If there’s one constant about the recent years of Mazda Road to Indy action for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda at Lucas Oil Raceway, it’s that there hasn’t been a single constant.
Change has been the norm at the series’ smallest track, the 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway in Clermont, Ind., just outside Indianapolis.
The race was first off traditionally part of the “Night Before the 500,” which as its name would suggest, ran the night before the Indianapolis 500. And it ran late into the night, worse if there was any rain to sabotage or delay proceedings.
Last year, the powers-that-be decided that the “Night Before the 500” would become the “Day Before the Night Before the 500.” The Pro Mazda and USF2000 races were moved up to Saturday afternoon, thus ensuring an early night out for anyone affiliated in the Mazda Road to Indy to make it to IMS early Sunday morning if need be.
For a third straight year, however, the event has changed. It’s now back to the night – but Friday night rather than Saturday – along with the USAC Silver Crown series. The event is now called the “Carb Night Classic.”
Testing and practice runs all day Thursday, before qualifying and the races on Friday. Passing is traditionally difficult at the track that primarily sees high groove running, and will thus make qualifying that much more important.
The Pro Mazda and USF2000 races are the second and third of the day for the Mazda Road to Indy, at two different tracks. The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 is scheduled for earlier Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Additionally, the USF2000 series’ new car, the Tatuus USF-17, will be unveiled on the IMS Pagoda Plaza at 9 a.m. ET and local time on Friday.
The Pro Mazda field is down to just eight cars and the story going into the Cooper Tires Freedom 90 weekend to go along with the reduced car count is whether Aaron Telitz can eat into teammate Pato O’Ward’s points lead, which currently stands at 39 points (188-149).
O’Ward, the 17-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico has opened the year on a tear, having won five of the first six races in the No. 80 Gap Guard/Topo Chico car. He should be able to improve upon a seventh place that he achieved last year.
Telitz may well be the early favorite here though. The Wisconsinite, in the No. 82 Rice Lake Weighing Systems car, is a past Lucas Oil Raceway winner. He dominated the 2014 USF2000 race here driving for ArmsUp Motorsports. A win with O’Ward finishing second might not be a huge cut into the points lead, but it will be enough to give him momentum heading into his home race next month at Elkhart Lake’s Road America.
The remaining six drivers in the field will likely be vying over the final podium position. Garett Grist, who won this race for Andretti Autosport in 2014, remains the driver with the best odds to break up the Team Pelfrey parade at the front of the field. The diminutive but talented Canadian drives the No. 5 Lander Property Management/Mac Tools/Blacklist Lifestyle car for Juncos Racing and is no doubt keen to get his first win of the season. Teammate Will Owen finished second here last year in his No. 23 AMR entry and looks to go one better this time around.
Nico Jamin and Jake Eidson, along with Telitz, were part of the USF2000 win battle here last year – Eidson ultimately prevailed – but neither has yet been able to showcase their ability as well in their respective steps up to Pro Mazda this year with Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.
Rookies Nicolas Dapero and Jake Parsons of Juncos will look to get comfortable for Juncos in their maiden oval bows.
Winning at Lucas Oil Raceway hasn’t been a great harbinger of championship success. The last five winners here are Weiron Tan, Grist, Matthew Brabham and Connor De Phillippi, who won two in a row from 2011 to 2012. Brabham is the only one to have gone on to win the Pro Mazda title.
Tan’s tenure with Team Pelfrey was halted after testing during the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis weekend and it remains to be seen if the Malaysian, or that No. 81 car, will reappear at a later point this season. The four National class drivers that ran there have also opted to pass up the oval race.
Cooper Tires Freedom 90 schedule
Thursday, May 26, 2016
- 10:15am-10:45 am – Rookie Testing
- 10:45-11:15am – Testing
- 1:30pm-2:30pm – Testing
- 3:30pm-4:30pm – Testing
- 6:15-6:45pm – Practice
Friday, May 27, 2016
- 4:30pm-4:55pm – Qualifying
- 7:10pm-7:45pm – Cooper Tires Freedom 90 (90 laps)
Forgetting its nightmarish first weekend at St. Petersburg, the USF2000 season has now begun to follow a familiar script: domination by Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing as the team seeks its sixth straight championship, with four straight wins heading into Round 7, the Mazda Freedom 75.
On the heels of three wins and a second place in his last four starts, talented 18-year-old Parker Thompson out of Red Deer, Alberta has ascended to a 28-point lead over teammate Anthony Martin, out of Kalgoorlie, Australia. Martin nabbed a win during the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course weekend as well, so now both of the top-returning drivers from 2015 are on the victory scoreboard in 2016.
A driver who could well add his name to that list this weekend is Brazilian Victor Franzoni of ArmsUp Motorsports, driving the team’s No. 9 car. Franzoni drives for a team that won here in 2014 with Aaron Telitz driving, and is renowned for its oval preparation and setup from engineer John Walko. Franzoni isn’t new to the podium at Lucas Oil Raceway, either – he finished third here in 2014 driving for Afterburner Autosport.
Franzoni enters the weekend fourth in points as part of a four-way logjam and battle for third behind the Cape twins. He sits six points behind Round 1 winner Jordan Lloyd of Pabst Racing, but three ahead of Lloyd’s Pabst teammate Yufeng Luo and five clear of JAY Motorsports’ Luke Gabin.
Franzoni raced here in Pro Mazda last year while Lloyd will be making his short oval debut. Luo finished fifth, Gabin eighth last year in USF2000.
Others making an encore appearance in USF2000 after racing here last year included Pabst’s Garth Rickards (finished ninth), Cape’s Nikita Lastochkin (12th) and John Cummiskey Racing’s Ayla Agren (11th).
Rookies set to debut at the track include Mazda Scholarship recipient Dakota Dickerson of Afterburner, Lucas Kohl of Cummiskey, Robert Megennis of Team Pelfrey, Austin McCusker of Chastain Motorsports and Tazio Ottis of JDC Motorsports.
A couple notes from that last batch: Kohl, the young Brazilian, enjoyed his best run of the year on the Indy road course with finishes of sixth and eighth, continuing to grow with driver coach and mentor Roberto Moreno.
Meanwhile, you’ll note Megennis is the only car entered for Team Pelfrey, after the team started the year with four.
TSO understands that both James Munro and, more recently, 15-year-old rising star Jordan Cane are no longer with the team. The status of T.J. Fischer remains a question mark since he’s not entered. The potential exists Cane, who only just turned 15 on May 21, could reappear later this year with another team in the USF2000 paddock.
Other notable absences include RJB Motorsports with its two cars, Sam Chastain (Chastain Motorsports), and the respective second ArmsUp and JAY entrants.
Pabst’s Jake Eidson won this race last year, with Aaron Telitz having taken it for ArmsUp in 2014. Cape won three in a row before that with Neil Alberico in 2013, Spencer Pigot in 2012 and Petri Suvanto in 2011, although Suvanto was the only one of those three to go on to win the title.
Pigot prevailed in a memorable side-by-side duel with Matthew Brabham in 2012 and now the pair of two-time Mazda Road to Indy champions are making their Indianapolis 500 debuts on Sunday.
Mazda Freedom 75 schedule
Thursday, May 26, 2016
- 9am-9:30am – Rookie Testing
- 9:30am-10am – Testing
- 11:30am-12:30pm – Testing
- 2:45pm-3:15pm – Testing
- 5:30pm-6pm – Practice
Friday, May 27, 2016
- 4pm-4:25pm – Qualifying
- 6:10pm-6:45pm – Mazda Freedom 75 (75 laps)