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MRTI: Gateway weekend digest

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For the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, going from seven races a month ago at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course between all three of its series to just two at Gateway Motorsports Park this past weekend might have been an indication the number of things to chronicle would die down. Not the case.

That in mind, here’s some further thoughts on the weekend just completed:

Juncos and Franzoni’s Pro Mazda Gateway gamble comes good 

Faced with the prospect of another second place finish after practice and qualifying in the Pro Mazda race, Juncos Racing and Victor Franzoni had to decide whether it was worth throwing a Hail Mary pass on downforce level to see if they could overtake the otherwise weekend dominator, Franzoni’s season-long sparring partner Anthony Martin of Cape Motorsports.

But just like a green team in football that has executed the Hail Mary to perfection – the Green Bay Packers – Ricardo Juncos’ green and white team’s gamble paid off.

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“It was a gamble. We didn’t know what to do. We just knew we had lost 2 mph in qualifying. We had no options. We hoped to finish P2,” Juncos told NBC Sports post-race.

“So we trimmed like crazy and tried to compensate with the front wing. We made some adjustments we never had on ovals, for this track is particular.”

What was Franzoni’s confidence level in the untested, more trimmed out setting that came out before the race?

“Zero!” he laughed post-race.

“Before the race we had no idea what to do. We knew we had a good car, but not a fast one. We finished the car five minutes before going to the grid. We changed a lot of things that we hoped would work, and they did!”

What followed was potentially the defining moment of the season in the battle for the Pro Mazda title and the more than $790,000 that goes with it to advance into Indy Lights in 2018.

Franzoni hung behind Martin in the early stages but closed enough to where he tried a pass on the outside of Martin for the lead into Turns 1 and 2. He pulled it off, which was impressive enough, and even more so considering he was lighter on downforce and the outside lane was dirty.

“The rhythm was fantastic after that change,” Juncos explained. “We went 3-4 tenths quicker every lap than we had all weekend.”

Franzoni pulled away from there to his fifth and most critical win of the season, to move ahead of Martin by two points heading to the Watkins Glen season finale next week.

“The first lap in Turn 1, I drifted the whole turn, and oh my goodness, I made a big mistake and I tried to catch it!” Franzoni said. “But I learned how to drive behind him. I was trying to find a good line. The only way to go by was outside in Turn 1. Then I tried next lap and it worked. It was so good. It was dirty, so I was cleaning the outside lane! So good, so happy.

“We just threw the dice and went. We had to win to keep at least the points close or go to first. It was like a poker game and it worked! It was a fun race.”

Martin obviously wasn’t pleased to lose the win, but did tip his cap to Franzoni and the team for making a brave call that came good.

“He was in the tow, and that allows you to hang onto the back. He had a better car than me. So they found something for the race and I was struggling,” Martin said. “When it comes down to the wire if your car isn’t perfect it’s a matter of wining or losing. It’s a bit unfortunate, but we came away with points. It’ll come down to the wire at the Glen.”

Beyond the top two, second Juncos driver Jeff Green was the impressive Pro Mazda surprise of the weekend. The 60-year-old posted the third fastest race lap and finished fifth, following a late-race pass of Team Pelfrey’s Nikita Lastochkin.

Kaiser’s roller-coaster Gateway ride all but seals Indy Lights title outright

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Kyle Kaiser rebounded in nearly the best way possible Saturday night from his miserable weekend in Mid-Ohio as he almost had the Indy Lights title clinched a race in advance, then didn’t, then did, then didn’t again when the checkered flag fell. But so long as he starts next week’s season finale at Watkins Glen International, he’ll seal the title and the $1 million Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship into the Verizon IndyCar Series that comes with it.

Kaiser got there with an at-times aggressive, at later-times smart and heads-up drive Saturday night in Gateway. Initially he delivered a statement of intent with an outside pass of Santiago Urrutia for second place, but then fell back as his tires fell off. Despite dropping as low as sixth, then also nearly hitting Nico Jamin, Kaiser then rebounded to fourth.

