All three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires will be in action this weekend at the scenic Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course situated near Lexington, Ohio.
Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda are all nearing the climax of their seasons, with Mazda Scholarships up for grabs in all series to assist each of the champions in their quest to progress closer to their goal of a career in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
For the Indy Lights and USF2000 drivers, this weekend will mark the third different genre of race track they have encountered within the past month – competing firstly on the high-banked Iowa Speedway oval, then the sinuous, concrete wall-lined temporary road course within easy reach of bustling downtown Toronto, and now on the more forgiving but no less challenging 2.258-mile, 13-turn permanent road circuit in rural Ohio. Both series will host a pair of races, while the Pro Mazda campaigners – in action for the first time since Road America last month – will enjoy a triple-header event, all in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Kaiser Poised for Glory in Indy Lights
A dominant weekend for Kyle Kaiser two weeks ago in Toronto has taken the 21-year-old racer from Santa Clara, Calif., to the brink of his dream – an opportunity to win the Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million which will guarantee the Indy Lights champion entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series events in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500. Kaiser’s pair of victories for Juncos Racing, added to his earlier triumph at the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, have catapulted him to a commanding 51-point lead over rookie rival Matheus Leist with just four races remaining, and he could potentially lock up the championship this weekend.
“Coming into Mid Ohio this weekend with a big point lead is definitely unfamiliar territory in my experience, but I’m still treating it like any other race weekend,” says Kaiser. “We’ve had the lead since halfway through May and I haven’t changed my approach for any other races so I don’t feel the need to change anything now. Juncos Racing has done an incredible job making sure that we continue to focus solely on our own program every race weekend while simultaneously being aggressive on the race track and competing for race wins.”
Kaiser will have no shortage of challengers. Prime among them will be teenage rookies Leist, from Novo Hamburgo, Brazil, and Colton Herta, from Valencia, Calif.
Leist, 18, has made quite an impression by winning three times in his first season of racing in North America, although his capabilities were already well known by the Carlin team with which he won last year’s BRDC British Formula 3 Championship. Herta, meanwhile, who at age 17 became the youngest winner in Indy Lights history when he made the first of his two visits to the top step of the podium at St. Petersburg in March for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, has underlined his prowess by accumulating three pole positions and one fastest race lap from his four most recent races. Incidentally, Herta’s father, Bryan, counts Mid-Ohio among his most memorable venues after clinching the 1993 Indy Lights Championship in style with a home victory for the Dublin, Ohio-based Tasman Motorsports Group.
Other drivers among a high-quality field include Leist’s Carlin teammate Zachary Claman DeMelo, from Montreal, Que., Canada, who has one win and two additional podium visits in his four most recent starts; last year’s Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing), who finished a strong second at Toronto; teammate Santi Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, who won at Mid-Ohio on his way to claiming the Pro Mazda Championship in 2015 and followed up with a sweep of both Indy Lights races last year from the pole; and Frenchman Nico Jamin (Andretti Autosport), who notched a hat-trick of wins at Mid-Ohio on his way to the USF2000 title in 2015, then won both Pro Mazda races in 2016.
Eyes will also be on Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Norman, who will debut a new paint scheme in partnership with rock band Journey for his home race. Born in Cleveland and currently residing in Aurora, Norman has made several significant stops at Mid-Ohio. Moving from AMA and freestyle motocross to cars in 2014, Norman won the SCCA National Championship Runoffs in the Formula Atlantic class at Mid-Ohio in 2016. He went on to capture the Atlantic Championship Series title, earning 10 wins in 16 races including a victory and a third-place finish at Mid-Ohio.
The Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Powered by Mazda will start with a 45-minute practice session on Friday, July 28, followed by half-hour qualifying periods later that day at 1:30 p.m. EDT and another at 9:10 a.m. the following morning which will set the grids for the pair of races – one at 3:35 p.m. on Saturday and the other at 1:20 p.m. on Sunday, immediately prior to the Verizon IndyCar Series headline event.
Sunday’s race will feature same-day coverage on NBCSN at 11:30 pm EDT.
Franzoni, Martin Continue their Tussle for Pro Mazda Honors
The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, which is in the midst of a transition prior to the introduction of a brand-new, Mazda-powered Tatuus PM-18 engine-chassis combination for 2018, is only at the halfway stage. Six races are yet to be run, including a triple-header this weekend at Mid-Ohio. The chase for a Mazda Scholarship worth nearly $800,000 to assist the champion in the progression to Indy Lights, the top step of the Mazda Road to Indy, in 2018 is finely poised with Brazilian Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) and Australian Anthony Martin (Cape Motorsports) separated by just seven points.
Martin, who swept all three races at Mid-Ohio last year en route to winning the USF2000 championship and a Mazda Scholarship to progress into Pro Mazda, began his campaign by winning twice on the streets of St. Petersburg, but then at the Indianapolis Grand Prix had to play second fiddle to Franzoni who won both races handily. Franzoni was poised to do likewise last month at Road America, only to be caught out in qualifying for the second race, which meant he had to start from the back.
The 21-year-old from Sao Paulo, Brazil, charged all the way through to second place but was unable to find a way past Martin, and had to settle for the runner-up placing.
Their respective teams have both enjoyed success at Mid-Ohio in recent years, with Garett Grist claiming pole for both races with Juncos Racing in 2015 and Nico Jamin sweeping last year’s double-header for Cape Motorsports.
