Anthony Martin leads Victory Franzoni at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Mid-Ohio weekend digest

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It’s taken a few days to wrap my head around all that went down in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course this weekend, but will attempt to do so here.

Notes and reflections from Kyle Lavigne and myself over each day are linked here (Friday, Saturday, Sunday).

We’ll start off with a bit of housekeeping:

Pro Mazda post-weekend tech clear; no issues

After Sunday’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race, the top three cars from three different teams were impounded and taken back to Indianapolis for further evaluation, in response to allegations of malfeasance that had arisen during the weekend.

Following the review, Pro Mazda confirmed there were no issues found. Here is the full statement from Andersen Promotions:

Following the post-race impounding of Pro Mazda cars 8, 23 and 82 immediately after Sunday’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Allied Building Products, series officials have determined that no illegal components, unauthorized parts or other items that would fall outside of the series technical regulations were in use. This process not only included a complete mechanical inspection and review of the vehicles but also inspection and analysis of aero, engine performance, Timing & Scoring data, oils and fuel.

“This process may occur at any time within any Mazda Road to Indy category and it should be viewed as an extension of the rigorous inspection process already in place,” said Technical Director Daryl Fox. “As it is a more intrusive process which requires more time, it needs to be completed away from the race track in a private setting. We would like to thank the teams involved for their professionalism. We recognize that it adds an unexpected burden on them. We also would like to thank the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for permitting us to complete the work in their track garages.”

The results from Race 3 at Mid-Ohio are now classified as final and we look forward to the outcome of this very close championship.

And now for the rest of the weekend recap…

Franzoni, Martin Pro Mazda rivalry reaches a fever pitch

Martin (center) and Franzoni (left) crack smiles after Race 3. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

If Road America was the appetizer in the rivalry between Pro Mazda title combatants Victor Franzoni and Anthony Martin, then Mid-Ohio was the main course.

Martin won Friday’s first race easily, but it was Saturday’s second race of the tripleheader that saw the battle almost descend into war.

As Martin came upon Franzoni’s Juncos Racing teammate Jeff Green entering the Carousel, he tried to go around him on the outside of the right-hander, but Green washed up the road through the corner trying to get out of the way, and then spun to the inside on corner exit. As he washed up, it was enough to slow Martin down but allow Franzoni past both of them on the inside. That was enough for Franzoni to score a win.

Martin, who like Australian countryman Daniel Ricciardo is rarely without a smile, was downcast on the podium and understandably miffed post-race.

“To get taken out by Victor’s teammate isn’t the way you want it to end; unfortunately these things happen, but there needs to be some more investigation,” Martin said. “I think the biggest thing now is to focus forward. I take that into everyday life too. We’ll look into the race tomorrow, we’ll improve it as we had a great car today.”

Franzoni described his vantage point: “I was a little bit behind, so I saw Jeff’s car moving a lot – then I saw him go outside, and I just went inside and it worked.

“Well, it hasn’t been so clean between us since Road America! That changed it. But we’re racing for the championship, it’s big money at the end of the year, and we have to win it. I understand his part; I understand my part. I think this is a good fight. He’s a really good driver; he doesn’t make mistakes. This race were both in the limit.”

A comprehensive win for Martin in race three helped ease the pain a bit after Saturday, and moved him back into the points lead by four – 259 to 255 – with two races to go.

“It was extremely awesome how today panned out; it couldn’t have gone any better,” he said. “I think after the race yesterday I went over some data, looked at how we could improve and straight from there I put it behind me.”

Franzoni at least took one win from the weekend, to save Martin completing a three-race sweep: “One victory this weekend was huge for me. I needed at least one. This has always been my bad track – here and St. Pete I suck a little bit! But finally we got one.”

A key point here is that the Martin vs. Franzoni battle in Pro Mazda doesn’t happen at all without Jeff Green being in the field. Green’s interest in advancing to this level and support for both Franzoni and the Juncos Racing team is what’s even put these two cars on the grid to make it happen; we have to remember Juncos was not planning to do Pro Mazda this year, initially. Traffic management is something the young drivers need to learn as they advance up the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. What happened Saturday will be a teachable moment for both Martin and Franzoni and serves as the counter to Franzoni’s being frustrated having lost at Road America.

USF2000: Askew’s starts nearly stop title push; VeeKay, Thompson press on

Askew’s (No. 3) starts and restarts have been worth watching in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The story of the year in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda has been the combination of speed, poise and start ability turned in by Team USA Scholarship recipient Oliver Askew, who’s been the star of the year for Cape Motorsports. The Floridian won again in race one this weekend but fell off the podium in race two.

