By Steve Wittich

For the first time since 2013, the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series will race in the Lone Star State. Sage Karam won on the Streets of Houston in 2013.

Travis Gregg celebrates an Indy Lights win at Texas Motor Speedway in 2005. That was the last time the top run of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires raced in the Lone Star State (Photo courtesy of INDYCAR – Ron McQueeney)

The pair of races will be the seventh and eighth the state has hosted since Casey Mears won the first state of Texas Indy Lights race on the Houston Street Circuit in 2000.

Other Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires winners at the Texas Motor Speedway include Damien Falkner, A.J. Foyt IV and Thiago Madeiros (twice).

Some things we will be watching

Too early.

It’s way too early to be talking about the championship and the three-race NTT IndyCar Series scholarship that comes with it. However, that won’t stop us from giving you the 411 on who is leading.

Veteran Zachary Claman won the first race of the season and backed that up with a solid second place finish in the second race to earn a 9 point lead going into the third and fourth race of the season.

Rinus van Kalmthout (VeeKay) and Toby Sowery are both within ten points and the top eight are within 30 points of the Canadian veteran.

Sowery returns, Malukas impresses and BN Racing leads

For the second straight event, the Indy Lights entry list includes a joint BN Racing and Team Pelfrey car for English driver Toby Sowery. Sowery finished on the podium twice in his Indy Lights debut and will attempt to extend his personal Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires podium streak to five.

Sowery, who is part of the Lamborghini GT3 Squadra Corse Junior Programme tested at Circuit Paul Ricard with Team Lazarus in the days after the St. Petersburg season opener.

TSO Ladder Opinion: Sowery has other commitments that are career based. It’s understandable that the 22-year-old would stick with those. However, I (Steve) would love to see him back as much as his schedule permits. Sowery is the consummate “pro,” and his presence will only help David Malukas and BN Racing get better.

Toby Sowery will be returning for the second weekend of Indy Lights action in the Gap Guard / Rich Energy sponsored No. 2 entered by BN Racing / Team Pelfrey (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The 17-year-old Malukas did precisely what he needed to on the Streets of St. Petersburg. Log laps, learn and gather solid finishes. His three-wide pass of Robert Megennis and his teammate is the early contender for the move of the season and could be hard to beat.

In the course of three years, BN Racing has gone from karting to leading the Indy Lights team championship. An impressive feat.

Which team learned the most during the Circuit of The America’s test in February?

With three of the top four laps turned by Andretti Autosport drivers, Belardi Auto Racing, Juncos Racing and BN Racing had a lot of homework to do in the past month.

The Belardi Auto Racing No. 13 of Claman ended the February test on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course in the fifth spot, almost a full second behind Askew, but that hasn’t changed the focus for the 20-year-old.

“Super excited to head to COTA, for me the focus is the same as the first race weekend, and that is to win races,” said Claman. “I can’t wait to get the race weekend underway, and seeing how we stack up at a new track for us!”

We’ll be watching closely to see what changes engineers Tim Neff and Kent Boyer made to give their drivers a better chance to fight with the Andretti Autosport trio. The addition of Falchero, who tested with Andretti Autosport at Circuit of The Americas should help provide the Brownsburg, Ind. based team with more data.

Juncos Racing rookie VeeKay was only two-tenths of a second off the quickest time set by Oliver Askew set during the test in February. The addition of Dalton Kellett’s veteran feedback can undoubtedly help the team push their team forward.

Speaking of Askew and VeeKay

The duo has shared the podium a total of 14 times over the past two seasons and before the second race at St. Petersburg, had been mainly drama free. That all changed with a Lap 1, Turn 2 incident in the second race of the weekend at St. Petersburg.

Both drivers are even-tempered, so it will be interesting to see how this impacts what has quietly become an intriguing Road To Indy rivalry to watch.

Rookie Oliver Askew will look to put a difficult race on Sunday at St. Petersburg behind him and focus on moments like a pole-winning lap. (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

“In general, I think St. Pete was a solid opening weekend for us,” said Askew headed into this weekend’s pair of races at Circuit of The Americas. “Leaving with a podium in race one and a pole position for two shows that we’re here to stay and fight all season long. It was unfortunate to be taken out in race two, my team and everyone on the 28 car work too hard to retire that early in the race. I’m taking all preventative measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. I’d like to thank everyone at Andretti Autosport for their dedication to this program and my sponsors Index Invest, the Stellrecht Company, Wavelength Images, Bell Helmets and Sparco USA.”

Tire degradation

If you were looking for a drinking word in both the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and NTT IndyCar Series this weekend, it would most likely be “degradation.”

