By Steve Wittich

The Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series will take to the streets (and runways) of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. for the 19th and 20th time. It will also be the 10th straight year that the series starts the season on the shores of Tampa Bay.

Previous race winning drivers and teams at the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires events in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Previous race winning drivers and teams at the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires events in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Year Driver Team
2017 Race #2 Colton Herta Andretti Autosport
2017 Race #1 Aaron Telitz Belardi Auto Racing
2016 Race #2 Felix Rosenqvist Belardi Auto Racing
2016 Race #1 Felix Serralles Belardi Auto Racing
2015 Race #2 Ed Jones Carlin
2015 Race #1 Ed Jones Carlin
2014 Zach Veach Andretti Autosport
2013 Jack Hawksworth Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2012 Tristan Vautier Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2011 Josef Newgarden Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2010 JK Vernay Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2009 Race #2 Junior Strous Winners Circle Group
2009 Race #1 Junior Strous Winners Circle Group
2008 Race #2 Richard Antinucci Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2008 Race #1 Rafa Matos Andretti Autosport
2007 Alex Lloyd Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2006 Rafa Matos Guthrie Racing
2005 Marco Andretti Andretti Autosport


Marco Andretti celebrates an Indy Lights win at St. Petersburg with his grandfather and grandmother (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR – Ron McQueeney)

Race weekend basics:

  • The official name of the pair of races is: Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires
  • Saturday’s Race 1 is scheduled for 35 laps or 60 minutes
  • Sunday’s Race 2 is scheduled for 40 laps or 60 minutes
  • Each entry is permitted to use four sets of new Cooper Tire slicks, and can also carry over one set that has to be used in the first practice session of the event
  • Each entry is permitted to use four sets of new Cooper Tire rains.
  • Driver points are distributed as follows: 30 – 25 – 22 – 19 – 17 – 15 -14 – 13 – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – an additional one point will be awarded to the pole sitter, and to the driver who leads the most laps

Race weekend schedule:

Friday, March 9

8:50am – 9:35am Indy Lights Practice #1
1:40pm – 2:10pm Indy Lights Qualifying #1
3:30pm – 4pm Indy Lights Autograph Session

Saturday, March 10

8:30am – 9am Indy Lights Qualifying #2
1:05pm – 2:05pm Indy Lights Race #1

Sunday, March 11

10:45am – 11:45am Indy Lights Race #2

If you want to win the $1 million Mazda Motorsports scholarship you don’t need to win the season opening weekend, but you should finish. 

Looking back a recent history, a driver doesn’t need to win a race during the first race weekend to collect the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires title. In fact, the last driver to do that was Tristan Vautier in 2012. In the past five seasons, the eventual scholarship winner has finished third or worse in both weekend races. Most recent Indy Lights title winner Kyle Kaiser finished sixth and fourth in 2017, and it was eventual 2016 champion and current Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar driver Ed Jones, who had the worst start to the season, finishing 10th and 7th in the first two races of the year.

“I know that the champion isn’t always determined by who wins at St. Pete, but I always feel like it’s good to get off on the right foot at the first event of the season,” said sophomore championship contender Aaron Telitz to TSO Ladder. “ I’ll be gunning for a pole, gunning for a win in both the races.”

You might not have to win the first race of the year, but making sure you finish is always highly recommended. Of the previous 32 Indy Lights champions, only one title winner not complete the first race of the season. ABC/ESPN and NBCSN pit reporter Jon Beekhuis started fourth, but crashed on the fourth lap, finishing 16th in the 1988 season-opening race at Phoenix International Raceway.

And, if history is any indicator – all but two of the eighteen Indy Lights races in St. Petersburg, Fla. have had at least one caution, drivers will have the opportunity to get into trouble and start the season on a sour note.

Quality over quantity

For a number of reasons, that we’ll go into more depth about in an article during the six-week hiatus between the season opener this weekend and the doubleheader at Barber Motorsports Park on April 20-22, the field for Indy Lights will be a short one in 2018.

However, that doesn’t mean it lacks in star power.

“I think it’s going to be tough this year, there are only ten cars, but all ten cars can win the championship,” said double vice-champion Santi Urrutia. “If you look at the times from today, it’s going to be really tight.”

