Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights’ 2017 field is shaping up strongly heading into holidays

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With the Verizon IndyCar Series’ field for 2017 largely settled, attention now shifts to the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires in terms of other seats to fill out.

Of the three series, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires has the most driver/team announcements fully finalized while Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda should have more announced come the new year. The drivers who are set in those last two series have a leg up and peace of mind heading into the holidays.

In looking at Indy Lights, seven driver/team combinations are already public, with several others due to be formally announced in the new year.

Andretti Autosport leads the way with all four of its drivers confirmed, only one of which is a returning driver from 2016. In Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett, there’s a respectable outlook ahead as the team makes its first foray at a four-car lineup in the series.

Figure Jamin to be the early pacesetter among the four of them, because of his track experience and his natural ability he’s shown in Pro Mazda and USF2000. It might take Herta a race or two to acclimate but he shouldn’t be far behind in the Steinbrenner Racing entry of the Andretti stable. At 16, the younger version of “Hertamania” is well beyond his years from a maturity standpoint. Both of these two should win races this year if the setup is right.

Kellett and Norman don’t figure to be the out-and-out pacesetters but may have their day on occasion. Kellett has a year’s worth of experience under his belt in Indy Lights and should only improve, while the Atlantic cars Norman raced this year are close enough in performance to where he should be able to adapt. Podiums are outside possible but likely the more realistic targets for these two are consistent top-five finishes.

Juncos Racing has two drivers set, with Kyle Kaiser now ready for a third season and Nico Dapero making the step up from Pro Mazda. Kaiser made a quantum leap in performance from year one to year two and thoroughly deserved his wins this year at Phoenix and Mazda Raceway. He’s a title contender without question. Dapero’s growth and maturation was evident over the course of the Pro Mazda season, and he’s tested well so far. He figures to be fast, and his adaptation to the Indy Lights-spec Cooper Tires and endurance over longer races will determine how high he can climb. He should get an early podium or two and start transitioning into race-winning contention by year’s end.

Belardi Auto Racing has only confirmed one driver officially in Shelby Blackstock, who shifts from Andretti next year. A capable veteran, Blackstock is a solid midfield driver who has rarely shown much in the way of polesitting and race-winning pace, but hasn’t made many missteps either.

The rest of the field beyond those seven figures to include an interesting mix of talent.

The last two Pro Mazda champions and Mazda scholarship drivers, Santiago Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, may both be in the field next season. Urrutia’s program in Indy Lights looked to have come to an end after Schmidt Peterson Motorsports ended its run, but the Uruguayan may have been afforded a lifeline following a test with Belardi last week. If he lands there, expect the same combination of fireworks and pace we saw this year.

If Telitz joins Belardi, which seems a good guess following several successful tests, it would be a match made in cheesehead heaven. Telitz shadowed the team at Watkins Glen this year and would be a fellow Wisconsinite operating within the confines of the Brian Belardi-owned, John Brunner-run team. Telitz tends to adapt quickly to new machinery and should be on pace from the off.

The question mark here also comes if Zach Veach returns to Indy Lights for another year. Veach has sought a step up to IndyCar and following a successful test with Ed Carpenter Racing, entered the frame there. But with that door likely closing, Veach could well return to Indy Lights once more, for what would be a fourth season. He ended 2016 as the hottest driver in the championship.

Andre Negrao is another potential race winner-in-waiting if he returns for a sophomore season. The Brazilian, like Urrutia, faces an uncertain future after the SPM shutdown. He had a good test with Juncos and would add a good personality and title potential if he can gather the budget for another campaign.

Carlin is yet to reveal the scale of its program for 2017. The Trevor Carlin-owned, Colin Hale-led team is expanding its arsenal next year via a confirmed USF2000 program, the Carlin Benik operation, while rumors continue to percolate that they’d be exploring an IndyCar effort with what is currently the KVSH team. As such, it’s left the Lights program as the topic of least discussion to this point.

Ed Jones moves up to IndyCar while Felix Serralles has tested an IndyCar, FIA WEC LMP2 car, and GP3 car this winter. That leaves Neil Alberico of the three of Carlin’s 2016 drivers to sort out his status and the likeliest to return for a second year, again budget pending. Alberico endured a nightmarish 2016 season, largely out of his own doing, and the Rising Star Racing-supported driver would figure to be better in a second year.