His race one win Friday though was not without controversy. Askew’s starts and restarts have been something worth monitoring all year – he’s walking a razor thin tightrope between excellent launches and jumping starts and restarts – and on Friday, he tilted towards the latter. Askew, who was already on probation for previous start violations, was docked 10 points post-race for jumping the initial start, but three other drivers were later assessed a 17-second post-race time penalty for jumping a restart.

It’s worth wondering how the title battle could have changed had Askew been assessed a drive-through penalty for jumping the start immediately after the race, and whether he would have been able to respond and charge through the field from there. Askew’s shown great pace in clean air this year but hasn’t had as many opportunities to carve through traffic.

“The penalty doesn’t change my mindset. The focus is to just keep on winning races and the championship will come in the end. We have the speed to qualify on pole and that’s huge here because it is quite difficult to pass. There was a ton of pressure going into this weekend and that pressure is still there,” Askew said Friday.

From left to right, Thompson, Askew, VeeKay after Friday. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The Askew start drama has not helped his closest title rivals, Rinus VeeKay (Pabst Racing) and Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), who are both genuinely nice drivers and super respectful publicly but no doubt were probably seething privately after Friday. Thompson turned that frustration into his third win in the last four races on Saturday, continuing the roll he and Michael Duncalfe’s team have been on. The same story is true for VeeKay, the Dutch teenager having been the ultimate USF2000 model of consistency with finishes between first and fourth in all but one of the 13 races. Askew leads VeeKay by 13 points with one race left; Thompson is locked into third.

“That was amazing. In maybe two percent of my career can I say I had a perfect car but today, I had a perfect race car. We’ve worked so hard to get to this point that it almost looked easy – and it almost was easy. It was almost unreal when I got to the podium. Right now, I’m not racing for a championship, I’m racing for my career,” Thompson said.

VeeKay added,“My plan going in was just to drive smart and gain as many points on Oliver as I could. I saw Lucas (Kohl) and Kaylen (Frederick) pass him but I had to keep going. Parker had a good start and I was not so good so I had to defend from Oliver. I kept him behind so that was good.”

Indy Lights: A pair of winners who make you ask what might have been for title

Jamin and Urrutia have to wonder what could have been in 2017. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

With Santiago Urrutia and Nico Jamin winning the pair of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires races this weekend, it was hard to see them up there and think they don’t really have a shot at the title, after a series of lost points throughout the year.

In Urrutia’s case for Belardi Auto Racing with SPM, a slow start out of the gate put pause to his title hopes before they ever really got going. Four finishes of 13th or worse in the first four races left him with 48 total points. Leader Colton Herta had 101 at the time. Urrutia sat 11th in points, 53 back. Now, 10 races later, Urrutia is tied for second in points, only 42 back of leader Kyle Kaiser after a better run of form – one win and four runner-up finishes – but probably too far back to claw back those remaining points unless Kaiser has two more terrible weekends in Gateway and Watkins Glen.

“If I win the next few races there’s nothing else I can do; what happened to me in Toronto where the engine stopped working could happen to Kaiser too. There’s still three or four other drivers fighting for the championship,” he said. “I have the same engineer as last year so the car here was pretty much the same.”

Jamin will be ruing a nightmare stretch of two-plus months from the Freedom 100 through Toronto. The Andretti Autosport driver fought myriad mechanical issues with AER and only scored 53 points in a six-race stretch – the lowest of any driver in the series in that period – which dropped him back outside the top five in points.

“It’s been extremely tough… we’ve had a lot of issues, you guys know,” Jamin reflected after Saturday’s race. “But my whole team and 27 crew has been fighting behind me. It definitely feels so good to be back on the podium.”

With those two having their own rough stretches of races, with Herta having such a roller coaster year where podiums and finishes of 10th or worse have seemed to alternate, and with Matheus Leist having his worst weekend of the year at the worst time as Carlin never quite found the balance this weekend, it allowed Kaiser to maintain a healthy gap in the Lights points with just two races remaining despite his own off-the-boil weekend.

Team USA Scholarship candidates make their pitch

One of the highlights of the Mid-Ohio race weekend is always when the next batch of candidates for the Team USA Scholarship arrive, having been nominated and then meeting a number of key industry stakeholders from IndyCar, the Mazda Road to Indy and sports cars. Many of these stakeholders then go on to judge the candidates as the field gets whittled from 10 to six, and eventually down to the winner of the scholarship(s).

