By Steve Wittich
For the 16th time, the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires will serve as the warm-up act for the “Greatest Spectacle In Racing.”
Pole-sitter for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, Ed Carpenter, was the winner of the first Freedom 100 on the same weekend that he graduated from nearby Butler University.
After two years as part of the second week of qualifying, the 40-lap race made a move to “Carb Day” when the final IndyCar practice moved to a Friday, and there it has found a home. Becoming a must watch part of the second most attended day during the “Month of May” at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
The 102nd Indianapolis 500 Presented by PennGrade Motor Oil grid will feature five Freedom 100 winners, including the first winner (Ed Carpenter) and three of the last four winners (Gabby Chaves, Jack Harvey, and Matheus Leist). The final member of Freedom 100 winners club in this years “500” is defending champ and current Verizon IndyCar Series points leader Josef Newgarden.
For many years Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was the dominant Indy Lights team in the Freedom 100, leading the way in victories (8), poles (8), podiums (17) and laps led (289).
With their departure after the 2016 season and Carlin’s hiatus, there are two current teams with Freedom 100 victories, Belardi Auto Racing (2) and Andretti Autosport (1).
Despite providing cars for two of the last three series champions, Juncos Racing is still looking for their first podium on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5 mile-oval.
The points race headed into the first oval and seventh race of the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season are as follows:
|10||Alfonso Celis, Jr.||27|
With five of the six race wins, Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta have a single point separating them.
O’Ward will be making his first Indy Lights oval start after a win, and two podiums in three Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire starts on ovals.
“The Freedom 100 will be my first oval in the Indy Lights car, so it will be a learning experience but I’m ecstatic to be in the race, and I will definitely make the most out of this opportunity,” said the 19-year-old O’Ward who finished Monday’s test with second quickest time. “I’m going to have to play catch up a little bit during the [oval] test day on Monday, but I’m confident that the No. 27 crew will give me a great car and this one is a challenge I am more than ready to take on!”
Colton Herta has made on start on the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval, but only completed two corners before smacking the Turn 2 SAFER Barrier to bring an end to a miserable 2017 “Month of May” for the second generation driver. After winning the first two Indy Lights races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month, the second generation driver will look to build on that momentum and grab the points lead headed into a month-long break.
“So far it’s been a strong month of May for me and the No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing crew sweeping the Grand Prix of Indianapolis a couple weeks ago” explained the 19-year old. “I’m hoping to continue this form into the Freedom 100 and kiss the bricks.”
Lurking just behind his two “younger” rivals is a 21-year-old veteran, Santi Urrutia. The double Indy Lights vice-champion will need to improve on his previous results at “The Brickyard” where he spun and finished 14th in 2016, and finished fifth after starting only 12th last year. The speedy Uruguayan who is now being mentored by three-time Indy car runner-up Bruno Junqueira did win his last appearance on an oval at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Victor Franzoni, the pilot of the No. 23 Soul Red Mazda/Dallara from the Juncos Racing stable will be making his first superspeedway start. The always smiling Brazilian has made four previous Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires oval starts collecting one win (Pro Mazda at Gateway Motorsports Park) last year and three podiums. Franzoni was the third quickest driver during Monday’s rain-shortened test.
“I like ovals a lot,” said the 22-year-old. “It’s really more fun to race on the ovals. I’m excited! I’ve never driven Indianapolis before. So this will be my first time. It will be big in my career. I’m not creating too many expectations. We’ll see where we will be. But we need to win to get closer for the championship.”
Ryan Norman, who looked like a podium was possible after being fast in testing and practice, started fourth in last year’s Freedom 100. Unfortunately, the then-rookie had his Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval debut cut short after being an innocent victim of another driver’s spin. Norman was quick in oval testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway to start the season and should be a sleeper on his second visit to the historic 2.5-mile oval.
“I’m really excited to hit the oval at Indianapolis Motor Speedway at over 200 mph,” exclaimed the Journey backed 20-year-old. We showed great speed last year and hopefully, we can build off that. We had a good shot at winning the Freedom 100 last year if we didn’t have that accident, so we’re looking to have a clean, strong run at Indy.”
Belardi Auto Racing sophomore Aaron Telitz is on a roll after failing to complete a lap in the first three races of the year. The Wisconsinite’s last three finishes have included a fourth, third and second and a stepping one step higher on the podium with 50 percent more points on the line would go a long way to getting Telitz back into the championship conversation. Telitz won his first oval race as a Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires driver at Lucas Oil Raceway Park in 2014 and finished second to Matheus Leist in last year’s Freedom 100. Belardi Auto Racing has two Freedom 100 wins, so the team should provide the 26-year-old a stable platform to compete for the win.
“We’ll stay pretty close to last year,” explained Telitz when asked about running a similar set-up to last year. “The Freedom (100) is a lot about your engine, and how much downforce you can run, it’s all about a balance. You want to get the most for the straights, but you want to be flat in the corners, even behind another car. You don’t want to lift, or you will lose too much time. We have such a good mechanical grip setup that we don’t want to tweak too much.”