Rookie Pato O’Ward agreed with Urrutia, telling TSO: “I think it’s going to be a very big year for people to see who’s got it and who doesn’t. It’s going to be tight. At this test (Homestead-Miami Speedway spring training) everybody was within a few tenths. That’s insane. So it’s definitely going to be a very, very strong pack of eight to ten cars.”

Collectively the experienced field features:

  • 205 Indy Lights starts
  • 10 Indy Lights wins
  • 35 Indy Lights podiums
  • 526 MRTI starts
  • 51 MRTI wins
  • 152 MRTI podiums

The full-season contenders (aka the entire field).

First up is Santi Urrutia, the Indy Lights vice-champion the past two seasons. Still only 21-years-old, Urrutia will return for another year in his quest to win the big prize, an opportunity to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series. The Uruguayan pilot has collected six wins, four poles, 16 podiums, and six fastest laps of the race in 34 Indy Lights races.

Santi Urrutia, who will return to Indy Lights for a third season and Belardi Auto Racing for a second season, led the first official road course test of the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

Urrutia, who has worked with engineer Tim Neff during his rookie season at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and last year at Belardi Auto Racing, will return to Brian Belardi’s Brownsburg, Ind. based team.

Urrutia ran into some early trouble last year, finishing outside the top 10 in three of the first four races of the year, understands what it takes to go home with the $1million Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship.

“If you want to win the championship, you are always going to need to be in the top three,” said Urrutia. “You need to win races when you have the car to win races, and when you don’t have the car to win, you have to be on the podium, or at least in the top five.”

Rejoining Urrutia at Belardi Auto Racing to form an extremely potent duo is Telitz, the winner of the first and last races of the 2017 Indy Lights season. If our sources are correct, the Rice Lake, Wisc. Native has been the quickest driver during off-season testing.

Aaron Telitz is returning to Belardi Auto Racing for a second season. The princess sticker was added to the car by an adoring fan – Belardi team manager John Brunner (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

Telitz, whose MRTI podium rate currently sits at an outstanding 54.8% (34 podiums in 62 starts), will be returning to a team for a second year of competition for the first time in his career, and believes that comfort level will help him during the season.

“This is the first time that has ever happened to me,” said Telitz. “It’s really confidence building. Already in pre-season testing. You already know what to tell your engineer, and he knows what you are going to say when you come of the race track. That’s a great feeling to have.”

Finishing only ten points behind Urrutia last year was second generation driver Colton Herta. Herta, whose seven poles during the 2017 season, fell one short of an Indy Lights season record held by his dad Bryan Herta, will need to avoid the type of stretch of races he had at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May (12th, 10th, and 13th), if he wants to challenge for the championship.

“To keep my cool during the races,” explained Herta to TSO Ladder when asked what he learned last year that he use to be better in 2018. “Obviously, I know a lot more about the car now and set-up. There were a few times where I think I maybe misjudged changes going into races and how the track conditions were changing. There are a few things to work on. Staying cool when I’m in the lead and making the max (imum) out of the changes and really thinking about it.”

Sophomore Andretti Steinbrenner Racing driver Colton Herta should challenge for the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

Herta’s teammate Dalton Kellett may have made 93 Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires starts, but until he made the jump to Indy Lights in 2016, schooling was his primary focus. The Toronto, Ontario native graduated in from the prestigious Queen University with a B.Sc in Engineering Physics in 2015. Kellett’s driver coach Darren Manning told us that with a singular focus on racing, the 24-year-old has made incredible strides to catching up to his peers that began focusing on racing at much earlier age.

Kellett’s pace has improved substantially over the past two seasons, but he has still lacked consistency at times. That’s not something that’s lost on him.

When asked about his goals for this season, Kellett told TSO: “The goal is always the same. You want to win the championship. You just need to keep focusing on the process. We’ve had a big off-season as far as testing goes. From my end personally, just working on being consistent in the races and always in the top five. I think that has to be the goal because that’s how you are going to win a championship. Consistency, minimizing mistakes. You can say you want to win every race, but that’s not going to happen, you really have to be consistent over the whole year.”

Andretti Autosport teammates Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett share a laugh during pre-season Indy Lights testing (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

The third driver to return to the four-car Andretti Autosport line-up is Ryan Norman. The 19-year-old made significant strides during the 2017 season, and it appears that he has continued his growth in the offseason. Norman, whose previous experience was in SCCA Formula Atlantic, ended the oval test at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the fastest lap, and until a late lap in which Urrutia used three activations of push-to-pass, had the quickest road course lap as well.

