By Steve Wittich

If you aren’t paying attention to the battle for the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires and the three-race NTT IndyCar Series deal that goes to the winner, you should be.

Over the past five races, rivals Oliver Askew and Rinus van Kalmthout (VeeKay) have swapped the top spot three times, with Askew seizing an 11-point lead after an exciting Freedom 100 presented by Cooper Tires.

After three-weekend off, the top rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder makes the trip north to Elkhart Lake, Wisc. and Road America for the eighth and ninth races on the 18-race calendar.

With three great passing zones, the Indy Lights action at Road America is always entertaining (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The doubleheader will be the 11th and 12th Indy Lights races on the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course, including six in the past three seasons. What was then known as the American Racing Series visited Road America in the series inaugural season in1986. Mike Groff crossed the line ahead of Jeff Andretti to win his second of seven career Indy Lights races.

The series visited the iconic circuit three more times over the next four years before taking a quarter-of-a-century hiatus between 1990 and 2016.

There have been no repeat winners in the six races since the series returned and drivers representing five different teams – Andretti Autosport, Belardi Auto Racing, Carlin (twice), Juncos and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports have all climbed to the top step of the podium.

Previous Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires at Road America

2018 Race #2 Victor Franzoni Juncos Racing
2018 Race #1 Colton Herta Andretti Autosport
2017 Race #2 Zachary Claman DeMelo Carlin
2017 Race #1 Matheus Leist Carlin
2016 Race #2 Santi Urrutia Schmidt Peterson Motorsports
2016 Race #1 Zach Veach Belardi Auto Racing
1990 Paul Tracy Landford Racing
1989 Tommy Byrne Landford Racing
1988 Juan Fangio II Leading Edge Racing Team
1986 Mike Groff Groff Motorsports

Askew and VeeKay have both made four previous Road To Indy starts at Road America with very different results.

In 30 Road To Indy starts before this season, Askew had failed to finish in the top five on nine occasions with three of those coming at Road America. The 22-year-old’s lone podium in four races was a third-place finish in the second USF2000 race in 2018. It was that same year in the first race that Askew had a camber shim work loose, leading to a 17th place finish, his worst in 37 Road To Indy starts.

Even though his past results at Road America aren’t overly encouraging, the Jupiter, Fla. has momentum on his side; winning the last race and scoring 25 more points than VeeKay in the previous five races.

The 2017 USF2000 champion has also collected the most points in the four natural terrain road course races at Circuit of The Americas and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

2019 Indy Lights Natural Terrain Road Course Race Points

1 Oliver Askew – R 111
2 Rinus VeeKay – R 98
3 Robert Megennis – R 98
4 Toby Sowery – R 63
5 Ryan Norman 60
6 Zachary Claman 67
7 David Malukas – R 63
8 Dalton Kellett 51
9 Lucas Kohl – R 51
10 Julien Falchero – R 36

VeeKay also comes to Road America with a positive mindset. The first two wins of the Dutch driver’s dozen career Road To Indy trips to victory lane came at the central Wisconsin circuit in 2017. Also, Juncos Racing, with Victor Franzoni at the wheel won the last Indy Lights race last year.

Juncos Racing was lacking some pace earlier in the season but appeared to find something for Sunday’s feature race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The 18-year-old VeeKay started on the pole and scored the quickest race lap on the way to a dominating 6.88-second victory.

Covered by only 30 points, Robert Megennis, Toby Sowery, Ryan Norman and David Malukas will need to start finishing ahead of the leading pair if they want to enter the championship conversation. With only 39.5% of the possible points allotted so far, there is still time for this quartet to make a play for the scholarship.

Robert Megennis had scored two early podiums during his 2016 USF2000 rookie campaign, but the first time I really took note of New Yorker’s potential was during a 14th to seventh place drive in a USF2000 series race.

Megennis was down to being a single Team Pelfrey entry meaning the then just turned 16-year-old would be on his own to find the quickest set-ups. When I talked with Megennis before the weekend began, he was relishing the opportunity to learn how to work on his own. His positive attitude stood out then as it does now.

The 19-year-old will be making his seventh and eighth starts at Road America and should have no issues improving on a best finish of seventh.

Currently, 51-points out of the championship lead is Toby Sowery. Not bad for a driver that was only signed to a one-event deal to start the season.

The 22-year-old has previous experience at Road America and will also have multi-championship winning Indy Lights engineer on board to help develop the Team Pelfrey/BN Racing’s pair of AER/Dallara IL-15s.

The Cambridge, England native finished second in both Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Road America last year while partnered with David Malukas at BN Racing.

