Matheus Leist led from pole position to checkered flag in the Freedom 100 to earn a well-deserved maiden Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory.
But this was no walkover for the Carlin team’s Brazilian rookie, who came under intense pressure from several other contenders during an exciting 40-lap, 100-mile race in front of a bumper crowd on Carb Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fellow rookie Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) barely edged Canadian Dalton Kellett (Andretti Autosport) for second place on the run to the flag.
Weather conditions were markedly improved over yesterday, when persistent rain forced qualifying to be delayed for more than four hours. Instead sunny skies and warm temperatures greeted the talented field of 14 drivers as they assembled on the historic Brickyard oval.
After country music star (and mother of Indy Lights racer Shelby Blackstock) Reba McEntire’s rousing rendition of the National Anthem, the action began early as Canadian Zachary Claman DeMelo made a storming start from fifth on the grid to tuck in behind Carlin teammate Leist at Turn One. Behind, Kellett also got a run on Colton Herta, who started on the front row for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing. Unfortunately, in trying to hold off Kellett at Turn Two, Herta barely clipped his teammate’s front wing which in turn tipped him into a spin. Worse, teammate Ryan Norman, from Aurora, Ohio, who had qualified a fine fourth, was unable to avoid the spinning #98 car. Exit two contenders even before the field was fully up to speed.
After five laps of caution to clear away the wreckage, Leist held on to his advantage over Claman DeMelo at the restart, followed by the third Carlin Dallara-Mazda IL-15 of Neil Alberico, who leapfrogged Kellett with a bold outside line pass into Turn One.
The race soon settled into a rhythm with Leist turning consistent laps at an average speed of around 195 mph at the head of the field. Claman DeMelo held onto second until Lap 13, when Kellett drafted past his countryman on the inside line at Turn Three. Telitz took advantage of Claman DeMelo’s slight loss of momentum to move into third, then, on Lap 19, second when he drafted past Kellett on the entrance to Turn Three.
Six cars ran virtually nose to tail for the majority of the race, with Leist holding onto the lead ahead of Telitz, Kellett, Alberico, Claman DeMelo and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), who, after starting 12th, moved up steadily through the pack during the middle portion of the race to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Telitz, too, was looking especially racy. Last year’s winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires made his first challenge for the lead on Lap 30, only to be rebuffed, then tried again a couple of laps later – around the outside at Turn One. Leist barely clung onto the lead as they sped into Turn Two, whereupon Telitz tried again at Turn Three. Once again, Leist held his ground, leaving Telitz to lose a little valuable momentum – and a position – to Kellett.
That was as close as anyone got to usurping the 18-year-old Brazilian, who held on to claim the win. After finishing a career-best third in last year’s Freedom 100, Kellett was unable to make a move on Leist in the final stages, and instead found himself passed on the run to the line by a fired-up Telitz.
Alberico maintained his strong run of recent finishes in fourth, while the expected challenge from Urrutia, who posted the fastest lap of the race at a new record of 198.104 mph, failed to materialize after he glanced the wall at Turn Two with a few laps remaining. Urrutia maintained control of his car and held on to finish fifth ahead of Claman DeMelo, who also brushed the wall in Turn One.