By Steve Wittich
A quintet of familiar Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires pilots got their very first taste of an Indy Lights race car on Saturday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Oliver Askew, Lucas Kohl, David Malukas, Robert Megennis, and Parker Thompson all turned their first laps in the 450 HP turbocharged Mazda powered Dallara machines on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course during the eighth-annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test.
Thompson, along with Askew won their tests by finishing in the top three of the 2018 Pro Mazda Presented By Cooper Tire championship. Rinus VeeKay also won a test, but since he tested an Indy Lights car last year, he won’t be included in this story.
We had a chance to talk to four of those drivers after they got out of their respective rides on Saturday evening and one thing was obvious, they all had ear to ear grins.
Askew, the 2017 USF2000 champion was the quickest of the newbies (and second fastest overall on Saturday) in the car that Patricio O’Ward drove to the Indy Lights championship this year. Askew and the No. 27 from the Andretti Autosport stable turned a lap at 75.0060 seconds, just over a hundredth of a second slower than his experienced teammate Ryan Norman.
Askew told us:
“Initial thoughts right away. Oh my gosh, this turbo has so much power!!
“The longer wheelbase makes the driving style quite a bit different compared to the Tatuus, especially around here. That took a couple of laps to get used to. We led most of the first session on used tires. We ended up quickest, unofficially with my in-lap. Second overall today, can’t be disappointed in that. Big thanks to the crew at Andretti Autosport. It’s an experience that I’ll always remember.”
The Mazda/Dallara is the first turbocharged race car that the 21-year-old with an MRTI podium percentage of 53.5% has driven, and that sensation was something he took particular note of, saying:
“Until you have an understanding of when it comes in. By muscles memory, feeling and the harmonics of the car then you kind of predict it coming in and be smoother on the throttle. I’ve never really experienced that kind of power before.”
The second quickest time from the newcomers during Saturday’s three sessions was turned in by Robert Megennis. The New Yorker, who finished fifth in this year’s Pro Mazda championship was on cloud nine all day, and told us:
“It’s so much fun! It’s such a fun car to drive. You really have to manhandle it because it’s a bigger car. You’re going a lot faster; you’ve got more horsepower, you’ve got the turbo. It’s overall really fun to drive. I haven’t had this much fun testing a race car before. I just love all of it.”
Team Pelfrey is making their first appearance in Indy Lights since the Freedom 100 in May and has Parker Thompson at the wheel. Thompson, who has ten Mazda Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires wins finished second in the Pro Mazda championship with Exclusive Autosport last year.
After the final session on Saturday, the Canadian told us:
“Pretty Cool! At the end of the day, I never thought I’d see P. Thompson on the side of an Indy Lights car, so you have to smile on a day like today. I’ve had a ton of fun, learned a lot. Early we mixed it up with the top five right off the bat. Had a ton of confidence. Then we got humbled a little bit towards the end of the day. Obviously, I have a lot to learn. How to drive this Indy Lights car. It definitely takes a different style that I’m not familiar with after driving the Pro Mazda. These Pelfrey guys are outstanding though, and we’ll do our homework tonight, and we’ll be better for tomorrow.”
Lucas Kohl, who has spent the last three seasons at the wheel of a Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda machine was one of three drivers that turned laps for Belardi Auto Racing on Saturday. The leap from USF2000 to Indy Lights is a big one, but the Brazilain certainly didn’t look out of place and after the three test sessions told us:
“It’s very different from anything I’ve ever done before. A lot more power, a lot more everything. Honestly, I’m still getting used to it. The Belardi team is helping me a lot. We’re getting up to speed, and we’re improving the car. We did some changes, and it got better. Now I have to get my driving better, and it should be better tomorrow.”
David Malukas, a three-time winner in Pro Mazda in 2018, was also at the wheel of a Belardi Auto Racing machine but was only able to complete 31 laps after an incident in the second session on Saturday.
The Chicago, Ill. pilot made contact with the barriers at the exit of Turn 6, suffering a decent amount of damage on the left-hand side of the car.
The Chicago, Ill. driver was checked, released and cleared by the medical crew at IMS. Malukas told us that he bottomed out on the curb at the exit of the quick left-right chicane and when the tires made contact with the pavement again the wheel had turned and shot him straight into the wall.
Malukas didn’t run in the final session on Saturday but will be back behind the wheel again on Sunday.
Make sure to come back to this story after Sunday’s action when we’ll update it.