekend.”
The series recently held a test at Gateway Motorsports Park on August 10, 2017, and from all reports it was certainly “interesting.”
Urrutia, who is still looking for his first MRTI oval victory, unofficially led the testing, but from all reports the lap times were really tight.
Championship contenders Herta and Matheus Leist both hit the wall, and three cars had a coming together on the tight pit road.
The 18 year-old Leist still has an outside chance at the championship, and the Brazilian who won at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Iowa Speedway will be attempting to complete an oval sweep. The only other Indy Lights driver to accomplish that was Greg Moore, who won at Phoenix International Raceway, Nazareth Speedway, The Milwaukee Mile, and New Hampshire International Speedway in 1995.
With only 22 points separating Herta and Urrutia in second, and Aaron Telitz in seventh, each and every position could move a driver up or down the championship table.
Zachary Claman DeMelo, who has finishes of first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth in his last six races, has scored the most points of any driver over the last half-dozen races, and with a pair of good finishes, could easily move into second place in the championship.
Heralded rookies Nico Jamin (3 wins) and Aaron Telitz (1 win) have both struggled with power plant issues at times during the season. They are both outside of championship contention, but adding to their win totals will only help boost their already high stocks.
Neil Alberico, Shelby Blackstock, Dalton Kellett, and Juan Piedrahita are veterans who have shown well on ovals in the past, and the foursome will be hungry for their first Indy Lights win. Don’t expect any of them to roll over.
Chad Boat, who had his Indy Lights debut at Iowa Speedway in July put on hold after a tumble in his USAC National Midget at Lincoln (Ill.) Speedway, will instead make his first Indy Lights start at Gateway Motorsports Park in the Pristine Auction sponsored No. 84 from the Belardi Auto Racing stable.
Boat made his return to USAC action on August 1st at Jefferson County Speedway in Fairbury, Neb., and since then has won three times in eight starts, including a win at the Bellville Midget Nationals and two victories during Pennsylvania Midget Week.
“I am looking forward to my first Indy Lights race and using what I learned at the test to have the best possible race weekend,” explained the second generation driver. “The repave at Gateway has made the track very smooth, so it should make for some great racing. I know the Belardi Auto Racing team will have a great car prepared for the event. None of this would be possible without Pristine Auction and all of our sponsors.”
Some other interesting Indy Lights at Gateway Motorsports Park notes:
- The first race in 1997 was won by Lee Bentham, who is currently a driver coach/spotter for Ed Carpenter Racing.
- Chris Simmons, who is Scott Dixon’s race engineer, sat on pole for the inaugural race in 1997.
- Current Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan both started the 1997 race and finished third and 10th respectively.
- Two of the six previous winners – Townsend Bell in 2000 and Ryan Hampton in 2002 – started from pole.
- The winner in six races has never started outside of the front two rows.
- NBC Sports Network IndyCar analyst Townsend Bell led 146 laps in two Indy Lights starts.
- Townsend Bell holds the track record at 28.625 seconds or 157.205 mph set during qualifying in 2000.
- Current Gateway Motorsports Park owner Curtis Francois started third and finished fifth in the No. 9 Sam Schmidt entry in 2002.
- Ed Carpenter made two Indy Lights starts, finishing third in 2002, and fourth in 2003.
- The average number of cautions in the six races is 2.3 per race, and the average number of caution laps is 19.3.
The first Indy Lights action is a practice session at 7:45pm on Saturday. The 15 entries qualifying at 1:45pm on Sunday, and the 75 lap race rolls off at 6pm on Sunday.
Don’t miss any of the action:
- live timing – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000, and IndyCar Race Control
- on twitter –Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000, Cooper Tire, Mazda Racing and TSO Ladder
- via the Road To Indy TV app – Android or Apple iOS
- on all social media channels via the #TeamCooperTire and #MRTI hashtags