Pretty sketchy moment in the closing laps of the race yesterday! #mrti #teamcoopertire #k2racing #indylights

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Kaiser reflected on his night in the immediate aftermath.

“It was very nerve-wracking, but we prevailed,” Kaiser told NBC Sports. “I trust all the guys in this series; I talk with them, and think they all race me clean. I had a lot of confidence doing those passes.

“Later when my car fell off a bit, they made good moves on me. I was giving them room.

“We had too much tire pressure. We ran pretty high. Nonstop running on them. We got (the tires) overheated and I was super loose through Turns 3 and 4. The second I got behind someone, no grip.

“But it’s a bit surreal how it all turned out. I went to the outside of (Nico) and guys almost all came into me. I thought I was done for a second. But that was the goal; just bring it home. We moved forward two spots. I’m happy.”

Juncos hailed his driver’s evening under the lights for how smart he drove as a lot of craziness happened around him.

“I think he did a good job. He was always so smart. Mid-Ohio was difficult with such issues. P12 both race was basically two DNFs,” Juncos said. “That was our bad result, like everyone else.

“This one is a result of a great job for himself and family, for them trusting us for four years, and my whole team.”

Juan Piedrahita’s breakout MRTI race amidst the Indy Lights title tilt

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While Urrutia won the race and Kaiser all but clinched the title, the standout performer of the weekend at Gateway in Indy Lights was MRTI journeyman Juan Piedrahita, a veteran of more than 100 career starts over parts of eight seasons in all three rungs of the MRTI.

He nearly delivered his first Indy Lights win Saturday night from his first career pole, in what would have been a popular triumph for the likable 25-year-old Colombian who now lives in Indianapolis and the single-car Team Pelfrey team.

Piedrahita has always been good on ovals, and has scored podiums on them in all three rungs. This was by far his best drive in an Indy Lights car.

Having exchanged the lead with Urrutia multiple times, Piedrahita regained the lead after a late restart, only for Urrutia to get him back in the final few laps.

Second place was a bitter pill to swallow and the result also ensured Urrutia was mathematically alive, if not realistically so, for the Indy Lights title heading to Watkins Glen next week.

“I didn’t just learn how to drive in two weeks,” Piedrahita told NBC Sports. “It’s just, things happen and finally and we’re here again and it feels awesome. I wanted to get the win really badly and I’m a little heartbroken, but at the same time, he did a hell of a job. It was so tough.

“At some point, I was like ‘Please finish it now,’ because mentally it was just – I didn’t know what he was going to do, he was all over the place. I thought I had a run on him, then I had a run on him – it was crazy. I gave it all. That’s all I have to say. For my guys, for all the Team Pelfrey guys.

“I think there were two perfect cars this weekend, and it was his car and my car. Both cars were perfect. It just happens that my car was perfect in Turns 3 and 4, and his car was perfect in Turns 1 and 2. I could see him, when I was in front of him, he would get a run in 1 and 2, but then in 3 and 4 I would get a gap. And then when he passed me, it was the same. So, it was two perfect cars. We both did a great job. At the end, he got it. It’s good, it’s good still. We have Watkins Glen and hopefully we can get it done.”

Urrutia, for his part, also hailed Piedrahita’s efforts.

“Yeah, it was good. The only thing I got to do was win, so that’s what I did,” he said. “I said, after the restart when I was second, ‘Okay, I win this race or I put the car in the wall,” because I don’t want to be second. I took a lot of risks on that pass and everything, but I got it, so I’m happy to be first, I’m happy to take the win. Now, I’m looking forward to Watkins Glen and get the win there again.”

