A thrilling climax to the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season is in store this weekend, September 9-11, during the Soul Red Finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.
No fewer than six championship aspirants – representing five different teams – battle it out for a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1M to ensure participation in at least three 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series events, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.
The top two protagonists, Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, from Uruguay, and Dubai, UAE-based Englishman Ed Jones, are separated by a solitary point after 16 races. An additional four competitors – Englishman Dean Stoneman, Puerto Rican Felix Serralles, Californian Kyle Kaiser and Ohioan Zach Veach – lie within 40 points of the championship lead with a total of 66 points available from the final pair of races which will comprise the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey Presented by Cooper Tires.
Indy Lights is the top rung on the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, which offers drivers an opportunity to progress from the grassroots of the sport to the pinnacle with scholarships at every level. California-born Spencer Pigot, who will contest the following week’s Verizon IndyCar Series finale at Sonoma Raceway, won four Mazda scholarships on his road to the top.
A total of 18 Indy Lights races have been held previously at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Pigot won both rounds of the double-header in 2015 on his way to the championship, marking a return to the venue for the first time since 2001, when NBCSN TV analyst Townsend Bell wrapped up the title with a victory. Current IndyCar star Scott Dixon achieved the same feat in 2000. Greg Moore ('95), Bryan Herta (‘93) also won at MRLS during their Indy Lights championship-winning campaigns.
Urrutia, 20, held a relatively comfortable 16-point advantage heading into last weekend’s race on the famed Watkins Glen International road course in upstate New York. He bolstered his hopes by qualifying on the pole (worth one championship point) for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian, but struggled in the race and eventually finished a distant 12th. His primary rival, Ed Jones (Carlin), bounced back from a disappointing series of races to finish second and all but erase Urrutia’s lead.
“Today we lost but we are still leading the championship by one point,” stated Urrutia immediately after the race at Watkins Glen. “Everything is going to finish at Mazda Raceway next week so we are going to go with the same mindset that we came here – and that is to win – so we are going to go for pole position and to win both races.”
Urrutia has fond memories of the 11-turn, 2.238-mile California road course after claiming a pair of second-place finishes one year ago to wrap up the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and guarantee his graduation onto the next rung of the Mazda Road to Indy.
Jones, 21, finished third and fourth at Mazda Raceway during his rookie campaign in 2015 and, after holding the points lead for much of the summer, now has momentum back on his side following a podium finish at Watkins Glen.
“I feel like with the pace we’ve had this year and our qualifying record, I’ve kind of under-performed in the races,” admitted Jones, who has claimed seven pole positions this year. “I feel like I’ve sorted that out over the summer break. When we have a good run in qualifying and our speed’s right, no one can really match us. So I’m really confident going into [Mazda Raceway]. We had a fast car there last year and we should be really strong again.”
Stoneman (Andretti Autosport), who is taking part in his first-ever season of racing in North America, also struggled at Watkins Glen but showed his road course prowess with a pair of wins last month at Mid-Ohio.
Serralles (Carlin) also has won twice this year, while Kaiser (Juncos Racing), from Santa Clara, Calif., has high expectations at his home track and is looking to add to his solitary victory at Phoenix in April.
Veach, meanwhile, claimed the victory last weekend for Belardi Auto Racing – his second win of the season – but later was assessed a 10-point penalty for failing post-race technical inspection (floor height), dropping him from fourth to sixth in the title chase. He now lies 41 points adrift of Urrutia. The team was also assessed a 10-point penalty, as was Zachary Claman De Melo of Juncos Racing following an incident with Serralles on the opening lap that violated his driver probation.
Other contenders looking to finish the season on a high note include another local driver, Neil Alberico (Carlin), from Los Gatos, who charged from 12th to fifth at Watkins Glen; Brazilian Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson), who is riding a streak of four podium finishes; Canadian Garett Grist (Team Pelfrey), who won both Pro Mazda races at the track in 2015; and new teammate Sean Rayhall, who will make his first Indy Lights start since claiming two wins and a pair of seconds from just nine races in 2015, including a second-place run at Mazda Raceway.
In addition, oval short track standout Davey Hamilton Jr., from Boise, Idaho, will make his Indy Lights debut with McCormack Motorsports.
The Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Monterey Presented by Cooper Tires will begin with a pair of 30-minute practice sessions on Friday, September 9, followed by qualifying on Saturday morning. The first 40-minute “sprint” race will start at 3:00 p.m. on Saturday with the season finale “feature” event slated for 1:10 p.m. on Sunday. All times are PDT. Live timing and streaming video of all sessions will be available at indylights.com, indycar.com and on the Road To Indy TV App. The race will air September 23 on NBCSN, with coverage commencing at 1:30 pm EDT.