In 12 short days, one Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires driver will have a head start on realizing their dream of becoming a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. The $1 million advancement scholarship will be awarded to championship winner at the Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires banquet in Portland, Ore. on Labor Day.
But, before that is a trio of races that begin with a short oval race this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta are currently separated by 32 points courtesy of a five-race run that began at Iowa Speedway in July. O’Ward stood on the top step of the podium in four of those races and finished ahead of Herta in all five races.
Herta, a sophomore with Andretti Steinbrenner Racing held a 17 point advantage six weeks ago when the field met in the cornfields of Iowa for second of three oval races. But, combine a hot-streak by the 19-year-old O’Ward with a miserable weekend in Canada by Herta, and you have the 49 point swing that has seen O’Ward outscore Herta by a margin of by 49 points (almost 10 points per race).
O’Ward, who was born in Monterey, Mexico but lives in San Antonio, Texas has won seven races so far this year, and another win would provisionally put the championship on ice.
Three wins to close out the season, and O’Ward can tie Greg Moore’s season record of 10 wins in a season. The Canadian won 10 of the 12 races in 1995 to win the PPG/Firestone Indy Lights championship by over 100 points.
“We’ve had a couple weeks off, so I’m definitely ready to climb back into the No. 27 machine this weekend,” said O’Ward. “Gateway is a tricky oval, and with only one race, it’ll be even more important to do well in the practice and qualifying sessions. The end of the championship is in sight, and I want to continue to perform well and build on my current lead in the points standings. I’m chasing after a couple more race wins to end my rookie season strong.”
The most important thing for Herta to accomplish this weekend is to score seven more points than O’Ward. That will guarantee that the title fight moves to the Pacific Northwest on Labor Day Weekend.
That task is a little bit easier with 50% more points on offer for each of the trio Indy Lights oval races on the 2018 schedule.
Points available for the three Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires oval races in 2018
Herta will be making his fourth Indy Lights short-oval start this weekend and has finished fourth (Iowa Speedway – 2017), third (Gateway Motorsports Park – 2016) and second (Iowa Speedway – 2018). A victory would be the next logical result in the pattern.
“I’m super excited to get back in the car and to race on an oval, explained series sophomore Herta. “To be able to run on such a short track adds a lot of excitement for us and the fans. We’re in a crucial part of the season for the championship, and I’ll need to do my best to pick up the win. The Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing / Curb team has done consistently well all season, so I expect we will have a great weekend.”
Herta (at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway) and O’Ward (at Iowa Speedway) have split the two ovals races headed to the final left-turn only race of the season.
O’Ward, who by scoring a pair of bonus points (pole and most laps led) at Iowa, has scored two more oval points then Herta has.
2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires oval points headed to Gateway Motorsports Park
|1||Patricio O’Ward – R||85|
|7||Victor Franzoni – R||43|
|8||Davey Hamilton, Jr.||21|
Santi Urrutia, last year’s winner at Gateway Motorsports Park and the series vice-champion the previous two years is out of contention for the first time. However, a few wins would be a solid way to end what will likely be his last season of Indy Lights.
The battle for fourth place is one to watch over the course of the next two weekends of competition. A total of 29 points only separates Victor Franzoni (4th), Ryan Norman (5th), Aaron Telitz (6th) and Dalton Kellett (8th).
Of those four, 20-year-old Norman is the hottest driver of the bunch. The Journey sponsored driver of the No. 48 Andretti Autosport Mazda/Dallara has scored 109 points over the course of the last five races. That’s 23 points more than Franzoni, 19 more than Telitz and ten more than teammate Kellett.
“I’m excited to be getting back in the car after a long break,” said Norman. “When we tested here the Journey car was really fast, so I’m feeling confident about where we’re at going into the weekend. We’ve got some momentum behind us from my third-place finish at Mid-Ohio and I’m looking to build off of that at Gateway and go for the top step of the podium.”
Kellett and Telitz are currently tied for sixth with 250 points, and the edge at Gateway Motorsports Park should go to Kellett. Kellett has four podiums in seven ovals starts and outscored Telitz 61 to 44 in the first two oval races of 2018.
“Myself and the entire K-Line / Ten80 team are really looking forward to Gateway this weekend,” said the veteran Canadian. “We’ve tested here previously with all four cars and it went well – the No. 28 car was competitive and I think that will show this weekend. We should be able to roll off of the trucks and only make some minor changes to get things ready for the race. Last year with the fresh re-pave, the track was slick and challenging and it’ll be interesting to see if that will be the case again this year. If it is, it’ll be a game to see who can get up to speed the earliest. It should be a fun race for sure!”
At Gateway Motorsports Park
The Mazda St. Louis Indy Lights Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires will be the eighth time that the various iterations of Indy Lights visit the 1.25-mile egg-shaped oval in Madison, Ill.
Last year’s entertaining battle between polesitter Juan Piedrahita and eventual winner Santi Urrutia was the first for the series at Gateway Motorsports Park in 13 years. Urrutia used a second last lap pass to grab his first career oval win.
The first Indy Lights race at Gateway was won by Ed Carpenter Racing driver coach and spotter in 1997. Townsend Bell, NBCSN IndyCar analyst, started on pole twice, has led 148 laps, and won the 2000 race. Double Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon won the race in 2001.
Seven different teams have visited victory lane in the seven Indy Lights races at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Last year’s Indy Lights race at Gateway Motorsports Park
Andretti Autosport was the only Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires team to test at the 1.25-oval. That should give them a slight advantage with track time limited.
O’Wards next win will be his fifteenth career Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires win. He’s made 50 starts across Pro Mazda and Indy Lights.
With eight poles through the first 14 races of the season, O’Ward is currently tied with Ed Jones, Townsend Bell, Thiago Mederios, and Bryan Herta for the single-season record.
A pair of podiums in two of the last three races would put veteran Aaron Telitz at an even 40 for his Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career. That would mean the Belardi Auto Racing driver would have a career podium rate of over 50%.
If three of the four Andretti Autosport/Andretti Steinbrenner Racing drivers make it to the podium, it will match Dorricott Racing, who put Townsend Bell, Casey Mears and Jason Bright on the podium in 2000.
The single 45-minute practice will take place at 3:15 PM on Friday, with qualifying at 7:15 PM. Sunday’s 75-lap race rolls off at 4:45 PM.
The Indy Lights race will be broadcast on NBCSN at 12:00 pm EDT on Sunday, August 26.