By Steve Wittich

For the 11th time in his Road To Indy career, but first time in Indy Lights, Rinus van Kalmthout (Rinus VeeKay) stood on the top step of the podium.

VeeKay is the eighth member of an exclusive club that includes drivers that have won on all three steps of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

VeeKay has now won in 34.4% of his 32 starts, has stood on the podium in 71.9% of his starts and has only finished outside of the top five on two occasions. A truly astounding display of race-craft and consistency.

The native of Hoofddorp, Netherlands also extended his impressive record on the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg, where he is now six-for-six in terms of top-five finishes.

Race #1 winner Claman had a goal of winning every race this season but wasn’t too disappointed in a drive that saw him improve two spots to finish second and take a nine-point championship lead over VeeKay to the next pair of races at Circuit of The Americas.

“The goal was to win both races and leave here with the points lead, so I’m happy to have the latter but disappointed not to get the win today,” said the 20-year-old veteran after his second straight Indy Lights podium. “I was like a kid in a candy shop near the end because I had plenty of push-to-pass left and I was going to use them to get by Rinus, but he did a good job to keep me back there. I had a few big moments through Turn Four and almost lost it, but I gave it everything I had. I haven’t raced since Toronto (in 2018) and haven’t done much testing, so as the season goes on, I’ll get better and I’ll learn how to manage the tires better.”

For the second straight day, Toby Sowery wheeled the No. 2 Team Pelfrey/BN Racing machine, sporting the familiar yellow and black Pelfrey livery, to the podium. The 2019 event in the “Sunshine City” is the fourth straight year that livery has visited the podium during the season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla.

It was the Cambridge, England driver’s fourth straight Road To Indy podium and after the race, he told TSO Ladder:

“I’m proud of the team’s performance this weekend. The other teams have been here before in this car and we haven’t, so it was a learning curve for all of us. For us to get two podiums, and to have David fighting for a podium as well, it’s great for the team. They’ve done a fantastic job; it’s been a pretty nice weekend.”

After a waved-off start, the front row featuring a pair of Road To Indy scholarship winners, pole sitter Askew and VeeKay brought the Indy Lights field to the green flag to start the 40-lap Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires on Sunday morning.

Askew and VeeKay were both on the gas quickly, and the duo went side-by-side through Turn 1 and kept their foot in the gas as the pair got to the narrow end of the Turn 2 funnel. The drivers made side-by-side contact with Askew’s No. 28 AER/Dallara IL-15 from the Andretti Autosport stable ending catching some air and making substantial contact with the concrete barriers on driver’s left.

Rinus VeeKay on the outside of Oliver Askew in Turn 1 right before the pair made contact. (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The 2017 USF2000 champion and 2018 Indy Pro 2000 champion have shared the podium 14 times over the past two seasons and have spent countless laps racing near each other but had never made contact until today. Naturally, they both differing opinions on what happened.

“Veekay was on my left corner going in to Turn 2 and I thought I gave him enough room,” explained Askew after the incident. “I felt him clip my rear tire and I went into the wall. It’s really unfortunate, and I feel really bad for the No. 28 crew, Index Invest, the Stellrecht family, and everyone at Andretti Autosport.”

“I knew I could go way deeper going into Turn One at the start because I was in the clean line, so I went super-deep and was next to Oliver but we both ran out of road, said VeeKay after the race. “I didn’t want to take too much curb in Turn Two because I knew I could bounce off and that could end up bad for both of us, and I thought we had enough space. I feel sorry for Oliver but I was happy to come out with the lead.”

No action was taken by race control regarding the Lap 1, Turn 2 incident.

The field was forced to circulate under yellow for five laps while a forklift was retrieved to put the barriers back into place.

The running order just before the green flag came back out was: VeeKay, Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport), Claman, David Malukas (BN Racing), Sowery, Julien Falchero (Belardi Auto Racing), Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport), Lucas Kohl (Belardi Auto Racing) and Dalton Kellett (Juncos Racing).

Toby Sowery, who lost a few spots on the start was able to pass Malulkas, his teammate for the weekend, on the first full lap of racing under green.

Out front, VeeKay pulled out to a comfortable lead while the next six battling hammer and tong for the final spots on the podium.

On lucky Lap 13, the No. 13 of Claman made a daring outside pass of Megennis stick in Turn 1, which caused the rookie Andretti Autosport pilot to compromise his line exiting Turn 3. Sowery and Malukas quickly pounced and the trio went three-wide in the long, bumpy run down to turn four.

Malukas surprised his teammate with his bold move to grab the final step of the podium.

“It was a fun battle with my teammate,” said Sowery. “I honestly didn’t see him when we both went around Robert, so was surprised to see it was David alongside me going into Turn Four. It was a fantastic move on his part, especially on a street circuit. I left him enough space because I might not be here for the entire championship and he is, so I’m not going to affect that.”

At the halfway point of the race, VeeKay was able to gap Claman by a comfortable three-second margin with Malukas holding off his teammate for the final spot on the podium.

With 15 laps remaining Sowery was able to get by Malukas again and within five laps was starting to put pressure on Claman for second place.

Toby Sowery navigates the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit in Race #2 (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Sowery continued to hound Claman, using the 50hp push-to-pass system to attempt a pass in Turn 1 on Lap 34, but the veteran from Montreal was able to hold the newcomer off.

Later on that lap, Megennis brought out the second full-course caution of the race when his No. 27 Andretti Autosport AER/Dallara IL-15 ended up against the concrete barriers at the exit of Turn 10.

“It was kind of a disappointing race,” said Megennis after the race. “We had really good pace, started in third and got up to second on the first lap. After the restart, we just couldn’t get the car underneath us. It was super loose for the first eight laps and we fell down to fifth. From there, the car kind of came alive. We had a really good race car, made the fast lap of the race. I was running in fifth until I made a mistake and ended up in the wall. There are a lot of positives to take away from it. I’m disappointed with the results – I shouldn’t really be making mistakes like that, but I am excited to go to COTA with a better understanding of the car and learning from our mistakes. I know we have good race cars and a lot of pace to be contenders at our next event and bring home Palo Alto Networks, CyberArk, Optiv, and SailPoint a podium or race win.”

The two laps behind the pace-car erased a four+ second lead that the Dutchman had built up and brought Claman back to within 1.5 seconds and his remaining application of push-to-pass.

The winner of race #1 was able to put pressure on VeeKay but was not a serious threat to snatch the victory.

Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires Race #2 Results

1 21 Rinus VeeKay Juncos Racing 40 laps
2 13 Zachary Claman Belardi Auto Racing -0.6328
3 2 Toby Sowery BN Racing/Team Pelfrey -3.0406
4 79 David Malukas BN Racing -4.1102
5 4 Julien Falchero Belardi Auto Racing -4.9477
6 48 Ryan Norman Andretti Autosport -6.0376
7 5 Lucas Kohl Belardi Auto Racing -13.5252
8 67 Dalton Kellett Juncos Racing -17.6521
9 27 Robert Megennis Andretti Autosport – 8 Laps
10 28 Oliver Askew Andretti Autosport -39 Laps