By Tony DiZinno
After the first six races of the year have turned both left and right, the Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tire series heads to just outside Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Ind. for the first of two oval race weekends of the year, at the 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway.
This will provide an intriguing test for the 13 competitors on the second rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, with almost half the drivers set for their first oval starts.
Add in the added weight of points – 50 percent more are on offer this race than a standard road and street race – and the importance of having a good night in the Freedom 90 at the Carb Night Classic “Race Before the 500” stands out.
Don’t rest on your laurels
Points leader Parker Thompson is one of the few experienced oval shoes in the field at this track, having competed here twice in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda competition in 2015 and 2016.
The Red Deer, Alberta, native started seventh and finished sixth for JDC Motorsports in 2015, then started on pole, led 61 laps and finished second in 2016 driving for Cape Motorsports. The latter event stung a bit as he’d carried the momentum into Lucas Oil Raceway following a run of three wins in the previous four races, but lost the edge to teammate Anthony Martin after getting balked in traffic.
Alas, Thompson is not one to look back at the past. Racing here now with Michael Duncalfe’s Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based Exclusive Autosport team in a new car and in a new series is a far different animal compared to the USF2000 days, and Thompson knows it.
“It’s a completely new adventure. You have to start from square one,” Thompson told TSO Ladder. “The old Van Diemen around that track in USF2000 will handle a lot different than this beast of a Pro Mazda. I don’t want to take too much of my past knowledge into this race.
“Just like you see veteran IndyCar drivers struggle with new IndyCar, a lot of the older USF2000 Van Diemen drivers may struggle if they try to carry over those oval traits to the new car. I’ll start from square one with (engineer) Tim Lewis.”
Thompson enters the weekend with a 22-point gap to Rinus VeeKay of Juncos Racing, 30 to VeeKay’s teammate Carlos Cunha and 34 to RP Motorsport Racing rookie Harrison Scott.
A little bit of oval experience
Besides Thompson, two other drivers in the Pro Mazda field have past Lucas Oil Raceway experience in USF2000. Robert Megennis (2016, started fifth, finished sixth) and Nikita Lastochkin (2015, started 13th, finished 12th) each have a weekend here under their belts in USF2000, both with Team Pelfrey. The Juncos Racing and Cape Motorsports drivers will add to that this weekend.
Two of their teammates – Rinus VeeKay (Juncos) and Oliver Askew (Cape) – were second and first, respectively, last July at Iowa Speedway in USF2000. They’ll be progressing from the Tatuus USF-17 to Tatuus PM-18 chassis for this oval, rather than from the previous generation Van Diemen chassis in USF2000.
Carlos Cunha (Juncos) and Sting Ray Robb (Pelfrey) made their MRTI oval debuts at Gateway Motorsports Park last year with Pelfrey and World Speed, respectively. Cunha was third and Robb seventh in that Pro Mazda race.
Heading into the oval unknown
While Thompson for Exclusive, Robb for Pelfrey, the pair of Cape and trio of Juncos Racing drivers all have some oval experience, there’s a lot of learning for the remaining six drivers in the field.
BN Racing’s pair of David Malukas and Kris Wright are both new to the discipline. Malukas has shown a wealth of speed, but the team did not run at Iowa Speedway last year so he’ll be figuring out an oval for the first time. Wright’s wealth of experience in Pro Mazda and a number of sports car series isn’t transferable here.
For RP Motorsport Racing’s Harrison Scott and Lodovico Laurini, this is a whole new ballgame for the drivers and team.
Exclusive rookie Antonio Serravalle and FatBoy Racing! driver Charles Finelli completes the 13-car field. Pelfrey is down a car with Andres Gutierrez not entered this weekend. TSO understands Gutierrez should be back for the next weekend at Road America.
Past Lucas Oil Raceway history
After a year away, Pro Mazda and USF2000 are both back at Lucas Oil Raceway for this year’s race.
Qualifying is particularly important as each of the last six Pro Mazda races here has seen the polesitter go on to win.
The previous Pro Mazda race in 2016 only had one change for a position the whole race, as Garett Grist passed Juncos Racing teammate Nico Dapero for second place. Otherwise, from winner Pato O’Ward of Team Pelfrey down to eighth place Jake Eidson, the eight-car field finished where it started.
Prior to that, Andretti Autosport was the team to beat. Weiron Tan (2015), Garett Grist (2014) and Matty Brabham (2013) all won from pole for the team. That came after Connor De Phillippi won back-to-back years from pole, first for Team Pelfrey in 2011 and for Juncos Racing in 2012.
It’s been since Conor Daly won for Juncos in 2010, after starting second, that someone other than the polesitter won this race. Daly and Brabham are the two Lucas Oil Raceway race winners who’ve later gone on to win the championship.
And about the extra points…
With only two oval weekends on the Pro Mazda schedule, Andersen Promotions has worked to strengthen their importance and reduce the chances of drivers not running the ovals by increasing the points. In previous years, the car count has tended to drop for the Lucas Oil Raceway event.
A win Friday will be worth 45 points rather than 30, second place 38 rather than 25, third place 33 rather than 22, and so on and so forth. Here is the oval points table, below.
One additional point is awarded for pole position and most laps led
With a 13-car grid, there’s a net swing north of 30 points between first and last, so the points standings could be jumbled.
Points standings entering the weekend
Thompson and Exclusive Autosport made lemonades out of lemons at the INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend and with fifth and first place results which bolstered their point lead.
Here are the points going in:
1 Parker Thompson 150
2 Rinus VeeKay 128
3 Carlos Cunha 120
4 Harrison Scott 116
5 David Malukas 105
6 Oliver Askew 102
7 Sting Ray Robb 88
8 Andres Gutierrez 79
9 Nikita Lastochkin 74
10 Robert Megennis 69
11 Lodovico Laurini 63
12 Kris Wright 57
13 Antonio Serravalle 48
14 Charles Finelli 47
15 Rafael Martins 45
16 Kory Enders 21
17 James Raven 17
Before on-track running on Thursday, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has an Oval Clinic with Indianapolis 500 participants Josef Newgarden, Kyle Kaiser and Sage Karam from 8:20 to 10, then three groups of 20 minutes each for Cooper meetings starting at 10:15 a.m. going to 12:05 p.m.
Thursday, May 24
|1:15 PM – 1:45 PM||Pro Mazda Testing #1 (Includes Rookie Observation)|
|4:30 PM – 5:30 PM||Pro Mazda Testing #2 (Includes Rookie Observation)|
|7 PM – 8 PM||Pro Mazda Practice|
Friday, May 25
|3:05 PM – 3:30 PM||Pro Mazda Qualifying|
|7:05 PM – 7:50 PM||Pro Mazda Race (Freedom 90)|