One of the many attributes of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is the variety of challenges it places upon young drivers who are intent upon pursuing a career in the Verizon IndyCar Series. At no time during the season is that more apparent than this week.
Teams and drivers from two of the three feeder categories, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, will switch gears – quite literally – from the ultra-fast, high-banked Iowa Speedway oval, where they competed last Sunday, to the sinuous, concrete wall-lined temporary road course centered upon Exhibition Place, just a few miles away from bustling downtown Toronto. Both series will feature a pair of races in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Leist Looks to Continue Indy Lights Charge
The battle for a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million, which will guarantee the Indy Lights champion an opportunity to contest at least three Verizon IndyCar Series events in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, is intensifying. Only a few short weeks ago, series veteran Kyle Kaiser seemed to be extending his championship lead with each passing weekend. But now, following an impressive string of results, including three wins from his last four starts, highly touted Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist has whittled the Californian’s advantage down to just 13 points. Only four races will remain on the schedule following this weekend’s pair of rounds which comprise the Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Toronto Presented by Allied Building Products.
Now into his third year of Indy Lights with Juncos Racing, Kaiser, 21, from Santa Clara, Calif., has used his prior experience to good effect, finishing all but one of the 10 races so far this season among the top six. His tally includes one race win, on the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit, and five additional podium results.
Leist, 18, from Novo Hamburgo, Brazil, claimed his first podium finish, third, in the same event at Indianapolis, then two weeks later secured a stylish first victory in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Since then the Carlin driver has added a win and a fourth-place finish at Road America, plus a commanding drive to victory last weekend at Iowa Speedway.
In pursuit of the two primary contenders, Californian teenager (and second-generation Indy Lights contender) Colton Herta holds third place in the point standings for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, 22 points shy of Leist, while Andretti Autosport teammate and fellow rookie Nico Jamin, from Rouen, France (who won at Toronto in 2015 on his way to the USF2000 championship and finished on the podium in both Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races last year), is a further 12 points in arrears.
Uruguayan charger Santi Urrutia, who finished a close second in the 2016 Indy Lights title-chase, moved to within eight points of Jamin following a strong second-place finish last weekend in Iowa, despite starting 11th. His Belardi Auto Racing teammate, Aaron Telitz, who coincidentally followed in Urrutia’s footsteps by winning last year’s Pro Mazda championship, plus Montreal, Canada native Zachary Claman DeMelo, who scored an emphatic maiden victory for the Carlin team at Road America, and Carlin teammate Neil Alberico, from California, also remain in contention with the quartet separated by just a handful of points.
Each race win is worth 30 points, with additional single markers on offer for pole position, fastest race lap and leading most laps.
Toronto native Dalton Kellett also will be looking for another strong result for Andretti Autosport after securing two podium finishes in the past four races. A graduate of Queen’s University with a B.Sc Engineering Physics (Materials Option) degree, Kellett will have a strong contingent on hand for his home race.
His third-place run last weekend at Iowa enabled Andretti Autosport to remain tied on Team Championship points with defending champions Carlin, who are riding a four-race win streak.
After a single 30-minute practice session on Friday, July 14, and qualifying the following morning at 8:35 a.m. EDT, Race One will start later that same day at 1:00 p.m. A second qualifying session at 9:00 a.m. on Sunday will set the grid for Race Two at 12:15 p.m., which will air the following day at 7:00 p.m. EDT on NBCSN.
Askew and VeeKay Set to Continue USF2000 Rivalry
Rookies Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., and Rinus VeeKay, from The Netherlands, have proven to be a dominant force in this year’s USF2000 championship chase. Between them they have won eight of the nine races held so far this season, and on six occasions have stood together on the victory podium.
Askew, driving for the defending champion team Cape Motorsports, holds a significant edge with six race wins to the two for Pabst Racing’s VeeKay, and currently holds a healthy 32-point lead in the quest for a Mazda Scholarship worth almost $400,000 which will assist the eventual champion in graduating onto the next step of the MRTI ladder, Pro Mazda, in 2018. Both youngsters are currently taking part in their very first season of car racing after achieving tremendous success in the karting ranks.
Two more rookies, Kaylen Frederick, from Potomac, Md., representing Team Pelfrey, and VeeKay’s Pabst Racing teammate Calvin Ming, from Guyana, South America, hold down third and fifth in the points chase, sandwiching series veteran Parker Thompson.
Canadian favorite Thompson, 19, from Red Deer, Alb., who spearheads a popular program aimed at educating high school students about the dangers of distracted driving, scored an emotional victory last year on the Toronto streets and has high hopes of repeating that success with the series’ only Canadian-based team, Exclusive Autosport, who will also field entries for Prince Albert’s Jayson Clunie and Dev Gore of Atlanta.
Other top contenders from a cosmopolitan and ultra-competitive field will include teenager Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., who already has one win to his credit – in the season-opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. – and Frenchman Alexandre Baron, who last weekend at Iowa Speedway made an impressive, last-minute return to the series for ArmsUp Motorsports by finishing fourth, almost four years since winning a pair of races in just four starts at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and the Reliant Park temporary circuit in Houston, Texas. Brazilian Lucas Kohl, who claimed his first podium finish recently at Road America for Pabst Racing, Indian Ricky Donison (Cape Motorsports), and Chicagoan David Malukas, who impressed last month at Road America for BN Racing, also will expect to run among the leaders.
Jose Sierra Sandoval, 18, from Mexico City, a member of the Escuderia Telmex family of drivers who recently clinched second place in the NACAM Formula 4 Championship (behind Calvin Ming), will make his USF2000 debut aboard a third DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-17 alongside Mexican countryman Moises de la Vara and Kory Enders, from Warwick, New York.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Toronto Presented by Allied Building Products will commence on Friday, July 14 with a 30-minute practice, followed by the first of two qualifying sessions later in the afternoon which will set the grid for Race One on Saturday at 12:00 noon. A second qualifying period earlier in the morning will establish the starting positions for Race Two on Sunday at 9:40 a.m. All times are EDT.
Coverage of the Mazda Road to Indy can be found on a series of platforms including Road to Indy TV, the Road to Indy TV App and dedicated broadcast channels on demand via Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku and, most recently, the Xbox One Official App as well as live streaming and live timing on the series’ respective websites and indycar.com. Indy Lights is also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.