“I think the confidence is definitely up, especially over last year,” said the Cleveland, Ohio native after the Homestead-Miami Speedway test. “We’re so much closer. I think we’ll be ready to go for some wins.”

TSO also asked Norman if having such a successful test changes his expectations and he told us “It reassures that I can put it at the top (of the timesheet). So, when I’m not putting it at the top, I just have to be real with myself, because I know I can do it.”

Despite being only 18 years-old and his rookie status, the final member of the Andretti Autosport quartet might have the best resume of the talented group. Coming off a second place finish in the 2016 Pro Mazda championship, Pato O’Ward collected one podium in the four starts of an aborted 2017 Indy Lights campaign that just never had the right resources to be successful, but that didn’t keep the always smiling Mexican out of a car.

Andretti Autosport rookie Pato O’Ward is clearly ready to start the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

O’Ward was the lead driver on a Performance Tech Motorsports squad that won seven of eight Prototype Challenge in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, scoring the fastest lap in all eight races.

O’Ward is relieved to be confirmed for an entire season, telling TSO Ladder: “There is not so much, not pressure. I’m not as tight. Last year, everything was just super, super tight and everything was down to the bone. There wasn’t anything extra (as far as budget). And this year – finally I have a year with testing. Finally, I have a year where I can get the knowledge about the car before I go to the first race. The past years have been “go to the first race and see what you can do.” So, I guess it just gives me a bit more confidence going into the first race, knowing the car, knowing how it’s going to react to certain situations, knowing more about the Cooper tires for qualifying. I guess knowledge is the biggest difference between last year and this year.”

Last but not least is the reigning Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni, who has moved up the ladder with Juncos Racing. The Speedway, Ind. based team is the only active team to win an Indy Lights championship in the IL-15 era and has graduated 2015 winner Spencer Pigot and 2017 winner Kyle Kaiser to the Verizon IndyCar Series.

The always smiling Victor Franzoni is looking to add an Indy Lights title to his Pro Mazda championship (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography – Joe Skibinski)

The 2018 season will be the fifth season of Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires competition for the 22-year-old, who has 12 wins, eight poles, 29 podiums, and 12 fastest race laps in 55 USF2000 and Pro Mazda starts.

Franzoni, who until this year had not had full season confirmed when the season started, thinks that taking the race-by-race approach he used to win the Pro Mazda championship will work again this year.

“I’ll try to do the same as last year because it worked,” Franzoni told TSO Ladder. “I’ll be looking race-to-race. The next one is St. Pete, and I’m looking forward that we are thinking already about the set-up. It’s important to do a good result there. Of course, I expect to win, but I think the main goal now is to be top three. It’ll be my first race, and I’ll learn a lot in the race. See how the car reacts. How everybody drives. And learn as much as possible. So, the goal is top three. If I can finish both races in the top three, it’ll be better for the rest of the year.”

Alfonso Celis, Jr. is scheduled to be Franzoni’s teammate at Juncos Racing this year, but as of this writing, was not expected to take part in the event due to licensing issues. We’ll have more on the Mexican driver when he makes his Indy Lights debut.

Ricardo Juncos told TSO that he is looking hard to find a replacement for Celis, Jr. for St. Petersburg. We’ll send an update when we know more.
Team Pelfrey, who signed veterans Neil Alberico and Shelby Blackstock for the first race weekend of the year, are late additions to the Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires entry list. The team and drivers will need to tap all the experienced gained in 84 Indy Lights and 186 Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires starts, to overcome a lack of pre-season track time.

The Pompano Beach, Fla. based team have not turned a wheel since the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway over three months ago, and the pair of drivers have not been on track since the Indy Lights final race of the year at Watkins Glen International on Labor Day weekend.

But, don’t discount the Gary Neal led squad just yet. Twice before, the striking yellow and black cars were last minute entries, and on both occasions, they scored podiums on the Streets of St Petersburg. Last year, Pato O’Ward finished third in the second race of the weekend, and the year before that it was Scott Hargrove that stood on the second step of the podium. Neither driver had any pre-season testing with the with no preseason testing with the squad.

2017 Race #1

2017 Race #2