By Tony DiZinno

Good evening, and welcome to TSO Ladder presented by Cooper Tires’ coverage of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

All three series, Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda, are in action together for the first time since the St. Petersburg weekend back in March. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda both completed a pair of races at Barber Motorsports Park last month, but it’s been a long stretch since the drivers and teams of the USF2000 series have been in action.

All three series race under the same race name this weekend, the Royal Purple Synthetic Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis Supporting the Lupus Foundation of America. You can find more information on that at the bottom of this and all other TSO Ladder posts this weekend; it is a good cause.

In case you missed Steve’s comprehensive race weekend previews, they are linked here:

Here’s some quick paddock notes before the first official practice session. There have been some car count adjustments, with only seven Indy Lights cars, 14 Pro Mazda cars (more on both of these items below) and 26 USF2000 cars entered.

Victor’s solo act… again

It would be fair to say Victor Franzoni was not expecting to be the only Indy Lights driver at Juncos Racing this weekend, in the wake of Alfonso Celis Jr. announcing his step up to the Verizon IndyCar Series starting at Road America. Celis made his Indy Lights debut at Barber Motorsports Park.

That being said, the Mazda Motorsports scholarship driver is still focused on this weekend in Indianapolis. Franzoni kickstarted his Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires championship charge at this race weekend last year, which came after a successful test at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test the previous fall.

Franzoni is hoping for a similar result this go-around in his first Indy Lights weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. The ambient and track temperatures will be significantly higher in May than they were in October, and Franzoni told TSO Ladder that he hope that doesn’t significantly affect the balance of what was a really good car at the October test.

Juncos Racing won the second race of last year’s Indianapolis road course weekend with eventual champion Kyle Kaiser, who like Franzoni, used this weekend as the jump-off point to his title run.

DEForce is strong at two venues

DEForce Racing stretches its team and resources across two places this weekend, with four USF2000 cars here at IMS and a single car for James Raven at the Formula 4 United States Championship Powered by Honda weekend at Road Atlanta.

The DEForce team expects Raven, who competed in Pro Mazda at the season opener at St. Petersburg, to focus on F4 for the rest of the year.

It remains to be seen whether DEForce’s Pro Mazda car will return this year, as after Raven was in the car at St. Petersburg, Kory Enders made his series debut at Barber Motorsports Park last month. Enders competes full-time in USF2000.

Pelfrey down a car for the weekend

Unfortunately, Team Pelfrey will not have Rafael “Rafa” Martins in his No. 80 car for the rest of the weekend, although he was entered. A testing incident earlier this week at Putnam Park has sidelined the young Brazilian driver for the Indianapolis road course event.

Team Pelfrey and Martins will work together to restart their program after this weekend. Martins has a best finish of sixth place through four races.

USF2000: Tight field in testing

It may only be testing, but the level of depth and tight times in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda was incredible to witness on Thursday.

Here’s an illustration from two drivers in the field, one series rookie and one series sophomore, of that point.

Swedish driver Rasmus Lindh of Pabst Racing tested here for Team BENIK in October at the Griffis test. He was seventh in the morning and third in the afternoon, just 0.0892 of a second off the fastest time of 1:25.902 set by Kyle Kirkwood.

“We were good in the morning and better in the afternoon,” Lindh told TSO Ladder, noting how small changes can make a big difference.

DEForce Racing’s Colin Kaminsky of Homer Glen, Ill., who ran here under the John Cummiskey Racing team operations last year, thought he was closer to the front than he otherwise was in the second session.

“So Peter (Dempsey) comes on the radio and says, ‘You’re half a second off,’” Kaminsky told TSO Ladder. “I’m thinking, ‘That’s great! Where are we at?’ And Peter says, ‘We’re 13th.’ That shows how deep this field is!”

Frederick’s new driver coach

Another Pabst USF2000 driver, Kaylen Frederick, has a new driver coach this weekend. Meyer Shank Racing with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Verizon IndyCar Series driver Jack Harvey is assisting Frederick here at the IMS road course. Harvey’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda isn’t in the INDYCAR Grand Prix road course race but will be active next week in preparation for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

Thursday marked the first day of running, with each series having two test sessions before first official practice late in the afternoon.

USF2000 was up first, and as Cape Motorsports goes for its seventh straight victory here at the IMS road course, its single driver Kyle Kirkwood was top of the charts all day.

The driver of the No. 8 Tatuus USF-17 Mazda was fastest in the first test at 1:26.010, and in the afternoon went slightly quicker at 1:25.902.

In the heat of the afternoon’s first and only official 30-minute practice, Kirkwood stayed on top at 1:25.969, and was the only driver in that bracket this session.

Pabst Racing has all four of its cars in hot pursuit. Lucas Kohl, Rasmus Lindh, Calvin Ming and Kaylen Frederick were second, third, fourth and sixth, all within 0.4765 of a second of Kirkwood.

The lone interloper in the Cape and Pabst top-six was Darren Keane of Newman Wachs Racing, who was fifth. Keane tested well here at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test in October. This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of Keane’s debut in the USF2000 series, which was done with Team BENIK. He shifted to Newman Wachs Racing starting last June at Road America.

St. Petersburg race two winner Alex Baron was seventh for Swan-RJB Motorsports, ahead of Jamie Caroline (BN Racing), Julian van der Watt (Team Pelfrey) and Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport).

James Roe, the Irish driver, was 12th in his first official session with Swan-RJB, 0.647 of a second off the fastest time. The other series debutante – Max Peichel of ArmsUp Motorsports – was 22nd.

