An at-times bizarre weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg ended with popular Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia and Belardi Auto Racing claiming a clear victory in Sunday’s Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires.
Coupled with his runner-up finish yesterday, Urrutia now holds a handy Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire points lead in his quest to win a Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship valued at $1M to ensure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Shelby Blackstock claimed a career-best second, despite securing his deal to join Florida-based Team Pelfrey mere days before the start of the season. Teammate Neil Alberico, also a last-minute signing, looked set for third until being bumped on the final lap by Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport), who snuck through to claim his first career podium.
The drama began even before the start, especially for Belardi Auto Racing, which took delivery of a loaner car late yesterday from Trevor Carlin’s team to replace the Dallara damaged in qualifying by Aaron Telitz. The crew worked through the night to prepare it for action, only for the unfortunate Telitz to be involved in a collision with Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni in Turn Two on the opening lap. The impact caused Telitz to crash heavily – for the second time in two days – a cruel turn of events for the Wisconsin racer who began the weekend with such high expectations after claiming the pole for Race One.
Almost overshadowed by the incident involving Telitz and Franzoni, who emerged virtually unscathed, Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing) had taken the lead in opportunistic style at Turn One by driving cleanly around the outside of polesitter, Race One winner and Andretti Autosport teammate Patricio “Pato” O’Ward.
Herta held the advantage when the green flags waved following the Turn Two cleanup, but not for long. O’Ward quite clearly was on a mission to sweep the weekend. The two teenagers continued their tussle at the restart, with O’Ward initially trying to replicate the maneuver made on the opening lap by his rival. Herta refused to give way, which led to a heart-in-the-mouth moment as both cars sped into the flat-out left-hander at Turn Two absolutely side by side. Undaunted, O’Ward made a faster exit to Turn Three, and even though Herta forcibly attempted to defend the inside line under braking for Turn Four, O’Ward was not to be denied – sneaking through the narrowest of gaps to snatch the lead in brilliant style.
O’Ward immediately began to edge away, leaving Herta in second place... until the second-generation Indy Lights racer from Valencia, Calif., made an uncharacteristic error in Turn Eight and crashed heavily to ensure another full-course caution.
O’Ward again was perfect on the restart, extending his lead to almost seven seconds over Urrutia by Lap 31. The young Mexican had just set the fastest lap of the race and was seemingly assured of a second successive victory before making what he described as “a rookie mistake” by leaving his braking a fraction too late in Turn Four. O’Ward wisely opted to take to the escape road, and might have been able to resume in second place – or at worst third – if he hadn’t stalled the engine as he attempted a spin-turn. Instead, he rejoined at the back of the pack, out of contention.
And so it was that Urrutia inherited the victory – the seventh of his career – to send his South American supporters into raptures. Blackstock drove sensibly to claim second after a race-long tussle with new teammate Alberico, whose hopes of a podium finish ended on the final lap when Norman’s attempt to make a pass resulted in minimal nose-to-rear-wheel contact in Turn One. But it was enough to cause a puncture, and the unfortunate Alberico slipped to fifth at the checkered flag.
Urrutia, who has finished second in the Indy Lights title-chase in each of the past two seasons, now holds an eight-point margin over O’Ward as the series heads next to Barber Motorsports Park for another pair of races in support of the Verizon IndyCar Series at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 20-22.