“It is going to be extremely difficult to finish ahead of Victor but I think going into Mid-Ohio I have a lot of confidence going off my results from last year in USF2000,” says Martin, 22, from Perth, Australia, as he seeks to emulate Matthew Brabham, who claimed successive USF2000 and Pro Mazda championship crowns in 2012 and 2013. “The Cape Motorsports boys obviously had some success last year in the Soul Red Pro Mazda, so I’m hoping to duplicate that result. My biggest goal is to close the gap or pass Victor for the championship hunt as this is really the ‘make or break’ weekend for us both. It will be tough and I am expecting some exciting racing once again from both of us.”
Californian TJ Fischer lies third in the title-chase and will be looking to rebound from a very promising but ultimately fruitless weekend at Road America where he led for the first time for Team Pelfrey and posted the fastest lap of the race before being ousted by a mechanical problem. Team Pelfrey, which has guided current Indy Lights drivers Santi Urrutia and Aaron Telitz to successive Pro Mazda championships in 2015 and 2016, also will field cars for Brazilian Carlos Cunha and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, who, for the first time, secured a pair of podium finishes at Road America.
The battle for the National Class is even closer than for the overall honors, with Kevin Davis, Charles Finelli and Brendan Puderbach separated by just one point. Davis, however, will be unable to make the trip to Mid-Ohio, leaving the FatBoy Racing! teammates to chase the honors, although veteran Bob Kaminsky will be looking to insert himself in the frame. Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., missed the opening two races of the season in his self-run car but has won two of the four races he has contested since then and lies only 11 points adrift of Finelli and Puderbach.
Competitors in the Cooper Tires Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Allied Building Products start their week with a pair of 40-minute test sessions on Thursday, July 27, followed by 30 minutes of official practice later in the afternoon. Qualifying for the first of three races will take place at 9:25 a.m. EDT on Friday, followed by Race One at 3:35 p.m. The grid for the final two races will be set during a separate qualifying session at 8:35 a.m. on Saturday with the green flag for Race Two set for 1:05 p.m. The grid for Race Three, at 10:20 a.m. on Sunday, July 30, will be set according to the second fastest lap posted by each driver in the second period of qualifying.
USF2000 Battle Intensifies Heading into the Final Three Races
A little more than two months ago, rookie Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., seemed to be cruising toward the USF2000 championship following a sequence of five consecutive victories for the Cape Motorsports team, which has won no fewer than 10 titles since the turn of the century, including six in a row. But his once emphatic 60-point advantage over fellow rookie Rinus VeeKay, from Hoofdorp, The Netherlands, has been trimmed to just 18 with three races remaining, including two this weekend at Mid-Ohio. A total of 99 points – and a coveted Mazda Scholarship to aid in the progression to Pro Mazda for 2018 – are still up for grabs.
The turnaround has occurred partly due to some misfortune for the 20-year-old, including a suspension failure at Road America and then being caught up in someone else’s accident last time out in Toronto, and partly to an impressive streak from VeeKay, who has finished on the podium in the six most recent races, including two wins at his Pabst Racing team’s home track, Road America.
“Yes, the points are close now, but as long as we keep doing what we have been doing all season and can stay clean, I have nothing to worry about,” asserts Askew, who is seeking a second straight Mazda Scholarship after winning the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy $200k USF2000 Shootout last fall. “Cape Motorsports has dominated at Mid-Ohio over the past couple of years so I know I’ll have another quick car underneath me. No matter what happens, I have thoroughly enjoyed the season thus far and I’ll keep fighting until it’s over. I stay extremely grateful for the opportunity Mazda Motorsports has set before me; every day in the position I am in now is a good day.”
“I’m really looking forward to Mid-Ohio,” says VeeKay, who in common with Askew had a strong pedigree in karting before making the move into cars – and specifically USF2000 – for the first time in 2017. “I'm feeling good to have closed the gap to Oliver the last pair of races but I want more. I know it’s going to be hard to beat the Capes and Oliver, but the Pabst Racing team and myself are going to give everything we have in the last events of this USF2000 season.”
The two main title protagonists have a healthy points lead over third-placed Parker Thompson, although it was the USF2000 veteran from Red Deer, Alb., Canada who took advantage of his prior experience and showed both of them the way home in Toronto by claiming the first two wins for new-for-2017 USF2000 team Exclusive Autosport. Thompson currently lies third in the championship.
Other likely front-runners will include VeeKay’s teammates, Calvin Ming, from Guyana, and Brazilian Lucas Kohl, both of whom also have prior experience at Mid-Ohio; the Team Pelfrey pair of Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., and Kaylen Frederick, from Potomac, Md.; and relative newcomer David Malukas, from Chicago Ridge, Ill., who has displayed prodigious pace with his BN Racing team’s Tatuus USF-17 during a partial rookie campaign. Malukas, in his first full season of car racing, also has been contesting the ADAC Formula 4 Championship in Europe.
Three more contenders will join the field this weekend in the form of Phillippe Denes, from Carmel, Calif., who will return to Team Pelfrey after making a strong USF2000 debut last year at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca before contesting four Pro Mazda races earlier this season; 17-year-old Mexican Andres Gutierrez (DEForce Racing), who was leading the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda sports car series before switching his focus back to open-wheel cars; and F4 regular Jacob Abel, from Louisville, Ky., who will make his debut in a second Newman Wachs Racing Tatuus, alongside Darren Keane, from Parkland, Fla., who finished fourth in the most recent race at Toronto.
Pabst Racing currently leads the Team Championship by 61 points over Cape Motorsports and could potentially clinch the title with a strong run this weekend.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Allied Building Products will commence on Thursday, July 27, with a pair of 40-minute test sessions followed by 30 minutes of official practice. The field then will contest a pair of 30-minute races, one at 12:30 p.m. EDT on Friday and the second at 12:10 p.m. on Saturday. The starting grids will be set by a dedicated 20-minute qualifying session earlier each day.
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.