Other weekend notes

  • Colton Herta had what seemed to be seven or eight near misses en route to third place in his Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing entry. The talented teenager has now found a semblance of consistency – he’s finished between second and sixth in six of the last seven races – after a previous run of ending 10th or worse in five of the last six races before that.
  • Nico Dapero drove an excellent race to finish a season-best fifth in the second Juncos car. The team made a front tire change and Dapero rebounded from ninth to fifth inside the final two laps. Like Herta, Dapero would figure to be even better in a second Indy Lights season.
  • Hat tip to Trackside Online for this, but after a brutal weekend and a tough week Aaron Telitz had his first DNF in MRTI in more than three seasons, after getting collected in a first lap accident.
  • Telitz, Shelby Blackstock and series debutante Chad Boat all had incidents for Belardi Auto Racing in a tough night, while Carlin also had multiple cars damaged in the same incident with Boat, when Neil Alberico and Garth Rickards got involved. Carlin faces a heavy task to repair Alberico’s car, which suffered significant damage and was nearly written off.
  • Zachary Claman De Melo banked his seventh straight top-six finish, ending best of the Carlin quartet in sixth.
  • Dalton Kellett turned in a good drive to end seventh after starting 11th for Andretti.
  • In Pro Mazda, Carlos Cunha scored his third straight third place finish for Team Pelfrey, while teammate TJ Fischer was fourth for the third straight race.

The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires seasons conclude next weekend in Watkins Glen with all three series, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda also back in action.

Zurich Formula E race confirmed, Switzerland’s first since 1955 motorsport ban

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Switzerland will host its first circuit race in over 60 years when Formula E hits the streets of Zurich next June.

Switzerland banned circuit racing and most motorsport activities in 1955 following the Le Mans disaster in the same year, only for a relaxation of the law two years ago to open the door for a Formula E race to be held.

Swiss racer Simona de Silvestro took part in a special showrun through the streets of Geneva in a Formula E in 2015, with the all-electric series pushing to get a race on the calendar.

Following the latest meeting of the FIA World Motor Sport Council in Paris, a race in Zurich was approved for June 10, 2018, acting as the fourth new city on the season four calendar.

“I am very pleased that circuit racing is returning to Switzerland next year with the FIA Formula E Championship event in Zurich,” FIA president Jean Todt said.

“To be able to reintroduce this discipline to a country where it has been absent since it was banned in 1955 is an exciting prospect and the achievement of an important goal for the FIA.

“I would like to congratulate everyone involved in making it a reality, as it is important for us to continue to bring motor sport to new audiences around the world.

“Together with the other new events on the calendar in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, I believe we have a very strong season of Formula E ahead of us.”

Formula E CEO Alejandro Agag added: “The calendar for next season is shaping up to be one of the most exciting yet with four new venues – including Zurich. I’m thrilled that Formula E is bringing racing back to Switzerland for the first time in over 60 years.

“This wouldn’t have been possible without the core fundamentals of Formula E – driving the electric revolution and sustainable mobility. Following the recent law changes this race was also made possible with the instrumental support of our Swiss partner, Julius Baer.

“I would like to express our gratitude to their CEO, Boris Collardi, and his entire team for their continued belief in Formula E – we’ve again been able to break new grounds in the world of motorsport.”

The schedule also features inaugural events in Santiago, Sao Paulo and Rome, and will once again conclude in Montreal, Canada at the end of July.

The only other change to the calendar is the shift by one week of the New York City ePrix date, moving to the July 14-15 weekend.

2017/18 FIA Formula E Calendar

1. Hong Kong – December 2
2. Hong Kong – December 3
3. Marrakesh – January 13
4. Santiago – February 3
5. Mexico City – March 3
6. Sao Paulo – March 17
7. Rome – April 14
8. Paris – April 28
9. Berlin – May 19
10. Zurich – June 10
11. New York – July 14
12. New York – July 15
13. Montreal – July 28
14. Montreal – July 29

Mexican GP to go ahead as planned, facilities unharmed by earthquake

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Next month’s Mexican Grand Prix is set to go ahead as planned after facilities at the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez were unharmed by the earthquake that struck Mexico City earlier this week.

A 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Mexico on Tuesday, claiming the lives of over 200 people as well as toppling dozens of buildings in the capital.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is set to host the third-to-last round of the 2017 Formula 1 season on October 29, and will go ahead as planned after facilities were unharmed by the earthquake.

“It’s been inspected twice already from the track surface and also the buildings, and it’s OK,” marketing chief Rodrigo Sanchez told Reuters.

“We’ll continue doing the assessments as we go but so far there’s really no concern. We’ll have a race.

