Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Road America weekend digest

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It was a packed weekend at Road America for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece through the weekend. It marks the third time this year that all three series competed at the same facility on the same weekend, the other two being the streets of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. And the tightly-packed weekend saw no shortage of dramatics, ranging from first-time winners to drastic championship swings.

Carlin’s Rise

Prior to the month of May, Carlin was enduring somewhat of a disappointing run this season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A perennial front-runner the last two years and a championship winner in 2016 with driver Ed Jones, the British-based outfit had gone winless through the opening six races of the 2017 season.

However, that all changed when 19-year-old rookie Matheus Leist scored his first career Indy Lights victory at the Freedom 100, and the momentum appears to be permeating through the entire team.

Leist was strong again at Road America, winning Race 1 and finishing fourth in Race 2, while Zachary Claman De Melo took his maiden Indy Lights win in Race 2. Third Carlin driver Neil Alberico finished a somewhat disappointing seventh and eighth in the two races, but with two finishes of third and three finishes of fourth already to his name in 2017, the Californian is also building momentum of his own.

Race 2 winner Claman De Melo, who was all but speechless afterward, highlighted the overall strength of the team, specifically referencing his own engineer, who he described as a big influence on his development. “It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was (in Race 2),” said the 19-year-old.

Zachary Claman De Melo scored his first career Indy Lights victory at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Leist, too, mentioned chemistry within the team as being crucial to their success, and is elated that race wins are starting to come their way. “It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” he said following his Race 1 triumph. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”

A championship run may be beckoning as Indy Lights begins its summer stretch. Currently, Leist ranks second in the overall standings, best of the Carlin group, while Alberico sits tied for fifth with Aaron Telitz. Claman De Melo sits seventh.

 

Consistent Kaiser Rolls on With Indy Lights Championship Lead

Kyle Kaiser might not have been the immediate title favorite at the beginning of the season. But, on the strength of one win (Race 2, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course) and five podiums, including finishes of third and second at Road America, Kaiser has asserted himself as the man to beat in the 2017 championship.

Further, the 21-year-old’s consistency is juxtaposed with inconsistency from some of his title rivals.

Aaron Telitz won Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the season, finished second at the Freedom 100, and has four additional finishes of sixth or better. But, he has also endured three finishes of 11th or worse.

Colton Herta, winner of a pair of races (Race 2 outings at both the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park), has had a “feast or famine” season, featuring the aforementioned wins along with two additional podiums, but also with five finishes of tenth or worse to counter.

The aforementioned Leist, admittedly on a hot streak, started the year slowly with finishes of 15th and 11th at St. Petersburg. And Nico Jamin, with a pair of 14th-place finishes his worst placings this year, has also encountered some struggles of his own.

Kaiser, however, has finished sixth or better in eight of nine races so far, with his worst finish being ninth at the Freedom 100. Still, one cannot assume that Kaiser is choosing to play prevent while those around him sputter. As he explained after Race 1, in which he finished third, he is still on the charge and looking to get the best finishes he can.

“I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful. When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year,” Kaiser asserted.

As a result of his consistency, Kaiser holds a 28-point lead over Leist. But, with only 50 points separating the top six, the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.

 

Marvelous Martin Withstands Furious Franzoni Charge

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Perhaps the best battle across all three Mazda Road to Indy series came in Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and involved title combatants Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, the Race 1 winner over Martin, was forced to start 15th, last on the grid, when a red flag prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, but he very quickly rocketed his way through the field, climbing up to third four laps in. He then took advantage of a restart to get around then second-place runner TJ Fischer before setting his sights on Martin for the lead.

Martin, however, was firm but clean in his defense and withstood every challenge from Franzoni to score his third win of the season.

“I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” Martin quipped afterward. “It’s hard, because you have that car in your mirrors but you can’t let it affect you. That worked out a lot better (in Race 2 than in Race 1). We will go back and work on a few things to find some speed and be ready for Mid-Ohio.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, tried to balance the disappointment of not winning against his impressive charge to second. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second,” he explained. “I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash. I had to pick my spaces, especially with guys who were battling with each other. It was fun.”

As a result of their battle, Franzoni leaves Road America with a slim seven-point lead over Martin.

 

Veekay Sweeps, Askew Hits Trouble in USF2000

Of the three Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seemed to have the most straight-forward title picture. The dominant Oliver Askew, winner of five races in a row and with a worst 2017 finish of second (Race 1, St. Petersburg) looked all but unbeatable heading into the weekend, and there was no reason to believe his run would slow down.

And then the races happened. Camber shims on the left-front wheel became loose in the middle of Race 1, forcing an emergency pit stop for repairs, which dropped him to 17th in the finishing order.