Veteran Road To Indy engineer Geoff Fickling will be joining the rookie Indy Lights team for the remainder of the season, giving the two quick drivers and team owner Bryn Nuttall an experienced engineer to lean on.

Geoff Fickling, on the right, will be joining BN Racing for the remainder of the 2019 Indy Lights season (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Fickling was the race engineer for three of the last six Indy Lights champions, Sage Karam in 2013, Gabby Chaves in 2014, and Ed Jones in 2016, before moving up to engineer Max Chilton in the NTT IndyCar Series last year. The Cal Poly San Luis Obispo grad was an unfortunate casualty of Carlin having a pair of cars fail to qualify for the 2019 Indianapolis 500.

After a forgettable “Month of May,” Malukas heads to a track that should help him get his rookie season back ‘on track.’ The 17-year-old has two wins, three poles, three podiums and led all four Road To Indy starts that he had made on the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course.

“After our setbacks in Indianapolis, I am excited to be heading back to a track where I have had great success in the past,” exclaimed Malukas. “I think it will be a great way for me to get my confidence back and hopefully make up some points in the overall championship.”

Andretti Autosport veteran Norman led the most laps in the Freedom 100, just missing out on his second career win, but at the same time moving two spots forward to fifth place in the championship hunt. Norman is one of four drivers that has completed all 220 laps this season but will need to start finishing those races on the podium to drag himself back into championship contention.

VeeKay wasn’t the only Juncos Racing driver to have increased pace on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. Veteran Dalton Kellett was within shouting distance of his teammate in both race and qualifying pace. Saturday’s first race will be the veteran’s tenth Road To Indy start at Road America and following his top five in the Freedom 100 with a pair of top-five finishes would be considered a good result.

One of the other four drivers get maximum seat time so far in 2019 is Lucas Kohl, who is one of the other four drivers to complete every lap. The Brazilan who made the tough jump to Indy Lights directly from Indy Lights has shown he can complete races; now it’s time for the Roberto Moreno mentored driver to show he has the pace to compete for the top five.

With two previous podiums, Road America is just the track for 21-year-old Belardi Auto Racing rookie to ‘go for it.’

Teaming with Kohl at Belardi Auto Racing this weekend will be Aaron Telitz, an experienced home state shoe looking to add a pair of wins to his Road To Indy career total of 10. The Rice Lake, Wisc. native made a surprise start in the Freedom 100 presented by Cooper Tires, the 80th of his career across all three rungs of the ladder.

In six previous Road To Indy starts at his home circuit, the 27-year-old has two wins, two poles, three podiums, and five top-five finishes.

Other Indy Lights notes

  • How close is the competition in Indy Lights right now? All nine drivers in the second race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course had their quickest race laps within seven-tenths, and the top seven were within three- tenths of a second of VeeKay’s fastest lap.
  • Colton Herta and Zach Veach are the two Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires winners in Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix At Road America.
  • The only Indy Lights race winner across the ten races held at Road America to win the title occurred 29 years ago when Paul Tracy won both. There have been six races in the last three seasons, and none of the eventual champions won at the iconic road course.
  • Zach Veach (2016 Race #1) and Matheus Leist (2017 Race #2) are the only drivers in ten races to win from the pole. The driver who has started on the outside of the front row has won six times. The average starting spot of the winner in the IL-15 era is 2.2.
  • The pole sitter has only finished on the podium ins four of ten races and four times has finished outside of the top ten.
  • Andretti Autosport leads all teams with five podiums, but Belardi Auto Racing and Juncos Racing are right there with four podiums each.
  • The last time there was a caution in an Indy Lights race at Road America was during race #2 in 2016, a streak that is at 92 laps and counting.
  • At just over 3,600 feet long, the Moraine Sweep a run downhill from Turn 3 through a forest to Turn 5 is one of the quickest spots (not on an oval) that the drivers will experience all year. Victor Franzoni’s trap speed just before Turn 5 in Race #1 last year was 176.029 mph.

Race weekend basics

Race name: Cooper Tires Grand Prix Of Road America Powered By AER

Race #1 length: 20 laps or 50 minutes
Race #2 length: 20 laps or 50 minutes

Qualifying Record: 112.0034 seconds by Colton Herta in 2017
Race Record: 113.0138 seconds by Zachary Claman in 2017

Each entry can utilize four new sets of Cooper Tire slicks. No carryover tires are allowed.

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.

To avoid a red flag and penalty (see below) during qualifying, you must park your disabled vehicle in a safe area (determined by the race director)

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.

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.

Watch the 2018 Road America races:

Race #1

Race #2

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