“We’re trying to put out there all the information relevant to how people can help. Right now the concern is really getting everything back to moving from the city perspective and supporting any way we can.

“If things stay the same, we’ll just keep working on what we’re doing.

“The track is fine so we just need to re-focus and get this show done.”

Mexico’s only F1 driver, Sergio Perez, has donated $170,000 to support those affected by the earthquake, while the Carlos Slim Foundation is set to match every donation made five-fold.

IndyCar delivers its second-best season on NBCSN in 2017

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In the ninth year of its 10-year contract with the Verizon IndyCar Series (formerly as Versus and now as NBCSN), NBCSN produced its second-best season on record this year.

With a Total Audience Delivery (TAD) of 507,000 viewers per race, the 2017 season of races on NBCSN was just 1 percent off the best mark of 510,000 viewers per race in 2015.

This season’s viewership on NBCSN, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app exceeded the 2016 TAD of 492,000 viewers by 3 percent (excludes Texas and Pocono races in 2016, which were rescheduled due to weather), and was just 1 percent shy of NBCSN’s record TAD in 2015 (510,000).

TAD measures consumption across multiple platforms, combining the average minute audience (AMA) for television and digital. The 2016 release details are linked here.

Seven of the 12 races aired on NBCSN had a TAD of more than 500,000 with the most coming at Pocono with 624,000. In terms of household ratings, Indianapolis was the top local market with Richmond-Petersburg, Greenville, West Palm Beach and Greensboro coming in the top five.

The full 2017 release details are linked here.

Veach, Andretti, Group One Thousand One able to build for future

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Rare are the words “American,” “young driver,” “multi-year” and “IndyCar” assembled within a sentence in modern day Verizon IndyCar Series racing.

But for young American driver Zach Veach, he’s got a multi-year IndyCar contract at his disposal thanks to Group One Thousand One at Andretti Autosport, and with it, an opportunity to build, grow and develop over that three-year time period through 2020.

It’s hard to believe Veach, the Stockdale, Ohio native, is only 22 considering his history in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires between 2010 and 2016, competing every year save for one (2015) due to injury and a lack of budget.

But throughout that period he gradually improved year-by-year, first in USF2000, then in Pro Mazda and finally in Indy Lights. Over his three years and with two different cars in Indy Lights, Veach grew into a race winner and bulked up from his already slender frame.

Veach is also the first driver in MRTI history to have been with the same team in all three levels, and graduate into IndyCar. He detoured to Belardi Auto Racing in 2016 but otherwise, was part of Andretti Autosport’s lineup from 2010 to 2014, and will now come back “home” for 2018 in IndyCar.

Veach and Michael Andretti before Star Mazda debut, Sonoma, 2011. Photo: IndyCar

“I think he was 14 or 15 when we met the first time… and he looked like he was 10. Now he’s 22, and looks like he’s 15!” Michael Andretti laughed.

“But he’s always impressed me. OK, he’d come out of the box not bad. But the next race, he got better, and you could see it. It wasn’t by mistake. You’d see how he’d work, take the information, study it for hours, and then come back so much more prepared the next day.

“I gotta say, I don’t think there’s as many drivers I’ve known outside the car who’ve worked that hard to make themselves better, and he did that all the way up the ladder system. There’s a lot of confidence in big cars, and now he’ll have more tools and will use them to his advantage. So he might start here, qualify top-18, then it’ll start to go up, up, then qualify top-10 by the end of the year and I believe the next year he’ll be more of a contender. That’s how I envision it.”

Setting reasonable and realistic expectations will be key for Veach, who should look at drivers like Josef Newgarden or Charlie Kimball for inspiration.

Newgarden’s first year with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing was littered with rookie errors, not a single top-10 finish, and ending 23rd in the championship. But knowing he had two more years to build off of, Newgarden was a podium finisher each of the next two years and had leapt 10 spots in the standings. By his fourth year and his second contract in 2015, he was a race winner.

Kimball was the same way with Chip Ganassi Racing. Barely in the top-20 in points his first year with only a couple top-10s, he ascended to podiums in year two as well, and scored his first race win in year three – when he also cracked the top-10 in points.

