The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire series heads to the Iowa Speedway short-oval for the 10th time with a wide open completion for the title. With the 2017 season reaching just past it’s halfway point, eight of the 13 full-time pilots are within only 59 points of the the top of the points table, and they all still have a very realistic shot at winning the championship.
With a $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship on the line, and only seven races remaining on the calendar, nobody would blame current points leader Kyle Kaiser if he started to “points race” in the second half of the campaign.
“No. I’m taking chances,” was the emphatic answer when TSO asked him about his approach to points racing with the lead. “We’ve talked about it as a team, and they don’t want me to feel reserved out there, they don’t want me to put myself at risk by not being defensive and not being aggressive. I’m staying aggressive, and I’m trying to move forward. That’s mentality I’m going to try and maintain for the rest of the year.”
If the two most recent roller-coaster championship battles are any indication, keeping your foot on the accelerator all the way until the checkered flag falls on the finale during Labor Day Weekend at Watkins Glen International is the prudent decision.
With seven races left in the 2016 season, Ed Jones held a 23 point lead over Dean Stoneman and 30 point lead over Santiago Urrutia. However, with a series of middling results during the dogs days of summer, Jones saw his lead evaporate, and turn into a 16 point deficit headed into the final two events of the year. The current Verizon IndyCar Series rookie was able to recover and able to out score his rival Urrutia by two points in the final two events of the year, but not before a real scare.
With seven races left in the 2015 season, Jack Harvey held an 18 point lead over Spencer Pigot and 20 point lead over Ed Jones. This time, however, the leader with seven left to go couldn’t hold on, and the double Indy Lights vice-champion was outscored by 158 to 113 by eventual champion Pigot, who used two wins at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to clinch the 2015 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire crown.
Kaiser, who currently holds a season high 27 point lead over second place Matheus Leist, has a fourth and sixth place finish in two races at the ⅞th of a mile Iowa Speedway oval. However, Kaiser’s Juncos Racing squad is still looking for it’s first win or podium in The Hawkeye State.
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire race winners at Iowa Speedway
|2013||Sage Karam||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
|2012||Estaban Guerrieri||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
|2011||Josef Newgarden||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
|2010||Sebastian Saavedra||Bryan Herta Autosport|
|2009||Ana Beatriz||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
|2008||Dillon Battistini||Panther Racing|
|2007||Alex Lloyd||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire podiums by team at Iowa Speedway
|1||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports||14|
|6T||Bryan Herta Autosport||1|
|6T||Belardi Auto Racing||1|
The 21 year-old Kaiser does have a win on the short-oval at Phoenix International Raceway in 2016, and is hoping that his experience over the quartet of rookies chasing him for the title will give him the advantage this weekend.
“All the short ovals are pretty difficult,” explained Kasier to TSO Ladder. “I think these younger guys may be a little aggressive out of the gate, but once they have a moment they’ll start getting nervous. That place (Iowa Speedway) can really catch you off guard. I had a little accident last year in practice and that was wake up call. You have to respect these short ovals. I like the short ovals, I got my first win at Phoenix, and I think we’ll have a good set up and we’ll be up front again.”
The brilliant blue foursome from Carlin arrive in Newton, Iowa as not only the hottest team in the series, but also at Iowa Speedway.
The Delary Beach, Fla. based squad has won the last three races in the 2017, and is also riding a two race win streak at Iowa Speedway. Max Chilton took home an emotional win a day after his former Formula 1 teammate Jules Bianchi passed away in 2015, and last year it Felix Serralles who used lapped traffic to his advantage to best Belardi Auto Racing’s Zach Veach with a second to last lap pass. The Trevor Carlin and Colin Hale led team has led 181 of the last 200 laps of Indy Lights competition at Iowa Speedway.
Nobody is hotter than Carlin rookie Matheus Leist. The Brazilian has won two of the last three races, and moved from 10th to second in the standings since May. The 18 year-old reigning BRDC British Formula 3 champion went to victory lane in the only other oval race of the year, scoring the pole and leading every lap of the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Leist’s teammate Neil Alberico and Zachary Claman DeMelo had forgettable Indy Lights debut outings at Iowa Speedway last year, but both drivers have shown that they have made improvements in their oval games so far in 2017, finishing fourth and sixth respectively in the Freedom 100. Both drivers are still in championship contention, but far enough back that they’ll need to be aggressive to collect as many points as possible. TSO wouldn’t be surprised to see both drivers fighting for the podium on Sunday afternoon.
Outside of Leist, the fourth Carlin pilot, Garth Rickards, will have the steepest learning curve of the quartet, as the Mechanicsburg, Pa. native is making only his third career left-turn only start. Rickards had his best finish of the season, a seventh place finish, in the year’s only other oval race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, so don’t be surprised if he runs in the top half of the field at Iowa.
A number of sources in the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire (MRTI) paddock informed TSO that it was Carlin and Andretti Autosport that were at the top of the time-sheets during last weeks test.
“We just came off a good test at Iowa Speedway,” explained Andretti Autosport sophomore Dalton Kellett. “Our cars had good balance in qualifying and race trim, and we were pretty quick compared to the other teams there. We did some longer runs with the four Andretti cars and ran pretty well in a pack. I think that was a pretty positive test for us, despite the weather.”
