By Steve Wittich

Ever since Kyle Kaiser won the second Indy Lights race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in May, the Juncos Racing veteran has repeated numerous times that his singular goal is to outscore the other drivers fighting for the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship on an event-by-event basis.  For the most part, the 21 year-old has been able to accomplish that, with one notable exception.

The Santa Clara, Calif. native has outscored 11 of the 12 full-time drivers that are chasing him, but Carlin rookie Matheus Leist has out scored Kaiser at the event on the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, on the road course at Road America, and on the oval at Iowa Speedway. With three wins, and fourth place finish, the 18 year-old Leist moved from sixth in points to the second spot, only 13 points behind Kaiser.

But,, a dominant performance that saw the Kaiser score his third pole of the season, and lead all 35 laps, combined with a next to last finish by Leist, has allowed the American to almost triple his points lead over the Brazilian to 37 markers heading into the second qualifying session of the event.

Kyle Kaiser celebrates his fifth career Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire victory in Toronto. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“No, it was pretty good,” exclaimed Kaiser with a slight smirk, when asked if that was how they scripted the day. “I’m not going to lie. I did what I had to do, and (engineer) Ernie (Gondola) gave me the perfect car.

“Every weekend our goal is to grow the lead. We didn’t achieve that goal last week (with a fifth place finish at Iowa Speedway), so this week we came out and said we’ve got to go out and do everything we can – get both poles, and win both races – so far we’re half-way to our goal. One more race tomorrow.”

Championship front-runners Kaiser and Leist led the bakers dozen cars that took the green flag to begin the Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto Presented by Allied Building Products race on  the 1.786 mile, 11-Turn Exhibition Place street circuit.

Kyle Kaiser leads the field to the green flag for the first of two Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto Presented by Allied Building Products race in Toronto (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Pole-sitter Kaiser jumped ahead of the field while Leist, Dalton Kellett and Zachary Claman DeMelo went three wide over the washboard surface of Princes’ Drive towards Turn 1, where Claman De Melo made a brave move to the inside grabbing the second spot from his inside second row starting spot.

“I saw some room on the inside, he (his Carlin teammate Leist) just didn’t block it quite enough, explained the Montreal, Quebec native. “It was a bit tight, but I knew I could make it, so I went in and broke deeper than him and just tried to get to second.”

Just before they got to the corner, Kellett who was on the far outside of the three wide formation, thought better of going three wide through the first of 385 turns, and slotted in behind Leist. The Toronto, Ontario born driver made made contact with the rear of the Carlin Blue No. 26 when the rear end stepped out at the exit of Turn 1.

At the end of the first lap, the top 10 were: Kaiser, Claman Da Melo, Leist, Urrutia, Kellett, Neil Alberico, Juan Piedrahita, Nico Jamin, Aaron Telitz and Colton Herta.

Shelby Blackstock, who was supposed to start the race on the inside of the ninth row was not able to take the green flag. TSO was able to confirm with his Belardi Auto Racing team that the Starstruck sponsored No. 51 broke a half-shaft as he was leaving his pit stall for the pace laps. The experienced crew was able to replace the broken part on pit road in only seven laps, and Blackstock finished the race in 11th.

By the end of Lap 2 Kaiser was able to pull out a 2.2 second gap over Claman De Mello, something that Kaiser said was one of the keys to his victory.

“During the early laps I wanted to push hard and build a gap,” explained the third year driver. “The P2P (50 horsepower Push-To-Pass) is a killer if they are within that range (1.5 seconds) within the first lap or two, so I pushed really hard in the opening laps.

Things settled down up front for the next two laps with Urrutia putting early pressure on Leist for the final spot on the podium. On Lap 4, the Brazilian rookie made a mistake in Turn 8, and nosed into the tire barrier at the exit of tricky 90-degree right hander. The first five cars to reach the stranded car were able to squeak by, but the sixth car on the scene, the No. 26 Andretti Autosport machine of Nico Jamin, was not able get cleanly through the incident scene,  hitting the left rear of Lesit’s car with his left front. Unfortunately, both drivers were forced to retire from the race.

On the Lap 8 restart, the first five cars were slow going through the last few corners, and got stacked up coming to the green.   Kellett, who was running fourth hit the back of Urrutia, who was running third, as they worked through Turn 10. Kellett’s K-Line Insulator sponsored suffered some front wing damage when he hit Urrutia, and Alberico also tagged Kellett in the accordion restart.

The race remained green, and Kaiser was once again able to pull out to a comfortable gap over his competitors. Behind the leader, Urrutia was able to get by Claman De Mello, but five laps later Claman De Mello was able to take back the second step of the podium, getting past Urrutia on the long run down Lake Shore Boulevard to Turn 3, and moving to the inside line before getting to the second gear right-hander.