Times are below. Qualifying for race one is tomorrow morning at 8:05 a.m. ET and local time.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – First Practice Results

P No Name FTime Diff Laps
1 8 Kyle Kirkwood 1:25.969 –.—- 17
2 22 Lucas Kohl 1:26.203 0.2343 17
3 23 Rasmus Lindh 1:26.290 0.3213 18
4 21 Calvin Ming 1:26.373 0.4040 17
5 36 Darren Keane 1:26.400 0.4306 17
6 24 Kaylen Frederick 1:26.445 0.4765 17
7 28 Jamie Caroline 1:26.481 0.5118 14
8 19 Alex Baron 1:26.506 0.5368 15
9 80 Julian Van der Watt 1:26.526 0.5568 17
10 91 Igor Fraga 1:26.546 0.5774 17
11 12 Jose Sierra 1:26.592 0.6226 16
12 20 James Roe 1:26.643 0.6740 18
13 11 Kory Enders 1:26.654 0.6852 17
14 51 Michael d’Orlando 1:26.738 0.7689 15
15 10 Zach Holden 1:26.800 0.8310 10
16 81 Kyle Dupell 1:26.839 0.8703 15
17 82 Bruna Tomaselli 1:26.923 0.9541 16
18 30 Keith Donegan 1:26.944 0.9750 17
19 27 Colin Kaminsky 1:27.130 1.1610 11
20 37 David Osborne 1:27.294 1.3248 18
21 90 Manuel Cabrera 1:27.333 1.3640 19
22 14 Max Peichel 1:27.497 1.5284 16
23 5 Mathias Soler-Obel 1:27.517 1.5478 14
24 31 Sabre Cook 1:27.786 1.8174 16
25 29 Russell McDonough 1:27.990 2.0212 17
26 38 Oscar DeLuzuriaga 1:28.305 2.3365 19

A changing track and changing running order told the story of the day in Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires on-track activity.

While Carlos Cunha and David Malukas led the morning and afternoon test sessions, it was Oliver Askew of Cape Motorsports that ended fastest in the 30-minute official practice session held late Thursday afternoon.

Askew’s best time of 1:20.899 in the No. 3 Tatuus PM-18 Mazda was several tenths off the best times from the morning and afternoon. Cunha took his No. 1 Juncos Racing car to 1:20.286 in the morning, with Malukas in his No. 79 BN Racing car at 1:20.303 in the afternoon.

Behind Askew, points leader Parker Thompson was second in his No. 90 Exclusive Autosport car, at 1:20.924. Malukas was third, with Sting Ray Robb (Team Pelfrey) and Robert Megennis (Juncos Racing) making it five different teams in the top five.

Two issues occurred within the final five minutes of the 30-minute practice session.

A red flag flew for Thompson’s teammate, Antonio Serravalle, going off course at Turn 1.

Megennis’ car meanwhile was brought back to the paddock on a flatbed after a suspension issue going through Turn 13. Having hit the curbs the wrong way, Megennis’ sustained damage to the left rear wishbone and needed to get picked up and towed in.

Pro Mazda qualifies for its first race of the weekend starting at 8:40 a.m. ET and local time on Friday.

Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires – First Practice Results

P No Name FTime Diff Laps
1 3 Oliver Askew 1:20.899 –.—- 14
2 90 Parker Thompson 1:20.924 0.0252 17
3 79 David Malukas 1:21.063 0.1640 7
4 82 Sting Ray Robb 1:21.079 0.1799 16
5 9 Robert Megennis 1:21.104 0.2050 15
6 1 Carlos Cunha 1:21.111 0.2122 15
7 2 Rinus VeeKay 1:21.157 0.2579 17
8 10 Harrison Scott 1:21.178 0.2797 15
9 81 Andres Gutierrez 1:21.209 0.3106 13
10 27 Lodovico Laurini 1:21.684 0.7853 15
11 78 Kris Wright 1:21.803 0.9045 15
12 8 Nikita Lastochkin 1:21.862 0.9633 14
13 91 Antonio Serravalle 1:22.434 1.5349 10
14 83 Charles Finelli 1:23.660 2.7610 18

In the inter-team battle shaping up at Andretti Autosport, Colton Herta led the first official 45-minute practice late Thursday afternoon over teammate Patricio “Pato” O’Ward.

Herta, in the No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda, posted a best time of 1:16.603, which was just ahead of O’Ward’s time in the No. 27 car at 1:16.641.

Belardi Auto Racing teammates Aaron Telitz and Santi Urrutia were third and fourth.

Dalton Kellett, Ryan Norman and Victor Franzoni were next.

Qualifying for race one is at 10:20 a.m. ET on Friday.

Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires – First Practice Results

P No Name FTime Diff Laps
1 98 Colton Herta 1:16.603 –.—- 18
2 27 Pato O’Ward 1:16.641 0.0383 12
3 9 Aaron Telitz 1:16.789 0.1857 20
4 5 Santi Urrutia 1:16.910 0.3075 22
5 28 Dalton Kellett 1:16.988 0.3855 21
6 48 Ryan Norman 1:17.000 0.3969 22
7 23 Victor Franzoni 1:17.028 0.4248 22

After raising $6,000 during the Royal Purple Synthetic Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis Supporting the Lupus Foundation of America last year, the Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires paddock hopes to raise double that amount over the next few days. You can do your part by donating here —>please make a donation in the #RaceToEndLupus

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