Kellet, while not in championship contention, should be a popular dark-horse pick for a top result at Iowa Speedway. The 23 year-old will be making his second Indy Lights start at Iowa Speedway, and is coming off a third place finish in the only other oval event of the year, the Freedom 100. The Newton, Iowa “bullring” is also home to the Toronto, Ontario natives best MRTI finish, a second place finish in the 2015 Pro Mazda race.
Colton Herta’s third place finish in Sunday’s Indy Lights second race at Road America two weekends ago broke a string of four straight races with finishes of 10th place or worse. Despite the drought that began when the series visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May, the second generation driver is only 38 points behind Kaiser, and in third place. Well within striking distance of the title.
Instead of being impatient and outwardly upset with the run of poor results, the 17 year-old Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing pilot is wisely making the long bet on his career.
“It’s tough to find that balance,” explained the rookie when asked about whether the run of disappointing results had impacted him mentally. “I’m still young, I’ve still got a lot of time, so if we don’t make it this year, I’m sure we have a few more years to get there.”
Herta was quick during testing, practice and qualifying for the Freedom 100, the first oval of the year, but he made a mistake on the first lap, unfortunately ending his day early against the Turn 2 SAFER barrier.
“I’m really excited to see how the short oval is,” said Herta. “I didn’t really get to race on the super speedway, but I really like the ovals, and I think Iowa is going to be super-fun.”
A weekend long struggle with mechanical problems meant that the Road America weekend was a forgettable one for Nico Jamin. The double race winner, who fell from second to fourth in the standings, but is still only 40 points in arrears of Kaiser, will have to put the last three races out his mind and focus forward if he wants to remain in championship contention heading to Toronto and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, two tracks he’s had plenty of success on.
The fourth and seventh place finishes achieved by Andretti Autosport rookie Ryan Norman at Road America, continued the 19 year-olds steady event-over-event progression, and allowed the Cleveland, Ohio area native to move into the top 10 in points. Norman’s only career oval start at the Freedom 100 in May was cut short when his Flipside sponsored No. 48 Mazda/Dallara was taken out in his teammates first lap incident.
“I’m really excited to race at Iowa,” said the 19 year-old. “I loved the track during testing, and we have another fast oval car. We should be able to qualify toward the front and it’s a long race to make things happen, so I’m ready to continue my improvement and shoot for a podium.”
After a disappointing “home race” double-header weekend at Road America, Aaron Telitz is likely happy to be headed to an oval event. The reigning Pro Mazda champion finished second at the first oval event of the year, and in his five career MRTI oval events has one win, three podiums and a worst finish of fifth.
Make sure you take the time to read this great story by Arni Sribhen about Telitz’s link to the National Anthem.
Teltiz is currently tied with Alberico for fifth in the championship standings, and both drivers need to start piling up top five finishes, and more importantly, they both need to finish ahead of Kaiser to make the gap to the leader a little more manageable.
Santiago Urrutia, who won four races on the way to the Indy Lights vice-championship in 2016, is still looking for his first win in 2017, and also his first career MRTI oval victory. The Colombian driver will making his third start at Iowa Speedway, finishing fifth in both Pro Mazda (2015) and Indy Lights (2016).
“I think Iowa will be very important for us, because we need to make up ground in the championship,” explained the 20 year old who is currently eighth in points, 59 points behind Kaiser, but also only 21 points behind Herta for the third spot. “It will be important to win and it would be very positive for the team and me. We continue to work together to get top results and I think Iowa is going to be a good place for us. Right now, every race is going to be a final. If I want to win the championship, I need to win races. That is my goal for the weekend…to win. I’m very positive on my team.”
Also, TSO would never count out the almost 30 races of oval experience shared by Juan Piedrahita and Shelby Blackstock.
Piedrahita, the experienced Team Pelfrey Colombian pilot has made a total 16 MRTI ovals starts, and while he’s still looking for his first win, has collected 4 oval podiums and 14 oval top 10s.
Making his 13th MRTI oval start, Belardi Auto Racing’s Blackstock has two oval podiums and six oval top 10s during his career.
Kaiser’s Juncos Racing teammate Nicolas Dapero, will be making his third career oval start. After an impressive podium in his first oval start at Indianapolis Raceway Park in Pro Mazda in 2016, the young Argentinian rookie struggled finding speed for the Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, starting the race 14th and finishing in 12th. Dapero is working with engineer and former driver Peter Dempsey, who finished fourth in his only start at the Iowa Speedway in 2013.
For the first time since Barber Motorsports Park, the field will have a 15th entry.
Belardi Auto Racing announced last week that they would be fielding a fourth car for second generation driver Chad Boat at the final two oval events of the year at Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park.
“We’re extremely pleased to announce the addition of Chad Boat to our stable of drivers for the Iowa and Gateway Indy Lights oval races this summer,” offered Belardi Auto Racing owner Brian Belardi. “It’s exciting to have a second-generation driver running with us, and we’re certainly looking forward to getting Chad on track in Iowa.”