With a pair of third-place finishes in his two previous Freedom 100 starts, Dalton Kellett should be the favorite to become the second Andretti Autosport driver to win the race in the last three years. Combine his previous success on the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval with leading Monday’s test and the Canadian becomes an odds-on favorite to grab his first Indy Lights win.
“I’m super excited to be on track for the Freedom 100,” said the Queens University graduate. “This is the biggest event of the year for us and the last couple of years we’ve had a really good showing on the oval. The Andretti Autosport cars have always been really competitive on ovals. I think we do a lot working with our engineers and definitely hone in on having a good race and good qualifying setups so I’m confident that the No. 28 K-Line car will be competitive and it’ll be a fun race. We came third that last two years so we’re looking to move up a couple positions on Carb Day.”
A bigger points payout
With 50%+ more points on offer for the oval races, the three left-turn only Indy Lights races take on a whole new meaning in the championship.
A win at the Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval will now net you 45 points, 15 points more than either of the road course races on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course two weekends ago. With only six points separating the top three in the chase for the $1 million advancement scholarship the Freedom 100 and the other pair of Indy Lights oval races take on an added significance.
The increase in points was done to make sure drivers and teams don’t sit out the oval events.
What to expect
If it’s hot, and it looks like it will be in the upper 80’s, the driver and team that can best manage their Cooper Tire slicks over the 160-turns will be in the best shot to cross the “Yard Of Bricks” first.
The race is known for its close finishes and many lead changes, and even though the eight entries is the fewest the event has had, close racing is expected between the octet of talented pilots.
You don’t need to start up front to win the Crown Jewel of the Indy Lights schedule. Last year’s winner Matheus Leist was the first driver to win from the pole position since Wade Cunningham in 2009.
Between 2009 and 2017, the winner came from outside the inside front row three times, With winners driving from inside the second row once, inside the third row twice and from eighteenth in 2012 when Esteban Guerrieri drove through the field to victory.
The race averages 3.7 lead changes amongst 2.5 leaders, and 2017 was the first Freedom 100 without a lead change since 2007.
The race has only run caution free on one occasion, in 2006. And, in each of the last two years, there’s been an early caution on either the first or second lap. Last year it was Herta and Norman colliding at Turn 2, while Kyle Kaiser crashed out after just two laps in 2016.
Third generation racer Davey Hamilton, Jr., better known as DJ, made a pair of Indy Lights starts at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in 2016, but will be making his first oval appearance with Team Pelfrey.
The 21-year old son of IndyCar veteran Davey Hamilton is fully recovered from fractures, and broken bones suffered in a Winged Sprint Car at Irwindale Speedway last November.
The Gary Neal led Team Pelfrey has shown plenty of speed during its past Freedom 100 appearances, and DJ has impressed the team and series observers during testing. It also doesn’t hurt to be getting some advice from dad, an 11-time Indianapolis 500 starter.
DJ is also receiving some support from a pair of teams taking part in the main event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The logos of Harding Racing and Jonathan Byrd’s Racing will appear on the unmistakable yellow and black livery of Team Pelfrey’s No. 2.
Reigning USAC Sprint Car Champion Chris Windom was also scheduled to make his Indy Lights debut but unfortunately had to withdraw after a crash during testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday. The Canton, Ill. native, was uninjured, but the No. 33 Belardi Auto Racing w/ Byrd & Baldwin machine sustained too much damage to repair before the race. Don’t be surprised to see Windom make his Indy Lights debut at another time.
Windom will still be busy this week beginning on Wednesday with the Tony Hulman Classic USAC Sprint Car race in Terre Haute, Ind., and ending with on Sunday night at Kokomo Speedway in the Baldwin Brothers sprint car. In between are dirt and pavement USAC Silver Crown events at the Indiana State Fairgrounds and Lucas Oil Raceway and the Little 500 pavement sprint car classic at Anderson Speedway.
Freedom 100 Schedule
Thursday, May 24, 2018
- 9:30am – 10am —> Indy Lights Practice #1
- 11:00am – 11:30am —> Indy Lights Practice #2
- 1:30pm – 2:30pm —> Indy Lights Qualifying
Friday, May 25, 2018
- 10am – 10:30am —> Indy Lights Autograph Session (Fan Village)
- 12:30pm —> Freedom 100 (40 laps)
The race will air live on the NBCSN as part of their Carb Day coverage.
Don’t miss any of the action:
- live timing – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000, and IndyCar Race Control
- on twitter –Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000, Cooper Tire, Mazda Racing and TSO Ladder
- via the Road To Indy TV app – Android or Apple iOS
- on all social media channels via the #TeamCooperTire and #MRTI hashtags
Watch last year’s Freedom 100