Much is at stake as two of the three steps on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder prepare for a brand-new challenge this weekend at the recently repaved Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.
Both series will hold races on Saturday evening in conjunction with the headline Bommarito Automotive Group 500 for the Verizon IndyCar Series, which will return for the first time since 2003.
Indy Lights also last visited the venue in 2003, while Pro Mazda will be making its debut appearance at the 1.25-mile oval situated just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, Mo.
Kaiser has his Eyes set on $1 Million Prize
A Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million, which will guarantee entry into three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500, is still up for grabs for this year’s Indy Lights champion.
Now in his third season of Indy Lights, Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser, 21, from Santa Clara, Calif., has opened up a commanding 42-point advantage over primary rivals Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing), who are currently tied for second place. Many different scenarios are possible with one more race remaining after this weekend – at the Watkins Glen International road course in upstate New York on September 2 – but the bottom line is that Kaiser will put the scholarship 100 percent out of reach if he finishes second on Saturday. With a third or fourth-place finish – and a win by Herta or Urrutia including the three bonus points for fastest race lap, pole position and most laps lead – Kaiser would merely need to qualify at Watkins Glen to wrap up the title.
"Going into Gateway, I feel very confident,” said Kaiser. “We had a really strong test day and I know we're going to have a good baseline starting the weekend. I know we have a car to win, so if everything falls in place that's the result I'm expecting. I'm aware of the championship implications but that isn't the focus for this race. I'm going to go out and drive the best I can and let the rest take care of itself."
And even if Kaiser strikes misfortune – as he did in the most recent race weekend at Mid-Ohio, where he claimed only a pair of disappointing 12th-place finishes – both Herta, from Valencia, Calif., and Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, would require at least a third-place finish, plus one of the available bonus points (for pole, leading most laps or fastest race lap) to maintain any hope of wresting away the top prize from Kaiser’s grasp.
Herta, with two wins and a season high six poles to his name, and Urrutia, whose win and second-place finish at Mid-Ohio helped to erase the memory of a disappointing early part of the season after finishing a close second in the 2016 title-chase, certainly have momentum on their side, but there is no shortage of other contenders trying to knock the top three off their perch.
Among them is Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist (Carlin), who also still has an outside chance of snatching the top prize. To do so he would need to win both of the last two races and secure at least one bonus point, then hope that Kaiser finished last on each occasion. While that might seem like a tall order, Leist scored emphatic victories in both of the previous two oval races this year – the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and at Iowa Speedway – then underscored his versatility by adding another win on the road course at Road America.
Canadian Zachary Claman DeMelo (Carlin), Frenchman Nico Jamin, winner of the 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda who has won three times this year for Andretti Autosport, and fellow rookie Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing), from Birchwood, Wis., who won last year’s Pro Mazda crown, also are within just 22 points of second place in the championship with two races remaining.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the experience spectrum, oval specialist Chad Boat will finally be making his Indy Lights debut for Belardi Auto Racing. Boat, 25, from Phoenix, Ariz., who has garnered success in sprint cars, midgets and stock cars, was originally scheduled to debut at Iowa Speedway in July, but was prevented from doing so by a short-track accident the previous weekend. Boat, whose father Billy made 11 Indy Lights (American Racing Series) starts in the 1980s, is now fully recuperated and eager to continue his progress from an encouraging test at Gateway last month.
After a single 45-minute practice session on Friday, August 25, competitors in the Mazda St. Louis Indy Lights Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires will qualify at 1:45 p.m. CDT on Saturday, and the 75-lap race will see the green flag at 6:00 p.m. The race will be broadcast on NBCSN at 12:00 pm EDT on Monday, August 28.
Martin Vs. Franzoni Rivalry Takes to the Oval
The battle for this year’s Pro Mazda crown, plus a Mazda Scholarship worth $790,300, looks like it will go down to the wire. After nine of 12 races, Australia’s Anthony Martin (Cape Motorsports) leads Brazilian Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) by a scant four-point margin. The pair has been separated by mere fractions of a second, and that trend looks set to be continued as they prepare for Saturday evening’s 55-lap St. Louis Pro Mazda Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires.
The series’ only visit to an oval track this season will mark its debut at Gateway Motorsports Park, and the only single-race event on the schedule. It promises to be an intriguing contest.
The season began with Martin, last year’s USF2000 series champion, sweeping both races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. Next time out, on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix circuit in Indiana, it was Franzoni’s turn to shine as he claimed a pair of comfortable victories. Since then the pair have shared the honors between them. Each won once at Road America, Wis., while the most recent triple-header round at Mid-Ohio was edged by Martin who claimed two wins to his rival’s one.
“My mindset is the same as Mid-Ohio – to maximize every championship point I can get,” said Martin. “I have to really focus on working with the team to make my car perfect from practice through to the race.
“We tested here two weeks ago,” continued Martin. “We learned a lot with the car and we were able to get faster and faster each session. The surface is brand new and it is soooooo smooth. It really is like a billiard table! I have never driven an oval that is high speed like this one so it is definitely different to be driving around corners at those speeds.”
The battle for third place in the overall championship also is being keenly fought – among Team Pelfrey teammates TJ Fischer, Carlos Cunha and Nikita Lastochkin, who are separated by just 16 points. Fischer, from Los Angeles, Calif., set out his stall early with four consecutive podium finishes, while rookies Cunha, from Campinas, Brazil, and Los Angeles-based Russian Lastochkin have made steady progress in their quest to challenge the leaders.
Payette, Idaho’s Sting Ray Robb, the youngest driver in the field at age 15, enjoyed the most competitive outing of his rookie season in the most recent race at Mid-Ohio, where he finished a strong fifth for World Speed Motorsports.
The Pro Mazda contestants will start their weekend with a 45-minute practice session on Friday evening. Qualifying will take place at 1:00 p.m. CDT on Saturday, followed by the 55-lap race at 4:55 p.m.
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.