It’s remarkable how the field of 10 candidates are so well prepared and poised for this opportunity. Jeremy Shaw, who runs the program, is renowned for his talent spotting ability and it’s also cool to see so many Team USA Scholarship alumni – Patrick Long, Andy Lally, Spencer Pigot, Josef Newgarden, Charlie Kimball, Conor Daly, Neil Alberico, Aaron Telitz and Oliver Askew were among several on site this weekend – who still support and give back to the program.

Take note of the names present here now before they become big stars, and potentially one or more will be on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder next year.

Other weekend notes

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Shelby Blackstock and Zachary Claman De Melo turned in two of the more quietly impressive weekends in Indy Lights this weekend. Blackstock (Belardi) finally had a trouble-free weekend and with third in race two, made his return to the podium for the first time since this race two years ago. Claman De Melo (Carlin) led Carlin’s charge and the usually boom-or-bust Canadian turned in a pair of top-fives.
  • Blackstock’s teammate Aaron Telitz fought through back pain and made major strides in the races after a pre-race one engine change. Eighth and fifth were good results from lower qualifying spots at a place where passing is difficult, and continued the Wisconsin native’s consistent run of improving all year.
  • The litany of Journey puns made the rounds for Ryan Norman’s No. 48 entry this weekend (above), but the Cleveland native didn’t stop believin’ as he made several good passing moves en route to ninth and seventh place finishes; he’s on a run of seven straight top-10 finishes, second only to Claman De Melo (eight) for most consecutive top-10s.
  • In Pro Mazda, Team Pelfrey banged home three more podium finishes – TJ Fischer on Friday then Carlos Cunha on Saturday and Sunday – as part of the team’s 11-podium weekend across Mid-Ohio and Pittsburgh. Kaylen Frederick gave the team a USF2000 podium on Saturday.
  • National class driver Bob Kaminsky kept his nose clean all weekend with three overall top-10s (eighth, seventh, ninth) and three class wins; son Colin Kaminsky also returned to USF2000 competition after a couple-weekend hiatus. John Cummiskey Racing runs these cars; JCR is renowned for its preparation.
  • The younger Kaminsky was one of several drivers back in action in USF2000. He was 13th and 17th in his two races with other returnees or debutantes Bruna Tomaselli 15th and 14th, Andres Gutierrez 12th and 11th, Jacob Abel 16th and 13th and Phillippe Denes 18th both races.

The Mazda Road to Indy has testing at both Gateway and Watkins Glen to come before their final two weekends of the year. Indy Lights and Pro Mazda have a race apiece at Gateway, while at Watkins Glen, Indy Lights and USF2000 race once, and Pro Mazda races twice.

Hunter-Reay released from hospital; not yet cleared to drive at Pocono

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Ryan Hunter-Reay has been released from a nearby hospital at Pocono Raceway after his accident in qualifying for Sunday’s ABC Supply 500 (2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) but has not yet been cleared to drive. He’ll be re-evaluated by INDYCAR Sunday morning.

The full release from INDYCAR and Andretti Autosport is below:

Verizon IndyCar Series driver Ryan Hunter-Reay was evaluated at Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest in Allentown, Pennsylvania, on Saturday for injuries to his left hip and knee sustained in a crash in qualifying for the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway. Hunter-Reay was treated and released but has not been cleared to drive, pending a re-evaluation Sunday morning.

“During qualifying today, out of nowhere, the car stepped out on me,” Hunter-Reay said. “It was a bit of a wiggle, which I caught. The second time it happened, it came with no warning – which is a bit confusing. I hit my hip pretty bad as well as my knee, so the doctors thought it would be best to go in for further evaluation. After a CT scan and MRI, I am able to go and get a good night’s sleep. I’m sure I’ll wake up sore, but will hopefully be able to get back in the DHL machine tomorrow.

“I know the entire Andretti Autosport team worked hard to get the car put back together and with 500 miles, there is still a chance to win from the back of the field. I can’t thank the Holmatro Safety Team enough for their quick response along with the medical staff at INDYCAR, Pocono and Lehigh Valley Hospital – Cedar Crest. Also, thank you to the fans for reaching out with their support.”

IndyCar Paddock Pass: Pocono (VIDEO)

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NBCSN’s coverage of the Verizon IndyCar Series continues this weekend with the series trip to the “Tricky Triangle” for the ABC Supply 500 (Sunday, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

The NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass also continues for another episode from the three-turn oval, Pocono Raceway, in Long Pond, Pa.

NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter and Indy Lights analyst Anders Krohn checks in for the latest edition of the show, which you can see above.

