ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Trevor Carlin’s team is on a roll. One day after Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist followed up his maiden victory at Indianapolis with a dominating drive at Road America, teammate Zachary Claman DeMelo, 19, from Montreal, Que., Canada claimed a slice of the action by producing a similarly crushing performance to claim his first series’ win. He became the sixth different Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires race winner this season.
Californian Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing) strengthened his championship lead with a hard-fought second-place finish following a lengthy battle with polesitter Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing).
The ever-changing face of Indy Lights was amply demonstrated by the grid for today’s race, which was set during a dedicated qualifying session yesterday morning in crisp, cool conditions. No fewer than 12 of the 14 contenders circulated faster than the existing qualifying record of 1:52.9410, set last year by Zach Veach, with Herta, who finished a distant 12th yesterday afternoon, posting a new benchmark of 1:52.0034 (129.018 mph).
Herta made a good start to lead the opening four laps, but behind him a tremendous battle was brewing between Leist, who started second, Kaiser, Claman DeMelo and Santiago “Santi” Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), who made another of his trademark starts to rise briefly as high as second on the opening lap.
But it soon became apparent that Claman DeMelo was the man to beat in the cool, sunny, breezy conditions that greeted the field for this morning’s early (8:55 a.m.) start in advance of the Verizon IndyCar Series headline event. The Canadian, who set a new record fastest lap of 1:54.6326 (126.058 mph) last year at Road America, bettered that standard comfortably as early as Lap Two as he vaulted past Kaiser into second place and closed rapidly onto the tail of race leader Herta. He wasn’t nearly done.
Herta gamely resisted Claman DeMelo’s challenge for a couple more laps but it was apparent he was on borrowed time. Sure enough, on Lap Five, Claman DeMelo took advantage of the draft on the long front straight, then used his Mazda engine’s push-to-pass feature to draw alongside Herta before sweeping past to take the lead. He proceeded to post comfortably the fastest lap of the race, a new record 1:53.0138 (127.864 mph), as he quickly pulled away in the lead.
In his wake, Kaiser and Herta continued their protracted duel for second, exchanging places several times before Kaiser made the position his own with a bold outside-line maneuver at Turn Five. Herta tried several times to redress the balance in similar style but was never quite able to make it stick, so he had to settle for third.
Leist remained in contention with this pair until slipping back a little over the final few laps, when he was chased by Belardi’s local favorite Aaron Telitz, who won both Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Road America last year en route to the championship and a coveted Mazda Scholarship.
Tennessean Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport), who claimed the Staubli Award, also impressed in the closing stages by climbing from 10th to sixth ahead of Andretti teammate Ryan Norman, who earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award, Carlin’s Neil Alberico and Dalton Kellett (Andretti Autosport). Their progress was made easier by the fact Urrutia, a winner at Road America in 2016, sustained a tire puncture on the final lap, falling to a disappointing 11th-place finish.
Kaiser’s second-place finish leaves him with a 27-point advantage, 199-172, over Leist in the quest for the championship and a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million which will ensure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series events in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500. The next Indy Lights action will see a return to oval competition at Iowa Speedway on July 9.
Zachary Claman DeMelo (#13 Paysafe/ZCD Montreal/Zoological Wildlife Foundation-Carlin): “It’s such a great feeling, I’m just really at a loss for words. I can’t thank the people who helped get me here enough. It was such a great turnaround from Race One. Getting the win – and by such a big margin – shows that I am here to win races and fight for the championship. I was pushing every single lap to make the lead bigger, while trying not to make any mistakes that would let the guys behind me get close. The only stressful point was when Colton was behind me. I worked with the push-to-pass to get a gap and that was really all I had to think about the whole race. It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was today.”
Kyle Kaiser (#18 Juncos Racing): “It was pretty hectic out there. My goal was to get through Turn One cleanly and though I didn’t get the jump I was looking for, I was able to get by Matheus when I needed to. I tried to keep up with Colton but he started on sticker tires, had a ton of pace right out of the gate and got a real big gap. I had pressure from Zach right away: he was on fire. I knew he would be aggressive, so after he got by me and started battling with Colton, I just waited for an opportunity. But the goal is to increase the championship lead every weekend, and we did that.”
Colton Herta (#98 Deltro Energy Mazda/Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing): “We found some pace and started on pole, which was great after a rough Friday. We really needed a comeback to get back on the podium so hopefully we can keep up this consistency. We held the lead early but made a little bit of a mistake that let Zachary get by. After that it was a battle with Kaiser all race long to keep P2. It’s tough to find the balance between going for wins and making sure we get as many points as possible, but I’m still young so if we don’t make it this year, we have a few more years to get there.”