Askew rebounded to finish third in Race 2, but Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) swept the weekend with two race wins, the first of his USF2000 career.

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An elated Veekay was beside himself over the success, which occurred at the home track for his team, Pabst Racing. “We’re so happy – it’s great to do this here, the home track for the team. I was screaming on the radio again! I’m so happy that we have the speed and we can really show what we can do.”

Veekay’s triumphs combined with Askew’s troubles to slice the championship deficit to 24 points between the two. With 30 points available for race wins and seven races remaining, the USF2000 championship has suddenly been blown open.

Indy Lights and USF2000 resume action at Iowa Speedway on July 9, while Pro Mazda returns at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a triple-header on July 28-30.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

GAINSCO partners with JDC-Miller for Simpson, Goikhberg

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The bright yellow No. 85 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson, nicknamed the “JDC Banana Boat,” will morph into the latest incarnation of the bright red “Red Dragon” for 2018.

The now GAINSCO Auto Insurance-backed No. 99 JDC-Miller Motorsports Oreca 07 Gibson will run the full 2018 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, and the new livery will be revealed at the Roar before the Rolex 24.

GAINSCO revealed last month it wouldn’t run its own team, having partnered with Bob Stallings Racing for more than a decade with great success in GRAND-AM Rolex Series competition. But it was still going to partner with a team and received multiple proposals from other teams. The initial deal with JDC-Miller Motorsports is one year for 2018 with an option for 2019, but both parties envision this growing into a multi-year deal.

The last few years the team has run only on-and-off, with a one-off appearance in the 2014 Rolex 24 at Daytona as Alex Gurney scored pole, but a devastating accident for Memo Gidley having left him seriously injured. Gidley has made significant strides in his recovery.

Since that point, GAINSCO/BSR moved into Pirelli World Challenge, running first a Hyundai Genesis, then a McLaren 650S GT3, and then a Porsche 911 GT3 R with Gurney’s longtime co-driver Jon Fogarty. The same level of success was hard to find and while the team scored several podium finishes, wins eluded them over two years.

Alas, this provides John Church’s quality operation a major supporter both from visibility and agent standpoints, as GAINSCO is one of the biggest at-track activators in the sport. Primary drivers Stephen Simpson and Misha Goikhberg continue for the full season with Chris Miller the third driver for Tequila Patron North American Endurance Cup rounds.

A fourth driver will be named later (likely within the next week to 10 days), but won’t be Jon Fogarty, as Bob Stallings offered him the opportunity but Fogarty declined owing to other business commitments.

“We offered Jon Fogarty the opportunity, took a couple days (to think), he couldn’t feature anyone else driving but him… he has successful business ventures and that takes priority at this time,” Stallings said.

Church and Stallings. Photo courtesy of GAINSCO Racing

Stallings, Executive Chairman of GAINSCO, as well as the founder of the GAINSCO/Bob Stallings Race team, recently decided not to run his own race team, but is committed to continuing the legacy of the Red Dragon by partnering with an organization capable of a long-term winning program.

“We had many opportunities to continue our quest for championships and JDC-Miller MotorSports was an easy pick,” said Stallings of the Minnesota-based team. “John Church and John Miller have established themselves as a team to be reckoned with, even against the formidable competition in IMSA.”

“We are very honored to gain the support of GAINSCO Auto Insurance and to carry on the livery of the No. 99 Red Dragon,” Church added. “It was immediately evident that the GAINSCO folks are as committed as we are.  This is a tremendous opportunity for JDC-Miller MotorSports and we look forward to the season ahead.”

Andy Jordan, Sr. Vice President of Marketing and Business Development led the search for the GAINSCO’s 2018 racing partnership.

“We were amazed and flattered by the amount of interest we received from teams who felt their racing programs would be elevated by an opportunity to partner with us and run the famous “Red Dragon” livery.  There were several important considerations for GAINSCO; the team had to compete at the highest level, and it had to feel like the kind of family we could be a part of and believe in.

“JDC-Miller Motorsports was the team we kept coming back to.  They race prototypes, they are great people, they are committed to win and the parallels between JDC-Miller Motorsports today and GAINCSO/Bob Stallings Racing in 2006/2007 were abundant.  I couldn’t be prouder and more excited to join John and his team for the 2018 season and hopefully beyond.”

JDC-Miller is adding a second car this season, with Simon Trummer its first confirmed driver and Robert Alon having tested with the team at Daytona earlier this month. This car will maintain the “banana boat” livery and will announce the rest of its program later.

Church said there “hasn’t been a discussion” in terms of adding Bob Stallings Racing personnel to JDC-Miller’s lineup as it sits, but it could be integrated.

The JDC-Miller Oreca 07. Photo courtesy of IMSA