On tap in this week’s episode are interviews with Team Penske teammates Josef Newgarden and Will Power, and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Hunter-Reay led first practice; however was involved in a heavy accident in qualifying later Saturday afternoon and transported to a nearby hospital.

His status is unclear for Sunday.

Newgarden leads the championship but had a tough qualifying run – he was only 14th Saturday afternoon – while Power was second among Chevrolets and starts fifth. He is the defending Pocono race winner.

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


Chaves, Harding continue to shine at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – In two previous starts in the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season, Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been shining stars, finishing ninth at the Indianapolis 500 and fifth at the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding several crashes and incidents in both races to do so, and advancing from 25th and 20th on the grid, respectively.

Returning to the series for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway (Sunday 2:00 p.m. ET, NBCSN), the combination continues its remarkably strong form, qualifying eighth for Sunday’s race, third fastest of the Chevrolet runners.

And with the goal of turning the team into a full-time effort next year, Chaves and the team appear to be picking up right where they left off.

“We’re just here to improve our team, get it ready for next year,” Chaves told NBC Sports. “We’d like to go home with a great result of course, that’s always the aim. But I think the work we did throughout the practice improved the car enough to wear I was pretty comfortable at the end.”

Of course, even though the team is still very new to the world of racing (their first race was this year’s Indianapolis 500), it doesn’t stop Chaves from having lofty expectations.

“You always want to shoot for the win,” he asserted when asked about expectations for this weekend’s ABC Supply 500. “Obviously it’s never easy – with the limited time we have on track, it just makes it even harder on top of it. We’re always trying to keep our expectations high and do the best job we can to accomplish them.”

Gabby Chaves and Harding Racing have been very impressive out of the box. Photo: IndyCar

And perhaps Chaves is right to have big expectations given the team’s first two races. Ninth at Indianapolis and fifth at Texas are genuinely impressive results for the brand new team. And on the surface, they are a surprise, given the organization itself hadn’t run any races at any level prior to this year. But, Chaves explained that the people involved in the team are more than familiar with the sport and know how to build a successful operation.

“It’s just a matter of having the right people involved,” Chaves said of their early success. “Our team owner, Mike Harding, is very dedicated to making sure that we have the means to go out and hire the best people we can. It’s hard to do when the full-time teams have already got most of those guys, but there’s a few guys left out there who are very quality guys. Then that comes down to our team manager, Larry Curry, who has been able to track down these guys and give them a good offer to come on board with us. We’re just going to get better from here.”

Specifically, team manager Curry has been instrumental in recruiting talent and helping the team get ahead of the game, as Chaves explained.

“When it came down to our Indy deal, we started getting our car ready, and a little bit through his connections, we were able to get our mockup engine a little sooner, our body fit sooner – enough that we had the time to go out and test and do a shakedown run at Texas before Indy. It’s that type of experience and knowledge that Larry brings to the team that helps us out.”

NBCSN’s Robin Miller reported earlier this weekend in a piece for RACER.com that the team is ready for a full season in 2018, with Harding also telling the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network’s Jake Query that “100 percent number” Miller cited is closer to 95 percent.

Chaves stopped short of going that far, but feels confident that a full-season effort will come together.

“Obviously, our plans are still to go out and run the full season. I’d say every day we get closer and closer to that. I’d say it’s looking really good. I know (Robin Miller’s report) mentions 100% – I think we’re close to that. But, it’s not done until it’s done. So I’ll just keep focused on my job here this weekend.”

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Power tops final practice at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. – Team Penske’s Will Power topped final practice for tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 from Pocono Raceway. Power’s best lap of 216.294 mph was turned late in the session and pipped teammate Simon Pagenaud for the top spot, making it a Team Penske 1-2 in final practice. Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Max Chilton and Tony Kanaan were third and fourth, the best of the Honda teams, while Helio Castroneves rebounded from his earlier qualifying crash to end the session in fifth, putting three Penske cars in the top five.

Of note: pole sitter Takuma Sato was 11th quickest and Ed Carpenter was 16th, Carpenter having missed qualifying as Ed Carpenter Racing made repairs to his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet and missed the lineup time for pre-qualifying inspection by only a few minutes.

Also: Andretti Autosport’s No. 28 DHL Honda, usually piloted by Ryan Hunter-Reay, did not venture onto the track for final practice, with Hunter-Reay currently being evaluated at a local hospital following a qualifying crash.

Times are below. Tomorrow’s ABC Supply 500 begins at 2:00 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

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