By Steve Wittich
When writing about racing, it’s always better to let a story develop and tell itself, instead of pushing your own narrative. With the short fields that the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series is seeing this year, pushing a pre-determined story would have been an easy trap to fall into.
Thankfully, a second-generation racer and son of a previous Indy Lights champion who drives for two of the most iconic names in American sports history, his high-energy rookie teammate who is looking for a little Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires redemption, and a still fiery but much wiser two-time series vice-champion, are writing their own epic tail.
Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing), Patricio O’Ward (Andretti Autosport) and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) have average finishes of 2.7, 2.9 and 3.0 respectively and are separated by a scant 21 points headed into the eighth of 17 rounds.
Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires points headed to Road America
|2||Patricio O’Ward – R||183||6|
|4||Victor Franzoni – R||139||50|
|10||Alfonso Celis, Jr.||27||162|
|11||Davey Hamilton, Jr.||21||168|
Of the three Verizon IndyCar Series ladder series, Indy Lights has the longest history on the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course. Mike Groff started second and won the first Indy Lights (American Racing Series) race in 1986.
While it might be the longest history, Indy Lights has also contested the fewest Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires races at Road America, making their ninth and tenth starts in 2018. The iconic road course played host to a single race four times between 1986 and 1990 before a 25-year break in the action, and a pair of doubleheaders in 2016 and 2017.
Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires winners at Road America
|2017 Race #2||Zachary Claman DeMelo||Carlin|
|2017 Race #1||Matheus Leist||Carlin|
|2016 Race #2||Santi Urrutia||Schmidt Peterson Motorsports|
|2016 Race #1||Zach Veach||Belardi Auto Racing|
|1990||Paul Tracy||Landford Racing|
|1989||Tommy Byrne||Landford Racing|
|1988||Juan Fangio II||Leading Edge Racing Team|
|1986||Mike Groff||Groff Motorsports|
Watch Zachary Claman DeMelo win his first Indy Lights race at Road America last year.
What a difference a year makes for Herta.
Last year, the second generation driver was coming off a miserable “Month of May” that saw a 16 point advantage turn into a 22 point deficit after three races at the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
This year, the 18-year-old came to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway 27 points in arrears of O’Ward, but three straight wins have turned that disadvantage into a six-point advantage.
Herta will be making his second visit to Road America, with last year’s first visit featuring a mixed bag of results.
A fuel leak kept the No.98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing Mazda/Dallara from taking to the track for practice which leads to a disappointing 13th place start and a forgettable race that included a spin and ended in 12th.
The Valencia, Calif. native rebounded to take the pole for the second race and ended up on the podium, starting a string of good results to end his rookie season.
Herta finished last weeks test sixth on the time chart and will have to find some speed in his No. 98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing machine during practice.
“After a crazy month of May, I’m super excited to get back in the car this weekend,” explained Herta. “We’re carrying a lot of momentum and had a good test in Road America last week. We will have a bit of a challenge ahead of us as we have a new tire compound coming into the weekend. As long as keep doing what we’ve this year, we should be right up in the fight for the win!”
Herta will hope that percentages since the two Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course races were added continue to play out for him. Since 2014, the points leader after the trio of “Month of May” races has gone on to win the championship three times, including the last two. The lone outlier was 2015 when eventual champion Spencer Pigot left Indianapolis, Ind. in third, 24 points behind Jack Harvey.
O’Ward, who has led at least one lap in all seven races this so far in 2018, will hope to channel his IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship visit to Road America in 2017, and not his 2016 Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire visit.
Last year, the 19-year-old teamed with local driver James French to win the Prototype Challenge class during the IMSA weekend.
In 2016, the Monterey, Mexico born pilot entered the Road America rounds of the Pro Mazda championship with a 55 point lead over Team Pelfrey teammate Aaron Telitz. But, a pair of disappointing fourth place finishes coupled with dominating wins for Telitz was the beginning of a depressing run of results for O’Ward.
O’Ward, who finished the recent test at Road America with the second quickest time currently leads or is tied for the lead in the following series statistics:
- Wins – 3 (tied with Colton Herta)
- Poles – 4
- Races Led – 7
- Laps Led – 141
- Bonus Points – 8
- Average Starting Position – 1.9
- Quickest Average Race Lap – 2.3
Accomplished veteran Urrutia, who is the only driver NOT from the Andretti Autosport stable to win a race this year, starts the weekend 21 points adrift of Herta and the top of the points table.
That’s the closest the “second-half” driver has been to the championship lead when leaving the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and is a testament to how much he’s grown as a driver over the course of his Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career.
Last year, the Uruguayan had six drivers in front of him and was 46 points out of the lead, and in 2016 he was also third, but 39 points behind the leader.
The 21-year-old will need to continue to make smart decisions behind the wheel, but his Belardi Auto Racing team will also need to make some strides to find some more pace to give him a chance to fight straight-up for wins.
Reigning Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni led the series open test at Road America last week with a lap of 112.7325 seconds. That’s under the race track record on what was reported to be a slick and green track.
A pair of wins would bring the 22-year-old back into championship contention, but more importantly they would help Franzoni honor his friend, patron and former teammate Jeff Green.
It was in Wisconsin last year that Ryan Norman first exhibited the pace to prove that he belonged in Indy Lights. This year’s trip north gives the 20-year-old a chance to show he can regularly fight for podiums. Despite a pair of what he would classify as dissapointing fifth place finishes on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Norman showed he was willing to fight for positions, battling Franzoni, Urrutia and O’Ward.
The fourth member of the Andretti Autosport, Dalton Kellett, is coming off a podium in the Freedom 100, but has shown a surprising lack of pace on the road and street courses so far in 2018. The Canadian’s test last week at Road America featured an off-track excursion, so he will have to rebuild some confidence during practice on Friday.
Aaron Telitz heads to his home race in desperate need of a repeat performance from 2016. That year, the Rice Lake, Wisc. native dominated both Pro Mazda races to start a run for the championship.
The 26-year-old began that weekend trailing O’Ward by 55 points and ended up winning the championship by 28 points, an 83 point swing. Telitz currently trails Herta by 68 points but needs to start winning races now.
- Andretti Autosport and Juncos Racing are looking for their first Indy Lights wins at Road America. Since the series returned in 2016, two races were won by Carlin and one each by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Belardi Auto Racing.
- You don’t need to start on pole to win on the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course, but starting in the first couple of rows certainly helps. Only two of the eight winners have started inside the front row. Five victories have been won from the outside of row one and Claman DeMelo won from fourth on the grid last year.
- The pole-sitter has finished outside of the top ten more times four times, and only finished on the podium three times.
- Mike Groff (1986) and Zach Veach (2016) are the only Americans to win at Road America. Argentina, Brazil, Canada (twice), Ireland, and Uruguay have also provided winners.
Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires weekend schedule
9:15 AM – 10 AM – Practice
12:20 PM – 12:50 PM – Autograph Session
4:55 PM – 5:25PM – Qualifying #1
8 AM – 8:30 AM – Qualifying #2
Noon – 12:45PM – Race #1
9:50 AM – 10:50 AM – Race #2
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