Santiago Urrutia catches air as he tries to catch Zachary Claman DeMelo for the second step on the podium (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I was actually quicker than Leist, but when Liest spun, right before the restart, Kellett hit me,” explained the 2016 Indy Lights vice-champion. “I don’t know if that broke something on the rear of the car, or if it damage the tire, because the car wasn’t the same after the restart. I was second after I passed De Melo, and then I was pushing, but I didn’t have the speed to follow Kaiser, and when I lost the gap to use the Push-To-Pass, he (Claman De Melo) was way quicker than me on the straight because he went with (a) low downforce (set-up), and then that was it, and I was in survival mode to finish third.”

TSO did check with Belardi Auto Racing and they told us that there was no damage to the rear of Santi’s black and gold Arrow sponsored No. 5.

“No,” said Claman De Mello when asked if he thought he had a lower downforce set-up. “I think he was out of range of Push-To-Pass (P2P) for Kyle. I had a lot of P2P still, I think I finished the race with 11 or 12 (activations) left. I had a lot of P2P and it helped to get by him. I was really strong out of the first corner, and that really helped me.”

Just past the half-way point of the 35-lap race, Kaiser was able to pull a 5.1 second gap over Claman De Mello, who had his mirrors full of Herta, who had clawed his way back to fourth after starting eighth, and falling to tenth on the first lap.

“It was nice,” said Claman De Mello when asked about whether he was happy when Herta arrived on the scene to pressure Urrutia for the second half of the race. “I was hoping he’d challenge him a little more so I could get a gap, but I really tried to focus on myself, not make any mistakes, and look forward, and not in my mirrors.”

The battle for the final two spots on the podium was covered by two seconds for the majority of the second half of the race, but not spots changed hands. It appeared that the competitors cars were all better through different sections of the track. Claman De Mello was strong through Turn 1 to Turn 3, Herta was strong from Turn 3 to Turn 8, and Urrutia was quickest though the final three turns.

Carlin sophomore Zachary Claman DeMelo collected his first home soil podium, his third of the 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire season (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Herta might not have been able to collect his fifth podium of the year, but the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing pilot did grab the bonus point for turing the quickest lap of the race. That marks the third time in three street course races, that the second generation driver has been the speediest. Herta’s track record lap of 1 minute, 5.5479 seconds is almost a full half-second quicker than the mark that Felix Rosenqvist set last year.

Further back in the field Nicolas Dapero was putting tremendous pressure on Ryan Norman, but backed off the fellow rookie when his Juncos Racing team came on the radio and reminded him that his teammate Kaiser would be hurt by a caution. The young Argentinian heeded the advice which allowed Andretti Autosport’s Norman to take off after Team Pelfrey veteran Juan Piedrahita.

American Norman hounded Colombian Piedrahita for ten laps, attempting, but not completing a number of passes around the outside in Turn 3.

With only three laps remaining, Norman was finally able to get by Piedrahita on the long run down to Turn 3, but Norman broke too deep, and was not able to make the corner,  just barely nosing his Mazda powered Dallara into the tire barriers. Just when it looked like the second full course caution of the race would erase the six second lead that Kaiser had built, Norman got his Flip Side sponsored No. 48  machine re-fired and back on track.

When the white flag came out, Kaiser held a 5.1 second advantage and the third year driver ended up cruising to 3.1 second victory.  Further back, Herta continued to pressure Urrutia all the way to the checkered flag, finishing only 0.31 seconds out of the final podium spot.

The win is third in Toronto for Juncos Racing who won both races in 2015 with eventual Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot behind the wheel.

The two biggest gainers of the race each finished six spots ahead of where they began the 35 lap race. Telitz, who started 11th ended the race in fifth, his sixth top five finish in 2017. Dapero, who finished only 0.13 seconds behind fellow South American Piedrahita started 13th and ended up seventh.

Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto Presented by Allied Building Products Race #1 Results

1 18 Kyle Kaiser 35 LAPS
2 13 Zachary Claman De Melo -3.6118
3 5 Santi Urrutia -4.7984
4 98 Colton Herta -5.1149
5 9 Aaron Telitz -17.1286
6 2 Juan Piedrahita -35.0434
7 31 Nicolas Dapero -35.1801
8 22 Neil Alberico -45.3035
9 11 Garth Rickards -1 LAPS
10 48 Ryan Norman -1 LAPS
11 51 Shelby Blackstock -7 LAPS
12 28 Dalton Kellett -14 LAPS
13 26 Matheus Leist -32 LAPS
14 27 Nico Jamin -32 LAPS