Zachary Claman De Melo and Garth Rickards tested for Carlin at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test in October. “ZCD” may head to Europe, while Rickards figures to move on from USF2000, the question being whether to Pro Mazda or Indy Lights.

Team Pelfrey, which now has its Pro Mazda and USF2000 programs operating in Indianapolis, is the fifth and final full-time team expected. The Gary Neal-led team runs a tight, sharp operation and should have two cars. Juan Piedrahita tested for them at the Griffis test. He’s another of the capable midfielders who wouldn’t light the world on fire in a return, but would ensure another quality car on the grid. Garett Grist, meanwhile, showed flashes of brilliance in his second half of the year with Pelfrey last season. He’s an intriguing prospect who could score podiums in the right situation.

The only other driver who tested at the Griffis test not named here is Slovakian driver Richard Gonda, who tested with Andretti. With those four seats filled, he’d need to look elsewhere.

Of others who raced in 2016, it’d be good to see Scott Hargrove back in a full-season opportunity after two partial campaigns, Sean Rayhall as well for the same reason, and Davey Hamilton Jr., who made a positive impression in his debut at Mazda Raceway. Dean Stoneman would be a title contender if he came back, but that appears unlikely.

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Indy Carb Day Special (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Alongside NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, we have the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, which this week features interviews from Indy 500 media day leading into Carb Day.

Anders Krohn is back in action, ahead of a busy day for him as he will be in the booth calling the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100.

Interviews took place with Ed Carpenter, Marco Andretti, Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso. Alonso’s coverage highlighted media day, as there was an absurd number of people populating around his station on Thursday.

Dixon has the pole for Sunday’s race, with Carpenter starting second, Alonso fifth and Andretti eighth.

You can see the episode above. Past IndyCar Paddock Pass episodes are below:


It’s ‘Indy Leist’ – Matheus Leist, Carlin dominate Freedom 100

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brazilian rookie Matheus Leist has his first career victory in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires following a flag-to-flag victory in the No. 26 Carlin Dallara IL-15 Mazda from pole position in the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“It was a tough race, we had the pace and the car was just amazing. It was just an amazing race. It’s my first race on an oval and I couldn’t be happier,” Leist told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt.

The usual photo finishes that have been a staple of this race ceded to Leist’s dominance, with a win by 0.7760 of a second over Aaron Telitz, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires champion posting his second podium finisher of the year.

Telitz edged Dalton Kellett for second at the line by just 0.0641 of a second. Both drivers took shots at Leist but were unable to pass him.

“Definitely an exciting finish. I was trying to get around Matheus. Our car was good in traffic but they were more trimmed out. When I got alongside, I couldn’t get him,” Telitz told NBCSN’s Jon Beekhuis. “I had limited opportunities. I wore off my front tires, then went more aggressive on my roll bars. We had a great car but not the car to win.”

“It was a great move by Aaron. I had a big run on Leist and have another photo finish. I was trying to play with the apron. Aaron got me – it was great pass by him,” Kellett told Hargitt. “We go slower. It makes for great drafting.

Meanwhile with Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin having anonymous finishes in ninth and 10th, and with Colton Herta crashing out on the first lap, it’s brought the championship even tighter.

Herta’s boom-or-bust rookie season in the No. 98 Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing car rolled on. After starting second, the 17-year-old ran on the outside of teammate Dalton Kellett through Turn 2, but spun after contact between the two – and collected teammate Ryan Norman in the No. 48 car in the process. Kellett was lucky to avoid damage to the right front wheel and suspension, which touched the left rear of Herta’s car to send him spinning.

It shifted the order with Zachary Claman De Melo moving up to second off the start behind Leist, with Kellett third, Neil Alberico fourth and Aaron Telitz in fifth. Kyle Kaiser and Nico Jamin noved up to ninth and 11th from 11th and 13th in the incident, respectively.

“Well, I don’t know if I can say what he was thinking!” Bryan Herta, Colton’s father, told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “It’s a shame. They both had great cars. Looking at it, maybe he didn’t know Dalton was still on the inside. It’s not how you want to start the race. Unfortunately he is out early.”

Both drivers were understandably disappointed, but relieved to be OK after being checked and released from the infield care center, cleared to drive.

“I’m fine. Little X-Ray. No problem. I saw (Kellett) but I don’t really know what happened. I need to look at the data and video,” the younger Herta told Beekhuis.