“There is quite a bit of degradation,” explained VeeKay after the February test. “I don’t think there will be issues, but it will be necessary to manage. I think it will be hard for every driver to manage that. I think it will be extra fun.”

Bounce back and continue to learn

Topping preseason testing and leading the first Indy Lights practice session in St. Petersburg, Fla. didn’t bring Andretti Autosport veteran Ryan Norman the desired results. The 21-year-old finished seventh and sixth in the first two races of the season, but is excited to quickly get back behind the wheel of the EVO sponsored No. 48 AER/Dallara IL-15.

“I’m really excited to get to COTA,” exclaimed Norman. “We didn’t have the best weekend in St. Pete, so I’m looking forward to turning things around in Austin. We were fast in testing and we should be right at the front of the grid come race day.”

Ryan Norman during testing at Circuit of The Americas in February (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Julien Falchero, a rookie with Belardi Auto Racing, had a solid start to his Indy Lights career. After finishing eighth in his first street course race, the Frenchman moved from his eighth start spot to finish fifth on Sunday. The 22-year-old was the second quickest driver during the February test at Circuit of The Americas and expects better results this weekend.

“My goal this weekend is to fight for a victory,” said the pilot of the No. 4 Belardi Auto Racing machine. “I know the track, and I like it. During the pre-season test, I had a really good rhythm, so I am expecting to be quick and expect to be fighting for good results all weekend long.”

Robert Megennis ended his second Indy Lights race against the concrete barriers, but that doesn’t mean that the Andretti Autosport driver didn’t have a successful opening weekend. A clean sixth-place finish on Saturday was followed by an inside second row starting place on Sunday, racing inside the podium and setting the quickest lap of the race.

“I’m so excited to be heading to COTA next week,” said the 18-year-old, who is scheduled to make his 50th career Road To Indy start on Saturday. “The track was a blast to drive in spring training, and I know it’s going to generate some great racing. We showed good speed at St. Pete, my first two Indy Lights races, even running the fastest lap of Race 2. I learned an immense amount about these Indy Lights cars, and I feel so much more prepared to show everyone what I’ve got at weekend number two. Thanks to CyberArk, Optiv, Palo Alto Networks, SailPoint, and of course Andretti Autosport for getting me on track!”

Dalton Kellett’s first Indy Lights race with Juncos Racing ended a string of 68 Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires starts with Andretti Autosport. That change is going to take some adjustment, and the 26-year-old should be more comfortable this weekend.

We recommend watching this video from this graduate of Engineering Physics program at Queens University in Kingston Ontario if you want to learn more about the AER/Dallara IL-15.

Making the jump from USF2000 to Indy Lights means a big adjustment. Belardi Auto Racing rookie Lucas Kohl handled it like a pro. The Brazilian ran every lap in St. Petersburg, Fla. and also got quicker in each session.

The 20-year-old was less than a second behind Askew’s race two pole time after beginning the weekend over two seconds off the pace.

Road To Indy alum wins in Sebring

Shelby Blackstock, a recent Indy Lights grad and driver coach for Indy Pro 2000 team Abel Motorsports, cruised to a 7.2-second victory in the TCR class of the Alan Jay Automotive Network 120 which is part of the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

Blackstock and co-driver Tom O’Gorman, who also won the season-opening race at the Daytona International Speedway, started fourth in their Honda Civic Type R and led 17 laps, including the final 16 circuits. The pair have a 16 point advantage after two of ten rounds.

Race weekend basics

Race name: Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Allied Building Products

Race #1 length: 20 laps (
Race #2 length: 40 laps or 55 minutes

Each entry can utilize four new sets of Cooper Tire slicks as well as one set of used/scuffed tires from St. Petersburg. 

Each driver will have 20 activations of the 50 horsepower push to pass (PTP), with each activation lasting 10 seconds

PTP is not functional during starts and restarts, and a driver must be within 1.5 seconds of the car ahead of them for the system to become active

Drivers failing to slow at least 15% in a timing sector with a local yellow will be subject to a two-place grid spot penalty

Drivers who fail to heed the checkered flag at the end of a session will receive a two-grid spot penalty

Causing one red flag will result in a driver losing their fastest lap

Causing a second red flag will wipe out all of drivers laps, and they will not be able to leave pit road for the remainder of the session

Track limits at Circuit of The Americas will be enforced. The penalty for exceeding track limits will be the loss of the time from the lap that track limits were exceeded.

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 – note that no point is given for the quickest race lap because of the use of PTP

Don’t miss any of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires action: