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Andersen Promotions Announces 2019 Road to Indy Schedule

Andersen Promotions Announces 2019 Road to Indy Schedule

PALMETTO, Fla. (September 25, 2018) – Andersen Promotions today announced the 2019 Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires schedule which will feature 12 events in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series including a new venue with the addition of Circuit of The Americas and a return to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the season finale of all three levels of the globally recognized driver development platform.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship calendars all will feature a mix of ovals, street circuits and road courses to properly train drivers to move up the ladder system with the ultimate goal of reaching IndyCar and the Indianapolis 500.

Following an August 1 announcement by INDYCAR and Andersen Promotions, the future of Indy Lights is bright, strengthened by a five-year plan to increase team and driver participation for the final stepping stone to the top level. In addition to an increased champion’s purse of $1.1 million built on a three-race IndyCar program including the 2020 Indianapolis 500, a reduction in entrant budgets was unveiled alongside revised INDYCAR driver licensing guidelines and an expansion of the IndyCar testing program.

Indy Lights has become the backbone of IndyCar with 25 of the 33 starters in the 2018 Indianapolis 500 as graduates, including its last five champions. BN Racing recently announced its plans to expand to Indy Lights in 2019, and Team Pelfrey will relocate from its Florida base to Indianapolis to focus on returning with a full-season campaign next year. Interest in the series is high and additional announcements will be made in the coming weeks. In the interim, all eyes have been on series champion Patricio O’Ward and vice champion and Freedom 100 winner Colton Herta, who made their IndyCar Series debut recently at Sonoma Raceway and have been confirmed to the new Harding Steinbrenner Racing team for the full 2019 IndyCar season.

With the highly successful debut of the Tatuus PM-18 this season – finalizing the revitalization of all three levels with state-of-the-art equipment – both Pro Mazda and USF2000 look poised for strong fields in 2019. Reigning USF2000 team champions Pabst Racing has already announced its expansion into Pro Mazda with a two-car effort, and new teams Jay Howard Driver Development and Miller Vinatieri Motorsports will enter the USF2000 fray. ArmsUp Motorsports is also looking at the potential of an expansion to Pro Mazda or the potential for a third car in USF2000.

Details on the full prize packages for each series – including the champion’s scholarships to advance to Pro Mazda and Indy Lights – are currently being finalized and will be announced in the near future.

Prior to kicking off the 2019 season, two events remain on the current calendar. Following the conclusion of the eighth annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this past weekend, a second Open Test has been scheduled at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course in Homestead, Fla., on December 3/4, receiving accolades throughout the paddock. The third annual Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout featuring 20 champions of junior open-wheel and karting series from North and South America as well as Europe, Asia, Australasia and Africa will take place in December with venue details and the judging panel to be announced this week.

The traditional Road to Indy annual Spring Training will see all levels return to Homestead-Miami Speedway, on March 2-4, 2019 for three days of on-track action on the 2.21-mile road course. The first two rungs – Pro Mazda and USF2000 –  will take to the track on Saturday and Sunday, March 2-3, with a total of four hours of testing time. Indy Lights will have its own dedicated day of action on Monday, March 4, comprising five hours of track time.

Spring Training will include the invaluable Road to Indy Driver Summit Program. Activities include a comprehensive competition presentation, media training – which most recently was hosted by prominent authorities and noted broadcasters Leigh Diffey and Kevin Lee – and unique presentations on the sixth annual Cooper Tires social media hashtag program and Road to Indy TV, which also returns for its sixth season.

The 2019 Indy Lights calendar will feature an 18-race, 10-event schedule comprised of six road course, two street circuit and two oval events highlighted by the crown jewel in the schedule – the Freedom 100 on Carb Day for the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500. Coverage can be found on NBC Sports Gold as part of the INDYCAR package as well as Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku, Xbox One, Road To Indy TV and the Road To Indy TV App.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires 2019 Schedule

March 9/10 Streets of St. Petersburg 1.8-mile street course*
March 23/24 Circuit of The Americas 3.427-mile road course*
May 10/11 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 24 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.5-mile oval
June 22/23 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 13/14 Streets of Toronto 1.786-mile street course*
July 27/28 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course*
August 24 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31/Sept. 1 Portland International Raceway 1.964-mile road course*
September 21/22 WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca  2.238-mile road course*
*Doubleheader events

Open tests are scheduled at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 4 (road course), the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 9, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval on May 20 and an August date to be confirmed at Gateway Motorsports Park.

The Pro Mazda schedule will feature 16 races at nine venues consisting of five road course, two street circuit and two oval events. In support of the 103rd Running of the Indianapolis 500, both Pro Mazda and USF2000 will return for the Carb Night Classic on May 24 at Lucas Oil Raceway, which is undergoing a $10M-plus renovation. Pro Mazda will be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App.

Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires 2019 Schedule

March 9/10 Streets of St. Petersburg 1.8-mile street course*
May 10/11 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 24 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22/23 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 13/14 Streets of Toronto 1.786-mile street course*
July 27/28 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course*
August 24 Gateway Motorsports Park 1.25-mile oval
August 31/Sept. 1 Portland International Raceway 1.964-mile road course*
September 21/22 WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca 2.238-mile road course*
*Doubleheader events

Pro Mazda test days are scheduled for the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course on March 2/3, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 9, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 13 and 23, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on June 26/27 (TBC) and an August date to be confirmed at Gateway Motorsports Park.

USF2000 will see 15 races at eight events consisting of five road course, two street circuit and one oval event. Like Pro Mazda, USF2000 coverage will be featured on Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Xbox One as well as Road To Indy TV and on the Road To Indy TV App.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship 2019 Schedule

March 9/10 Streets of St. Petersburg 1.8-mile street course*
May 10/11 Indianapolis Motor Speedway 2.439-mile road course*
May 24 Lucas Oil Raceway .686-mile oval
June 22/23 Road America 4.014-mile road course*
July 13/14 Streets of Toronto 1.786-mile street course*
July 27/28 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course 2.258-mile road course*
August 31/Sept. 1 Portland International Raceway 1.964-mile road course*
September 21/22 WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca 2.238-mile road course*
*Doubleheader events

2019 test days are scheduled for the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course on March 2/3, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course on May 9, Lucas Oil Raceway on May 13 and 23 and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on June 26/27 (TBC).

“Assembling next year’s schedule was the hardest it has been in recent years and that’s because we have too many options, which is a nice problem to have,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “We want to be cognizant of team budgets and also have a well-rounded platform for our drivers alongside key markets for series, team and driver sponsors and partners. I am happy with our final blend of events and want to thank all of the promoters for working with us. Portland was a great event this year, and we look forward to returning to WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and adding what will be a tremendous outing at Circuit of The Americas.

“We have a great platform in place but we always want to be better, and we will be looking at ways to improve for 2019. Adding Jonny Baker as our new Series Development Director was a first step. We are also working hard on the sponsorship side for a new partner to entitle the Road to Indy. There really is no off-season in racing and this one will be busier than usual for everyone at Andersen Promotions, but we welcome and look forward to the challenge and the opportunities that lie ahead. We have the full support of Jay Frye and his team at INDYCAR, and I feel the Road to Indy will be back stronger than ever next year.”

Motorsports Veteran Jonny Baker Joins Andersen Promotions

Motorsports Veteran Jonny Baker Joins Andersen Promotions
Baker Will Play Key Role as Series Development Director

PALMETTO, Fla. (September 6, 2018) – A familiar and respected face around the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires paddock, Jonny Baker will join Andersen Promotions in a newly created position as Series Development Director for all three levels of the world renowned ladder system. Baker will step into his new post immediately, following the conclusion of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season finales at Portland International Raceway this past weekend.

Baker’s role will be multifaceted but his primary focus will be as a liaison with current teams and drivers to understand their challenges, assist in development of the Mazda Road to Indy in the recruitment of prospective drivers and teams, and as an advisor to Andersen Promotions on key areas for continued growth. Baker will be visiting racing events around the world in his new series development role, and will be providing feedback to ensure that the three ladder series remain competitive on a global basis compared to other motorsport platforms on offer.

“I am very excited for this new opportunity with Andersen Promotions,” said Baker. “For a number of reasons in my life, I had to take the tough decision to move on from Team Pelfrey, and I can’t thank Dale Pelfrey and the team enough for all they have done for me. I am passionate about this sport and the Mazda Road to Indy and, having spoken with Dan [Andersen] and Michelle [Kish], it became clear that there was a very exciting opportunity to become involved with the series. I have had a relationship with them since 2007, and it has come back around full circle.

“Having been a former driver and team manager, I understand the paddock from both a driver and team perspective, and there are several key areas where I feel I can have an immediate impact. Getting young and exciting driving talent interested and involved with the Mazda Road to Indy has been one of my key roles in years gone by, and I am excited to continue this in my new capacity. The Mazda Road to Indy has so much to offer with its development system, scholarships, track time, venues, etc., and I will be helping to spread this message far and wide.”

Co-founder alongside Anders Krohn of the highly successful CoForce consulting, marketing and digital agency in 2011, Baker most recently served as General Manager for Team Pelfrey’s USF2000 and Pro Mazda programs since 2014, overseeing multiple race and championship wins. In addition to his former role as Director of Driver Development at Andersen Racing, he was also Track Manager at Andersen RacePark for five years, from start-up to successful development of the corporate and competition karting facility in Palmetto, Fla. Baker holds a Business Administration Degree from the University of the West of England.

Baker’s racing exploits include British Formula Ford, USF2000 and Pro Mazda from 2005 to 2008.

“We are very excited to welcome Jonny to our team,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “I have known him for over a decade, and believe he will be a tremendous asset not only to Andersen Promotions but our teams and drivers. This new position is something we have been thinking about for a while, but we needed the right person. When we learned he was available, it was a no brainer.

“Jonny already has a working relationship with our current staff, partners and most of the paddock and is up-to-date on everything Mazda Road to Indy-wise. As opposed to bringing someone in from the outside and getting them up to speed, this will be a seamless transition and he can hit the ground running. We have a great product in place, but we are always looking at ways to be better. Jonny will be a welcome addition.”

Baker will make his first trackside appearance in his new role at the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on September 22/23.

Andersen Promotions Signs Three-Year Agreement with Green Savoree Racing Promotions

PALMETTO, Fla. (August 29, 2017) – All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – the world’s most effective open-wheel development ladder – will continue to enjoy competition at three high profile venues as Andersen Promotions and Green Savoree Racing Promotions today announced a new multi-year contract.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will all be in action on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, through 2020. All three events respectively known as the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, Honda Indy Toronto and Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio will be highlighted by rounds of the Verizon IndyCar Series.

“Eight years ago the Mazda Road to Indy’s relationship with Green Savoree began with USF2000 at St. Petersburg, and over the years it has been a tremendous partnership,” said Dan Andersen, Owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions. “This renewal to have the entire Mazda Road to Indy at all three Green Savoree events through 2020 is the perfect foundation for what we believe to be the best calendar of road courses, street circuits and oval venues designed to train young drivers for careers in professional racing. Kim [Green] and Kevin [Savoree] have three of the premier events on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule – a testament to their skills in organizing and promoting – and we are very pleased to be a part of their success.”

The waterfront street course at St. Petersburg, the cosmopolitan Toronto street circuit – the second longest-running street race – and picturesque Mid-Ohio Sports Car course have played host to the Mazda Road to Indy since the inception of the INDYCAR-sanctioned ladder system in 2010.

”The racing competition and the depth of driver talent showcased in the Mazda Road to Indy have been fantastic. Dan (Andersen) and his Andersen Promotions team have done a phenomenal job of building each step of the development ladder for open-wheel racing’s future stars,” said Kevin Savoree, president and chief operating officer of Green Savoree Racing Promotions. “We’re proud to have all three series return and be key features at all three of our INDYCAR venues for an additional three years.”

The Mazda Road to Indy provides opportunities for drivers from around the world to progress all the way from the grassroots to the pinnacle of the sport in North America. This year, over $3.5 million in Mazda Scholarships and awards are on offer to help drivers take the next steps in their careers, with the Indy Lights champion claiming a prize valued at $1 million to ensure entry into three Verizon IndyCar Series events in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500. All three levels will wrap up the 2017 season this weekend at Watkins Glen International.

Franzoni Reclaims Points Lead with Gateway Win

Madison, Ill. – The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires made its inaugural visit to Gateway Motorsports Park a memorable one as title rivals Victor Franzoni and Anthony Martin once again traded the lead of the championship as Franzoni claimed his fifth victory of the season in this afternoon’s St. Louis Pro Mazda Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires. The pair now share five wins apiece.
Martin, of Cape Motorsports, took pole position in qualifying earlier this afternoon – his sixth pole of the season – with Juncos Racing’s Franzoni a close second. Martin held the advantage at the start but a yellow followed shortly after the green flag following a spin by Jeff Green (Juncos Racing) and Brendan Puderbach (Fat Boy Racing!). The battle for the lead resumed on Lap 3 with some entertaining side-by-side racing between the two.
Carlos Cunha of Team Pelfrey, who qualified fourth, managed to pass teammate TJ Fischer and briefly enter the fray at the front of the field. Franzoni made several attempts to get around Martin on the high side and finally made the move stick on Lap 18. Once past Martin, Franzoni romped to the checkered flag with a 4.6 second lead claiming the bonus points for most laps led and fastest race lap.
Cunha held off Fischer to claim his fourth podium of the season and narrow the gap to Fischer to just five points for third in the championship.
Jeff Green recovered from his earlier spin to pass the third Team Pelfrey car of Nikita Lastochkin and finish fifth, earning the Staubli Award. The Quarter Master Hard Charger Award went to World Speed Motorsports’ Sting Ray Robb with a gain of two positions. Juncos Racing earned the PFC Award.
Franzoni now leads Martin by two points (287 to 285) with the final two races on the docket coming down to the season finale at Watkins Glen International next weekend.
Victor Franzoni (#23 Juncos Racing): “After qualifying, I wasn’t sure we could do it, since I was three-tenths slower than him. We thought, we’ll make some big changes and just hope to survive and finish second. But when I passed him and started to pull away, I knew the changes worked. Here, we had to have a little bit more respect for each other, because the ovals are more dangerous and things happen so fast. But both of us were so focused on winning. I had to try outside in Turn One on the first lap and it was crazy oversteer, I thought I would go into the wall. I tried a couple of lines until I found one that worked. I think we’ll be really strong next weekend, so I’m very confident for the championship.”
Anthony Martin (#8 Mazda/Burgess BLA – Cape Motorsports): “We were fighting really hard at the start. We struggled with the car a little bit during the race while Victor and the Juncos team had a really good car and really good race pace. He was just able to make the car stick in Turn One and get around, and I couldn’t stay with him. We were fast all weekend so it’s a shame to finish it like that, but we took good points, and he’s only two points ahead. It doesn’t matter who’s ahead and who’s behind, you go in to win the race. At this point, I have to get all the points I can so you forget the championship, really. You have to win, there’s nothing else. I’m going to go into the last two races striving to do my best. Anything can happen at Watkins Glen so we’ll go in with guns blazing.”
Carlos Cunha (#81 Team Pelfrey): “I think ovals are amazing! I thought it would be easy but when we came here for the test two weeks ago, I realized it would not be easy. I actually touched the wall twice during the race. You need to be technical all the time and tell the engineers the right things because the car is the most important. You have to drive on the limit and you get what you get – and for us, that was third place today. Victor and Anthony had better place but for my first oval, it was good. I had no mistakes and we finished on the podium. I’m really excited to do another oval.”

Urrutia Wins a Thriller on Indy Lights Return to Gateway Motorsports Park 

Fourth-place Finish Means Kaiser Merely Needs to Start Practice at Finale
MADISON, Ill. – Santi Urrutia claimed a last-gasp victory in this evening’s Mazda St. Louis Indy Lights Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires at the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park oval. The Uruguayan’s second win of the season for Belardi Auto Racing came after a tense battle with fellow South American Juan Piedrahita, who started from the pole position for Team Pelfrey but had to be content with a career-best second place finish.
Second-generation Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires racer Colton Herta finished third for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, narrowly ahead of fellow Californian Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing). The result means Kaiser merely needs to take the green flag for practice at next weekend’s season finale on the Watkins Glen International road circuit in upstate New York to put the coveted championship title beyond the reach of his rivals and secure a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million which will guarantee him entry into three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
Indy Lights’ return to Gateway Motorsports Park following a 14-year absence proved to be a huge success as the large and appreciative crowd was treated to a thrilling 75-lap race.
Both Urrutia and Herta, who arrived at Gateway tied for second place in the championship, knew they needed to win the two remaining races to have any chance of beating Kaiser to the crown. In short, it was a long shot.
Urrutia, who lost out on the 2016 title in heartbreaking style at the season finale, did his level best to secure the additional championship point for pole position, only to be denied by series veteran Piedrahita – by a scant 0.006 of a second. Nevertheless, he knew his dream was still alive when he lined up on the front row of the grid.
The opening stages were marred by a succession of incidents. Aaron Telitz, last year’s winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, was particularly unfortunate when his Soul Red Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-Mazda was collected by a couple of spinners on the very first lap.
When the race finally got under way, with Piedrahita narrowly maintaining his advantage, Kaiser laid clean his intentions by passing Urrutia for second place around the outside in Turn Two. He didn’t hold it for long as Urrutia repaid the favor on Lap 15 and immediately began to pressure Piedrahita for the lead.
Kaiser, meanwhile, soon slipped back into the clutches of a battling Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), Herta – who earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award, Kaiser’s teammate Nico Dapero and Matheus Leist (Carlin), who had won the two previous ovals raced this season and quickly fought his way up from a lowly 12th on the grid.
Urrutia finally found a chink in Piedrahita’s armor on Lap 42, when he sliced past on the exit of Turn Four, but by then he had already lost any chance of gaining one of the other bonus points – for leading most laps. A little later in the race, on Lap 61, Zachary Claman DeMelo (Carlin) put the final bonus point – for fastest race lap – beyond Urrutia’s reach when he turned a lap in 28.0370 seconds, an average speed of 160.502 mph.
Still, Urrutia had eked out a margin of almost 1.5 seconds with 15 laps remaining, so at least the race win seemed to be well within his grasp. Furthermore, by then Kaiser had been overtaken firstly by Jamin and then by Leist and DeMelo.
But then the complexion of the race changed again when Carlin teammates Neil Alberico and Garth Rickards, who were battling for the 11th position, tangled with the slower car of debutant Chad Boat (Belardi Auto Racing), who earned the Staubli Award.
Officials wisely displayed the red flag while the wreckage was cleared away, leaving enough time for what was expected to be a five-lap shootout to the checkered flag. Piedrahita promptly made an opportunistic move around the outside of Urrutia at the restart, only for the yellows to fly again following an incident involving the third and fourth-placed cars of Jamin and Leist.
The green flew again with just three laps remaining. Urrutia knew it was now or never. He and Piedrahita battled side by side for almost two full laps before Urrutia completed the pass and sped away to a brilliant victory. Herta emerged in third, while Kaiser, who narrowly escaped becoming embroiled in the drama, crossed the line in fourth to ensure that his own dream was almost accomplished.
Kaiser now holds an unassailable 31-point edge as the series heads to Watkins Glen next weekend, although he will still need to turn up and practice for the race in order to be assured of the championship spoils.
The Team Championship remains more finely poised, with Andretti Autosport holding a 11-point lead, 364-353, over Belardi Auto Racing. Last year’s champions Carlin now trail in third on 345 points.
Santi Urrutia (#5 Belardi Auto Racing w/SPM): “It was one of the best races of the year – competitive, clean and really exciting. It was good racing against Juan. He was quicker than me on the straight and I was better in Turns One and Two so when he made a small mistake in Turn One, I was able to get past. When the red came out, I was worried because I thought he would be able to pass me on the restart. When that happened, I knew it was my last chance and I had to try to get by. I’m happy – I did what I had to do today; the rest was out of our control. We had a difficult start to the season but the second half we have been really strong, and I hope races like this will help me be in IndyCar next year.”
Juan Piedrahita (#2 Petrosur-Team Pelfrey): “There were two perfect cars this weekend: my car and Santi’s car. It just happened that his car was perfect in Turns One and Two and my car was perfect in Turns Three and Four, so we could get a run on each other but not hold it. I gave it my all today. It feels awesome to be up front, but I’m heartbroken not to get the win for the team. But Santi did a great job. I kept hoping the race would end, because it was so difficult mentally. I didn’t know what he was going to do. I had a run on him, then he had a run on me – it was crazy. We both did a great job and I hope I can get the win at Watkins Glen.”
Colton Herta (#98 Deltro Energy Mazda-Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing): “It was discombobulating, between the yellows and the red flag, so it was a tough race, but I also think it was one of the best races of the year. We came into the red flag in seventh and made some good moves on the restart. I think if we had a few more laps we could have challenged for the win. The year has gone so quickly, and I’m happy with what we’ve done this year. I didn’t expect to be in the title chase our first year; we planned on a two-year program. So we’re ahead of the game.”
—–
Pos Car # Driver Diff Laps Status
1 5 Santi Urrutia –.—- 75 Running
2 2 Juan Piedrahita 0.4518 75 Running
3 98 Colton Herta – R 0.9641 75 Running
4 18 Kyle Kaiser 2.5437 75 Running
5 31 Nicolas Dapero – R 3.0843 75 Running
6 13 Zachary Claman de Melo 3.1337 75 Running
7 28 Dalton Kellett 4.1024 75 Running
8 48 Ryan Norman – R 6.4154 75 Running
9 51 Shelby Blackstock 74 Running
10 26 Matheus Leist – R 73 Running
11 27 Nico Jamin – R 68 Running
12 22 Neil Alberico 61 Contact
13 11 Garth Rickards – R 61 Contact
14 84 Chad Boat – R 58 Contact
15 9 Aaron Telitz – R 1 Contact

Meet the Contenders: Matheus Leist

Meet the Contenders: Matheus Leist

Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist made his mark in his debut season of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. With two races remaining, the teenager is in mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing and still has an outside chance of winning the championship for the Carlin team.

To say that this has already been an epic year for Matheus Leist might be an understatement. The 19-year-old Brazilian came to the United States after winning the BRDC British Formula 3 title, joining 2016 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champions Carlin. A year after he took that championship, he lies fourth in the 2017 title chase, 48 points back, with an outstanding rookie season that saw him earn victories on two ovals, including the prestigious Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Add to that a test in an Indy car, and this has been a season to remember as Leist inches closer to his dream: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Leist might have been a new name in America at the start of the season but he was already well known to the Carlin team, having earned the British F3 title over Carlin driver Ricky Collard. With the team’s championship-winning driver, Ed Jones, graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series, Trevor Carlin’s eponymous team searched for a new driver to bring to the U.S. and looked no further than the driver who had cost them the F3 championship. Leist knew he had a significant mountain to climb with learning a new team, a new car and an entire series worth of new racetracks – in a new country.

Matheus Leist is one of three drivers in contention for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire title. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I knew a few of the Carlin guys from last year” said Leist, “so it was not hard at all to get used to the team. It was much more about getting used to the car, the tires and the tracks and just living in America. The team has helped me so much this year, to improve and to grow as a driver. I felt comfortable with them from the first day. It’s not just about the racing, it’s about being friends as well. I have a great relationship with my engineer Steve Barker and my mechanics Ryan Lall and Rob Hothi. We’re good friends away from the racetrack. I have a great relationship with my teammates as well. I live near Miami Beach, only about an hour from the Carlin shop, so I can go up to the workshop, hang out with them and do some simulator work, which is nice.”

The series schedule pushed Leist into the deep end of the pool at the outset, with his first race in America taking place in the narrow confines of St. Petersburg, Fla. Leist qualified a promising fourth for the opening double-header, but mechanical issues in both races meant he finished back in the field. He showed more form at Barber Motorsports Park, finishing fourth and seventh in the two races on the fast and flowing road course. He arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway hoping to turn things around, but it was a well-timed conversation with Carlin team manager Colin Hale that really began to change his mindset.

“In the first qualifying session at the grand prix I was ninth and I thought ‘my God, I’m lost.’ Colin called me into the office and told me that he knew I could be up there, that I could be better than I was showing. From there, I did the fastest lap in Race One, qualified third for Saturday’s race and finished third to earn my first podium.”

Later that month came the series’ marquee event: The Freedom 100, held on Carb Day ahead of the Indianapolis 500. It would be Leist’s first race on an oval, but anyone who expected him to be intimidated could not have been familiar with either the young Brazilian’s demeanor or the oval aptitude of the Carlin team.

“It was so crazy, my first time racing on an oval. I remembered seeing interviews with some of the European drivers saying that they would never race on an oval, that it was crazy. It is crazy, but only a little bit! The first day at Homestead was a bit difficult but it was exciting. It was so fast and so fun. To be honest, after this summer, I’d rather race on an oval than a road course. That’s crazy.

“The car was just perfect that whole week at Indianapolis and I felt very comfortable,” Leist continued. “Everything was perfect. From the first lap of practice to the green flag at the Freedom 100, we did not make any changes to the car – it was just sit down and drive. I was very relaxed the morning of the race. I told my father that it would be a very tough race, because there had been so many passes in the previous years. I was on pole but I did not expect to be out front all race. And then I led every lap and won the race. It was just unbelievable for everyone, with all the people in Victory Lane. I felt like I was dreaming.”

With his Freedom 100 success fresh in his mind, Leist qualified a disappointing 10th for the second oval race of the year, at the .894-mile Iowa Speedway. In hindsight, his sudden appearance at the front of the field at the restart should probably not have been a surprise.

“The week before the race, I watched a lot of races from past years and everyone was saying that you needed to qualify up front because it was so difficult to overtake. When I qualified 10th I thought ‘what am I supposed to do now?’ I was trying to pass another car about 15 laps into the race and I couldn’t get by, so I tried the high line and it worked very well. Coming back to the restart after the yellow, I stayed high and overtook two or three cars in Turn Two. I figured out from there how to win and I think it was one of the best races of my life. It was really cool.”

Before Indy, Leist was 10th in the championship, 52 points out of the lead. But with the podium at the grand prix, the victory in the Freedom 100 and another win on the road course at Road America, Leist found himself in the thick of the title chase, up to second position and only 21 points out. Heading to Gateway, he lies fourth, 48 points behind. It’s a slim chance, but a chance nonetheless.

“I was last in the championship coming away from St. Pete and it seemed impossible. I was still figuring out how to drive the car at Barber and getting used to the longer races, and everything changed at Indy. I started dreaming of the championship. I still think I can win, even though it is difficult. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs this season but I do think it’s been impressive, with the important races we’ve won – especially the two ovals. It doesn’t matter if we win or not, we’ve already done many good things.”

Matheus Leist leads the field at Road America (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Among those “good things” in 2017 was a test of Andretti Autosport’s Indy car at Road America in June. It was almost a surreal moment for Leist, realizing just how far he had come in such a short amount of time.

“It’s crazy to think about it. Colin reminds me that last year at this time I was driving British Formula 3 at Oulton Park, and this year I won the Freedom 100 and tested an Indy car! It was another dream come true for me, it was so amazing. I remember being young and my brother and I talking about IndyCar and Formula One and now I was driving one of those cars. It makes me want to move forward and do my best, to impress people so I can one day be winning the Verizon IndyCar Series championship and the Indy 500.”

Meet the Contenders: Santi Urrutia

Santi Urrutia – Photo By INDYCAR
Driving for Belardi Auto Racing, Santi Urrutia enters the final two races of the season tied for second place in the standings with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta and within mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.
Santiago “Santi” Urrutia came into the 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires as one of the favorites for the championship after finishing an agonizingly close second in 2016. But his title aspirations were dealt a blow in November, when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, with which he had signed a two-year contract, announced its withdrawal from the series. Enter Belardi Auto Racing, which, with help from SPM, honored the second year of Urrutia’s contract and set him back on track.
The team experienced its share of growing pains early on, with Urrutia capturing only two podium finishes in the first seven races. But they have roared back in the second half, taking four podiums and a victory in the last six events to put Urrutia 42 points back of title leader Kyle Kaiser with two races remaining. That the 20-year-old Uruguayan not only survived but thrived under the tutelage of Brian Belardi’s eponymous team is a testament not only to the team’s championship pedigree, but to Urrutia’s passion and determination to reach his goal: the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Urrutia appreciates the chance the 2014 champions gave him to return to the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires in 2017.
“It was difficult at the beginning,” Urrutia acknowledged.” I wanted to do my second year with Schmidt but Brian gave me a chance to race with his team and that was big. He believes in me and helped me race with them. Everything was new in the beginning, since I didn’t know anyone on the team. As soon as I adapted to the way they work, everything was okay.”
Not only was the team new, but so were the teammates – sophomore Shelby Blackstock and rookie Aaron Telitz, who succeeded Urrutia by winning the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last season. Telitz scored the first victory of the season but it took the team chemistry a bit longer to get off the ground – though becoming accustomed to the atmosphere in the United States also has demanded some adaptation for the intense young driver.
“Just like with the mechanics and engineers, it took a while for us to figure it out, but once we did, it really worked. Shelby and Aaron are really good guys. We go out to dinner and talk not just about motorsports but about life. It’s gotten stronger all season and I’m really glad to have them as teammates. We help each other make the cars quicker. Coming from Europe, where the atmosphere is colder, you don’t have relationships with other teams or other drivers. It took me a little while to understand how it is here in America but now I realize how friendly it is, that you can talk to other drivers. I know people still call me ‘ice man’ here, probably because I don’t smile so much, but when I win, I’m happy.”
Urrutia’s season took off at Road America, where he came back from an 11th-place starting position to finish second. He repeated the feat at Iowa, making a nail-biting storm up through the field. But it was the Mid-Ohio weekend last month that cemented his resurgence, as Urrutia took a victory from pole and a second place to close the gap to Kaiser. He knows it’s going to be tough overhauling Kaiser with only two races remaining, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to try.
“The goal for the season was to win the championship, but it’s been a tough year. We’ve had weekends with good luck, weekends with bad luck, but we always turned things around. The team never gave up and worked hard, and when you work, the results will come to you. That’s been the key, to put everything together. We’ve gotten wins and pole positions in the second half of the season. I’ve been here in America for three years and, for the third time in a row, I get to fight for the championship. There are two races left to go and who knows what happens from here? We’re stronger than ever and I know it’s going to be difficult for us to win the championship but our goal is to win the next two races then see what happens.
“Each of these last two races will be like a final. We had a good car at the Gateway test so we should be good for the race. And I had the pole at Watkins Glen last year so I think I’m in a good position, the best position I’ve been in this year.”
One constant for Urrutia from last season has been his engineer, Tim Neff. After earning five Indy Lights championships in 17 years with SPM, Neff has a close relationship with Urrutia, who feels the pair have a unique kind of communication.
“I really trust Tim. I don’t have a lot of friends in racing and I can call him my friend. I believe in him and we have a really good relationship. If he makes a mistake, he tells me – and if I make a mistake, I tell him what I did. I can work closely with him and he really helps me. I know he’ll give me 100 percent to make the car as quick as he can, and he knows I’ll drive it as fast as I can. I’m really glad that we were able to do a deal for this year and I hope that if I go to IndyCar I can bring him with me.”
Neff is not the only source of advice for Urrutia, who has made friends with several drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, including fellow South Americans Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. The veteran drivers certainly have a wealth of knowledge about life on the IndyCar circuit to impart.
“I have had a lot of conversations with Helio – he lives in Miami as well, so we’re on the same plane quite a bit. He’s a good guy and he’s given me a lot of tips about racing, about life, about everything. He’s very talented and I really respect him. Juan Montoya was always my favorite driver, and I’ve had many chances to talk to him as well. I really enjoy when he’s on track and around the paddock, so I hope he’ll be at the Indy 500 next year.”
Urrutia holds a special place in the hearts of race fans in his home country. Fans in soccer-mad Uruguay remember another young talent that made his way to IndyCar – Gonzalo Rodriguez, who, tragically, lost his life at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 1999, during his first race weekend with Team Penske. Urrutia was barely 3 years old when Rodriguez died but he knows that Rodriguez paved the way he hopes to follow. He also appreciates the passionate support he receives from his fans, who can be found waving Uruguayan flags at races all over the United States.
“It’s great for the Mazda Road to Indy and for IndyCar to be able to see the support that they have from my country. As you can see from social media, they’re always responding. But it’s not only from the people – I’ve met the president many times and my biggest sponsor is from Uruguay so it means a lot to me to have that support. People are always posting things about me, people come to the airport when I go home, I have lots of interviews. It’s a country that is all about soccer but people are learning more about motorsports and they hope to see another driver in the biggest league, like Gonzalo Rodriguez did in 1999. It’s great for everyone.”
Urrutia recently held a press conference in Uruguay announcing his intention to graduate to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 – with or without the Mazda Scholarship awarded to the Indy Lights champion. With a little help, Urrutia says, he will make it happen. And for those who have come to recognize his grit and determination, few would bet against him.
“I’m already working on next year. Fans at home and fans here in America want to see me in IndyCar next year and we’re working hard toward it. I know it won’t be easy, especially if we don’t win the scholarship, but it’s not impossible. I’m talking to sponsors and to teams, so we’ll see what we can put together. I hope I’ll be able to announce something by the end of the year.”

Meet the Contenders: Kyle Kaiser

Photo Credit INDYCAR

Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing currently leads the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship standings with two races remaining at Gateway Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International. Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) lie 42 points in arrears with the remaining championship contender, Matheus Leist (Carlin), at 48 points.
Kyle Kaiser knew this would be his best and, perhaps, last chance. 2017 marked his third Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires campaign, so it was a “now or never” scenario that presented itself to the 21-year-old Californian as the season began. Kaiser and his Juncos Racing team proceeded to spend the bulk of the year doing exactly what it took to take, then maintain, the championship lead, placing him on the cusp of realizing his dream: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.
“It’s everything I’ve been working toward since I joined the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Kaiser. “I have yet to win a championship and the Mazda scholarship, so it would mean that all the hard work over the past five years has, well, not paid off exactly, but it means my name would be etched in the history books. That affirmation would mean a lot.”
That Kaiser is in this position now is a testament to his hard work. Making the jump from karting to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with only a season in the Formula Car Challenge to help in the transition, Kaiser signed with Juncos Racing for his second season in 2014 as teammate to good friend Spencer Pigot. With a front-row seat for Pigot’s championship-winning run, Kaiser finished sixth in the title chase and earned his first MRTI victory at the season finale in Sonoma. He graduated with Pigot to Indy Lights the following year and was once again wing man to Pigot’s title run. He became the Juncos team leader and championship contender last season, finishing third with three poles and two wins to his credit. Kaiser came into the 2017 season knowing that the time was now if he wanted to claim that elusive title.
However, the season did not start off as planned, with Kaiser earning a sixth and a fourth-place finish in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. (compared with a third and a second in 2016). The team regrouped and the learning experience set the tone for the season.
“This is my third year in the series so this was the year to get the championship. I have enough experience and I needed to go out and show what I could do. The St. Pete weekend was almost a wake-up call, since we didn’t do all that well – especially compared to last year. We had to figure things out and really make a push. Barber was much better, with a pole and two seconds. We found our rhythm so we knew we could make a run at the title and that was the focus from that moment on.”
Kaiser went on a four-race run after St. Pete that included two pole positions, four podium finishes and a victory on the road course at Indianapolis to mount a 13-point lead in the championship. He took podiums in four of the next six races, including a sweep of both races in Toronto that meant he holds the distinction of being the only current driver to score series victories on all three genres of race track (ovals, road courses and street courses). Kaiser believes the accomplishment really shows the amount of progress he has made in the series – an accomplishment made even more impressive by the depth of the Indy Lights field.
“I’m proud of the fact that I have won on all three disciplines. I think INDYCAR owners look for that sort of trait, to be versatile enough to win on any type of circuit. Toronto was my first double win and my first win on a street course. It meant a lot, since it’s almost like a home race because I have so much family there. But everything has really come together this year – mentally, attitude-wise and experience. All that came together this year to help me get more out of the car.
“Drivers come from all over the world to compete in Indy Lights, so you’re racing against some really good drivers,” Kaiser continued. “We get a good amount of seat time each weekend and I think my race craft has really improved. That’s why I wanted to stay in the series for three years. I wanted to get to the point where, after my last Indy Lights race, I would feel 100 percent ready to get into an Indy car. I’m proud of my progression over the past five years: not just in the results but in my driving. For example, I couldn’t get a pole my first couple of years, but this year I have three. I’ve gotten more aggressive as well, but smartly aggressive. Those are two areas I really wanted to improve upon, and I have.”
Ricardo Juncos’ eponymous team is well-known for the importance placed in driver development. Kaiser was no stranger to the classroom environment in the Juncos shop, now residing on Main Street in downtown Speedway, Ind. This development, coupled with the relationships established over the past four years, made the decision to stay with the team for his entire Indy Lights career a very easy one.
“The best thing is since I’m in Indy now, I can spend more time at the shop. So during that early stretch, I was there a lot, in meetings, talking to Ricardo, my coach and my engineers. It wasn’t about the big picture at that point, it was just a race-by-race focus on what it took to be the fastest car going into each weekend. We did a great job in pre-race so when we got to the track, we were quick right out of the gate. We didn’t worry about anyone else, we just focused on ourselves. And the execution was really good. Our best weekends were the ones where we did all our work ahead of time.
“It’s a huge benefit to me and that’s why I keep coming back. I love the group of guys, I trust everything they do and I know they’re going to be honest in their feedback to me regarding what I need to do to be better. Having that trust and that level of relationship is why I’ve had this kind of progression, and why I haven’t felt the pressure that much this year. We focus on having the fastest car in every session and what happens, happens. When things get tough, that’s invaluable. The championship lead had really been cut going into Toronto, so we focused on what we knew how to do – and we were quick right out of the gate, won both races and got the lead back. We’ll go into Gateway and Watkins Glen with that same mentality; that we took a hit at the previous race but we’re going to come back and execute the same way we did before.”
As Kaiser looks back over the past three years in the series, he remembers himself as the young driver who shadowed his championship-winning teammate inexorably moving up to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing. Through the lens of experience, he wishes there were a few words of wisdom he could have imparted on that impatient youngster.
“Focus on yourself and don’t worry about anyone else – that would be my number one piece of advice. I compared myself to Spencer and all the experience he had and tried too hard to keep up with that instead of focusing on my own driving. I didn’t feel as though I wasn’t ready; I was just trying too hard to make an impression. I won’t make that mistake again.”

Meet the Contenders: Oliver Askew

Photo Courtesy USF2000 PR – INDYCAR Image!

Oliver Askew of Cape Motorsports and Rinus VeeKay of Pabst Racing are separated by 13 points in the battle for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda crown entering the season finale at Watkins Glen International to be held September 2.
As Oliver Askew looked out over the sea of impossibly earnest Team USA Scholarship candidates last month at Mid-Ohio, his mind couldn’t help but go back one year in time. In July of 2016, Askew stood among 10 other candidates vying for two positions on the team heading to England for the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy – and the chance to compete against some of the best young formula racers in the world. But also dangling in front of those young American racers was the opportunity of a lifetime: a ticket to the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the chance to earn a seat in the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
“It really hit me when I saw all of the kids dressed nice and introducing themselves,” said Askew. “I was in that exact position last year. I felt it was important for me to try and let them know what to expect, because I remember not having any idea of what was happening. I let them know what to expect, what they should do and how they should talk to people. It’s a lot of pressure.
“Everything was so new last year,” continued Askew. “I walked through the USF2000 paddock and I thought ‘this is going to take a lot of work but this is where I want to be next year.’ I remember standing in front of the Cape Motorsports transporter in the paddock, and back then I didn’t realize how dominant they really were and how much knowledge they had. I just thought it was such a fantastic team and somewhere I would love to be. I saw Parker (Thompson) for the first time in four years, as we went our separate ways after racing together on the same karting team in 2012. He was leading the championship at that point and it really impressed me.”
By now, Askew’s story is well-known: the Jupiter, Florida karting sensation earned that Team USA Scholarship and impressed everyone with his poise and race craft during his two events in England, taking second at the Walter Hayes Trophy and challenging for second in the Formula Ford Festival Final until a punctured tire ended his day. Askew then bowled over the judges both on and off the track at the MRTI Shootout, taking the race victory and the $200K scholarship into the series this year.
“I knew that it could completely change my life, and I honestly didn’t think it would happen but it did! I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in right now without Mazda – and I know there are so many drivers out there who can say the exact same thing. There is no program like this in the world and I want to keep this relationship going. John Doonan is such a great person and really takes care of the scholarship drivers. Same thing for Jeremy Shaw with Team USA – he was the first person to really believe in me. And Art Wilmes, with Rising Star Racing. He really helps drivers. Racing takes so much money but there are people out there who want to work with young drivers, and Art has really taken me under his wing.”
But even Askew could not have predicted the kind of start he would have this season: seven wins (including six victories in the first seven races), seven pole positions and podium finishes in all but three of the 13 races. He holds a 13-point lead on Dutch rookie phenom Rinus VeeKay.
“A lot of people around me kept telling me not to put too much pressure on myself. Honestly, I didn’t think it was possible (to win the championship). I knew we would be competitive but this was my first full season in car racing and there was so much to learn. We did well in winter testing but we didn’t know how we compared to other teams until the series test at Homestead in March. It caught me off guard. It was a huge confidence booster for me and the team and really gave our season a kick start.
“Then, at St. Pete, I was expecting the second and third-year drivers to be on top after that round, and they were – but we were right there with them. We had a rough start to the weekend, because I tagged the wall in practice and only got a couple of laps in before qualifying. But we qualified third and second for the two races, and finished second and first. We won Barber and IMS and dominated, which was a serious statement that we were here to play. Then, it felt like a bigger deal, that maybe we could win the title. My car was just on rails at those two tracks. I was so comfortable.”
The Indianapolis round also marked a milestone for young Askew. Back in 2010, as a 13-year-old karter, Askew was headed to the Rotax Grand Nationals in New Castle, Ind., and his karting team made a stop at the famed Brickyard for a tour – and posed for photos in a spot he would revisit under very different circumstances seven years later.
“Before we headed to the karting event, we stopped at the Speedway. We did the tour – the bus around the track, everything. They took us to the podium, and there is a photo of me at 13 years old standing on the podium with my karting team and hoping that one day I could be there, holding up a trophy. When I did, it was amazing. And to be there under those circumstances, with a 60-point lead in the championship and having won five of six races, was incredible.”
But as every driver knows, there are good days and bad days, and no season is complete without a good measure of both. For Askew, the bad days hit the very next race weekend at Road America, where loose camber shims put him back in the field. He rebounded with a victory on his first oval at Iowa but got caught up in an incident between the two cars ahead of him at Toronto that again dented his points advantage. But Askew wisely believes that every impediment to success is a learning experience.
“I learned a lot about how to deal with setbacks, and how to bounce back. We came back immediately. Even at Mid-Ohio, I hit the wall in practice but qualified on pole. So I feel really confident that I can bounce back after doing it a few times this year. Even the situation I’m in now, with the points being so close, will help me in the future. I’m a firm believer in everything happening for a reason so you just have to make the best of it.”

With the single-race season finale at Watkins Glen looming large, Askew understandably prefers to focus on the things he can control and let the chips fall where they may.

“It would solidify my place on the Mazda Road to Indy and my career path. It would be my third scholarship in a year and a half, which is the kind of thing you dream of. I can’t believe that I’m in this situation – a year ago I was in the worst place of my life. I didn’t know if I could even continue racing so to be here, with the possibility of winning another scholarship and continuing my racing career, is surreal.”

Meet the Contenders: Rinus VeeKay

Rinus VeeKay of Pabst Racing and championship leader Oliver Askew of Cape Motorsports are separated by 13 points in the battle for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda crown entering the season finale at Watkins Glen International to be held September 2.
It was with great anticipation that the Tatuus USF-17 was revealed to the public last May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But for those paying attention, a second important announcement was made that day: Dutch karting sensation Rinus VeeKay announced his intent to join the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2017, in what would be his first year of racing cars.
Fast forward 15 months, and 16-year-old VeeKay lies a mere 13 points back of the series championship lead with only one race remaining: the season finale at the lightning-fast Watkins Glen International. For VeeKay, it will be the culmination of one of the most momentous years of his life.
The VeeKay family began thinking about racing in the United States when the then 12-year-old Rinus won a ticket to race in the Rotax MAX Challenge Grand Finals in New Orleans in 2013. They got to know Richard Boisclair, the president of MAXSpeed, who invited them to the Rotax MAX Challenge U.S Grand Nationals in 2015. VeeKay finished second in the championship and joined their driver development program, earning an invitation to the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Circuit of The Americas with Afterburner Autosport. He also tested with series champs Cape Motorsports.
The results of the test were a harbinger of things to come, as the young driver proved to be a quick study.
“I had never driven a car before, so I was pretty slow in the beginning,” VeeKay remembers. “But by the end of the weekend, I had the third-quickest time, behind two veterans. That was very cool. It was a great learning experience. The team would tell me ‘push harder’ but that was difficult, because I had never driven a car with wings. With the wings, you have more downforce so you can go quicker through a corner. As I got used to it, I went quicker and quicker until I had a spin. But being an F1 track, there was so much runoff, so it was okay.”
The test brought the USF2000 series firmly into VeeKay’s focus. He decided to wait until the time was right, both in regard to the new Tatuus USF-17 coming online, but also for VeeKay to wrap his head around the idea of racing cars in America. In the meantime, he signed with Anders Krohn and CoForce International – and it was Krohn who suggested that his real last name (van Kalmthout) might be a mouthful for American media.
“We waited until the new car came out, and I wanted to wait until I was a little bit older as well, so my mentality would be right for my first year in cars. We were looking for a management team here in America so someone suggested Anders Krohn, whom my Dad knew. My Dad used to race in a stock car series in Europe, and Anders raced Formula Ford on the same weekends. Early on, Anders suggested we think about my name. He speaks a bit of Dutch and even he couldn’t pronounce it very well! We tried just having it be ‘VK’ until a Dutch journalist spelled it out and we thought it looked good.”
VeeKay felt that the day of the USF-17 reveal was the best timing to announce his entry into the series, the first driver to announce entry in the new car. It was a huge moment for the young driver, to commit to a new country, a new series – and an entirely new racing genre. Now, he just needed a team.
“It was the right moment, with people watching the unveiling of the new car. It was the best way to let people here know who I was, and to let people know that I was coming into the series. It was a big weekend. We signed at first with Carlin Benik, but they pulled the plug on the program and we had to find a new team two days before the series’ pre-season test. Charles Crews is my manager and he knew the teams, so I tested with Pabst and Newman Wachs.
“It was the hardest decision of my life, but I went with Pabst. Tõnis Kasemets is a big reason – I really had a good relationship with him right away. And the team has been together for six years so they are like a well-oiled machine.”
VeeKay and the rest of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires began the season on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series. With drivers having problems dealing with the bump in Turn Three, track officials changed the corner’s configuration – just one more thing for the young VeeKay to get used to.
“We only had one practice before qualifying, and we had two yellow-flag laps in qualifying to get used to the new corner. I pushed and tagged the wall with my left rear so I qualified 14th. That was a pretty bad start, I thought. I drove safe for the second race and qualified third. Race One was my first rolling start! We were very quick – the car was so quick – and I took position after position. I finished third, which was so great in my first race.”
VeeKay continued that torrid pace through the early part of the season, earning four podiums in the first six races and settling into second place in the title chase behind Oliver Askew. His breakthrough victory came at a most opportune time: the home race for Oconomowoc, Wis.-based Pabst Racing. Starting third in Race One and from pole in Race Two, VeeKay made it an emotional sweep of both races at Road America.
“I love Road America – it has a European feel, like Spa-Francorchamps, but with an American atmosphere. When you drive, you can smell the barbecues. I knew it would be a hard weekend, with all the drafting, and it was a hard fight. The second race was less difficult just because the field was not so close together. But to win the race on the home track of Pabst Racing was so great. Tõnis was crying on the radio.”
VeeKay would add podium finishes in the next five races to close the gap to Askew significantly. Now comes the time where VeeKay shows the lessons gleaned during years of racing karts, racing with the kind of pressure that comes with the knowledge that a scholarship into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires is on the line.
“You start the race and just forget about everything else. Otherwise you can go crazy! Don’t worry about plans, just react to what’s happening. But to get 11 podiums in 13 races so far is a great year. It was a difficult beginning, but to get where we are now – I was reading on Twitter the other day, and I didn’t realize it, but I have never lost a position in a race. I have equaled my qualifying position, or moved up. It was the best start you can have in your first year in racing.
“And to drive every race in front of the IndyCar people is great. You can enjoy their races and learn from them, and the big teams can watch you. You’re all friends. The scholarship is such a special thing about the Mazda Road to Indy. And it’s all open – of course, we know Arie Luyendyk, but I’ve gotten to know Spencer Pigot and Simon Pagenaud this year, talking and getting tips. That’s what I like about America, how open it is.”
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