“I grew up watching my dad race Indy cars, so having the opportunity to run Indy Lights this year is absolutely surreal,” said Boat. “I have to thank Belardi Auto Racing for giving me a shot behind the wheel of the No. 84 Dallara, as well as Pristine Auction for their continued support in my racing career. I can’t wait to get to Iowa Speedway.”
Boat’s father, Billy, made 63 Indy car starts (one win and 12 top-five finishes) between 1997 and 2003, including seven starts in the Indianapolis 500. Boat made four of those starts with A.J. Foyt Racing, and they included a pole in 1998, and a third place finish in 1999.
“If you asked anybody in this pit area (at the USAC Midget event at Lincoln Speedway in Lincoln, Ill.) they would all say that’s a goal of theirs,” said the younger Boat to USAC reporter Georgia Henneberry. “Just the opportunity to run (the) Indy (500) would be something special, and that’s definitely what we’re working towards.”
In 1997, as a five-year old, Boat started his racing career in quarter midgets, before moving up to dirt karts, 600CC modified midgets and finally fully blown midgets and sprint cars. After honing his craft in Arizona, Boat made the move to the national USAC ranks in 2008, becoming the youngest ever driver to win a USAC Sprint Car race on dirt with a victory at Hagerstown Speedway. The young driver took home both the USAC Sprint Car and Midget Rookie of the year honors that year.
In 2011, Boat made the move to tin-tops, spending 2011, 2012, and 2013 contenting partial seasons in the K&N Series and ARCA Stock Car series, before contesting partial NASCAR Xfinity Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season the next two years.
Boat with the help of long-time midget co-owner Corey Tucker made the move back to the national USAC scene, contesting the USAC National Midget Championship.
Boat had a successful return to the open wheel ranks, collecting his first ever USAC National midget win at Jefferson County Speedway in Fairbury, Neb. in early August, and winning two more races at the Bellville High Banks in Belleville, Kan. On the strength of 15 top tens, nine top fives, and six top three finishes, Boat ended up in fourth place in the championship.
Boat completed his first test in Indy Lights machinery last week, turning over 200 laps at Iowa Speedway. TSO heard from multiple sources, and it sounds like the 25 year-old had no problem getting acclimated to a rear-engine formula car, getting up to speed smoothly and quickly.
— Chad Boat (@ChadBoat) June 28, 2017
“I have some asphalt experience,” said Boat to Hannebery. “I’ve run some heavier cars. But getting in the (Indy) Lights Car is definitely different. I got my first taste of it last week at Iowa (Speedway). I think there is definitely a transition, and those guys that do it every week, road course and ovals, that have more seat time have a little bit of a leg up on us. But, I think if we can go out their and run all of the laps, and maybe come away with a strong showing.”
Boat is no stranger to the Iowa Speedway “bullring”, making a total of eight starts across the K&N, ARCA, and Xfinity Series, where his best result was a pair of third place finishes in ARCA equipment in 2012, and 2013.
Pristine Auction, a premier online sports memorabilia (and other collectibles) auction site, will be the primary sponsor for both of Boat’s Indy Lights races.
There are a few storylines that we’ll be following throughout the weekend.
1) An oval win vs. championship points.
While having oval wins on your resume isn’t the end-all-and-be-all when it comes to looking for a Verizon IndyCar Series ride, it sure can’t hurt to show the team owners that you can win on a variety of different tracks. With only three ovals on the calendar, each one carries more importance to a drivers future.
Only two of the 15 drivers entered currently have oval wins; Kaiser, and Leist, who coincidently are also at the top of the championship table, are the only drivers to score wins by only turning left. Kaiser won at Phoenix International Raceway in 2016, and Leist won the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.
That leaves a gaggle of hungry drivers looking for that coveted first oval victory, and two drivers who are looking to protect their positions in at the top of the championship table. The drivers behind Kaiser and Leist have the easy decisions to make, they have to go for it if they have a chance at victory. For Kaiser and Leist, the choice whether to take a chance on making a risky move to win become far more complicated.
2) Managing your tires
3) Dealing with lapped traffic
As we saw with last year’s finish, where Zach Veach was caught out by lapped traffic, and was passed by Felix Serralles for the win, managing lapped traffic can make or break your race.
In many case, a driver and his car become lapped traffic, because they have failed to adequately manage their Cooper Tire slicks throughout the 100 lap race. If your team misses the set-up, if you spend too much time on the extreme low line, or if you slide your tires causing unnecessary wear too early, you are likely to become lapped traffic.
Your tires are going to wear, but having fresher tires for late in the race can help you hold off a charging opponent, or allow you to be more aggressive during a late race restart.
Telitz summed it up succinctly: “It’ll be all about whoever’s car lasts all race and who can make passes at the end, as we saw last year!”
The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire series has two half-hour practice sessions on at 1:15pm and 5:30pm. The 15 drivers qualify at 10:15am on Sunday morning and the green flag for the Mazda Iowa 100 Presented by Cooper Tires flies at 2pm.
The race will have same day coverage on NBC Sports Network, with the broadcast set to air at 3pm (CDT) or 4pm (EDT)