Norman told Beekhuis, “I’m physically fine, but just really disappointed. It was our highest starting position. Wrong spot at the wrong time. Andretti gave me a great car all month. We’ll come back stronger at Road America.”

Kellett, post-race, told Hargitt about the incident: “I’m on the inside, it’s the first lap, caught some dirty air, I understeered up into him and that collected him, and collected Ryan. You never want to have contact with your teammates. At least we’ve got a podium finish.”

The restart occurred at the conclusion of Lap 5, and start of Lap 6, after the first and only caution flag of the race.

By Lap 15, Leist led by 0.6077 of a second but Kellett, Telitz and Alberico had moved up to second, third and fourth with Claman De Melo falling back from second down to fifth.

At half distance Telitz moved within striking distance of Leist into second. At the halfway mark it was Leist 0.3486 of a second ahead of Telitz with Kellett, Alberico and Claman De Melo in the top five.

Leist pulled away from there and the only photo finish this time around was for second, as Telitz got Kellett right at the line. The gap was a huge one by recent Indy Lights standards, 0.7760 of a second to Telitz and 0.8401 to Kellett.

Alberico and Santiago Urrutia, who started 12th but moved forward during the race, completed the top five.

Forgettable races occurred for points leaders Kaiser and Jamin, who ended ninth and 10th. Unofficially they still sit 1-2 in points with 151 and 137, Herta falls to third with 129 while Telitz and Alberico (122) and Leist (121) are within range.

Bourdais, Coyne upbeat during Carb Day practice check-ins (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS – Sebastien Bourdais hopes to be at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday, just over a week after his accident left him with multiple pelvic fractures and a fractured right hip in an accident in qualifying.

The Frenchman has already been released from IU Methodist Hospital on Wednesday and during NBCSN’s coverage of Carb Day practice, checked in with the booth crew to update his recovery progress.

“I think I’m doing as well as I could have ever hoped for,” Bourdais told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee. “My surgery went well. I was walking two days after the wreck. It’s been a little weird! But the pain is managed.”

Team owner Dale Coyne also checked in on Bourdais’ progress as well.

“He’s feeling good. He moved out of hospital Wednesday,” Coyne told NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt. “If all goes as planned, we’ll get him out here Sunday.”

As for when Bourdais can return to the cockpit?

“The surgeon said he’s out for season… of course Seb says he wants to do Le Mans!” Coyne laughed. “It’s going to be a long recovery. But Sonoma? Maybe.”

Also during the segment, NBCSN pit reporter Jon Beekhuis noted an older specification rear wing configuration on the back of Bourdais’ replacement, James Davison’s No. 18 GEICO Honda. This should help Davison on Sunday.

Hinchcliffe engine issue hits Carb Day practice, as Castroneves leads

Photo: IndyCar
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INDIANAPOLIS – Helio Castroneves has led the final one-hour practice session ahead of the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, in the No. 3 Shell Fuel Rewards Team Penske Chevrolet, but it’s a Honda that made the bigger news during the extended session.

Another Honda engine issue – at least the eighth this month between the INDYCAR Grand Prix, practice and qualifying – now struck James Hinchcliffe during the final 20 minutes of the session in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

Heading into Turn 3, Hinchcliffe’s gold and black car took on a distinctly white hue by contrast, as smoke billowed out the back of the car. It littered the track between Turns 3 and 4.

Yet as Hinchcliffe, the 2016 race polesitter explained to NBCSN’s Katie Hargitt, the timing was as good as it could have been considering had it happened later it would have been in the race itself.

“I felt what the engineers would call a suboptimal rapid negative acceleration heading into Turn 3,” Hinchcliffe told NBCSN. “We’ve had some issues across the Honda camp. It’s less than ideal.

“I felt bad going into 3. I hope we weren’t leaking too badly. I’m happy it didn’t happen 20 minutes later, that would have been Lap 5 of the race. We’ll get an engine, we’ll put it in. But that was by far the best we’ve felt on the 5 car all month. Let’s put this thing to bed. The car feels really good in traffic.”

Hinchcliffe will start 17th on Sunday. He ended his truncated practice in 14th.

Photo: IndyCar

Behind another gold car – the gold-and-white No. 3 car of Castronves – Takuma Sato and Tony Kanaan completed the top three, with Scott Dixon and Fernando Alonso completing the top five.

Speeds are below.