Given Veach’s years of preparing for this moment, he’s happy to have gotten to IndyCar now, rather than rushing it years earlier.

“I was one of those kids who thought he would be in IndyCar at 18. That’s so dumb! Looking back, I’m so glad that’s not how it happened,” Veach told NBC Sports.

“It’s hard to be patient when you’re young. I know I’m saying that at age 22, but at 15 or 16, all you care about is getting to IndyCar.

“Luckily, life forced me to be patient in some things. I would much rather have this deal at age 23 than at 18, because now I feel I can deliver what these people have put on my shoulders.”

Veach, Towriss and Andretti. Photo: IndyCar

The key person to have come through with the deal is Dan Towriss, CEO, Group One Thousand One. Veach, his pastor and Towriss all connected in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500, with Veach’s program for that race announced at Long Beach with A.J. Foyt Enterprises.

Towriss explained first off that Group One Thousand One is a separate insurance company from Guggenheim Life, which was the presenting sponsor of Veach’s No. 40 Indy Women in Tech Championship Chevrolet in Indianapolis.

“Group One Thousand One is a group of insurance companies based in Indianapolis, and again, we’re growing our business, and we’re excited to be associated with Andretti and with Zach in this newest venture of ours,” Towriss explained.

“His story is one of perseverance and continuing to work hard. It resonates with us very well; helping people help themselves, and so we will help him continue on that journey. During May, we noted the way he was able to persevere, and work with his engineers when things weren’t able to work.”

Veach at Indy 500 this year. Photo: IndyCar

Veach is one of the smallest drivers in the series, at 5 and a half feet and hovering around 130 pounds. But outside the cockpit he’s developed a love of mountain climbing, and has been able to scale several cliffs over the last couple years.

His upper body strength is something he’s focused on building and he has come a long way from his early years in the MRTI. Manhandling an IndyCar is difficult, particularly as they don’t have power steering, but it’s something Veach has been working on.

“I think the first couple of tests will be hard, but they’ll be hard for everyone after the three-month offseason,” he said. “But we’re already 10 pounds heavier than we were at the Indy 500 and I’m proud to say there’s not a lot of fat!

“We’ve been busting our butts at St. Vincent’s to get stronger. Our numbers to now from where we started are night and day. We’ll keep working hard and as we get closer to the season, we’ll shift to more cardiovascular work. I’m at 128, 130 pounds now and I’d like to be at 135 when the season starts. I think it’s well within reach.”

Veach described the challenge of advancing up the ladder despite not winning a single Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship for winning any of the three rungs on the ladder.

Veach (12) with longtime friend Gabby Chaves (7) in 2013 Freedom 100. Photo: IndyCar

“It’s not something I’m proud of. But one thing I am very proud of is that I’ve been very honest,” he said. “I had some success in USF2000, it was hit and miss in Pro Mazda, and in Indy Lights, I really came into my own. I proved to people that I could run up front and win races.

“What got me there was having that work ethic, trying to learn as much as I could from teammates who were quick and put that to use. Working with drivers like Felix Rosenqvist really helped. He showed me just how deep a car can go into the braking zone, with all that Formula 3 experience!

“He’s such a good driver and I hope to see him over here. He’s one of my closest friends and I don’t know anyone who deserves an IndyCar ride more than he does.

“It was a completely different set of skills and I think that’s why we didn’t hit our stride until the last part of the year. We won Road America, but winning at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca showed me where I wanted to be all year.

“It wasn’t until then that the team and I felt comfortable with what we were doing. There was added pressure when I became the team leader but that’s when things started turning around because the setups went in the exact direction I wanted them to go. That’s when things really started to click.”

Veach with USF2000 veteran Ayla Agren and Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman at Sonoma. Photo: IndyCar

The final element of Veach’s perseverance was his continued presence at the races. He found a home as a regular analyst and occasional pit road reporter for the Advance Auto Parts IndyCar Radio Network in 2015, and made regular appearances there in 2016 and 2017 as well. He also drove a two-seater for the Indy Racing Experience in the same time frame.

“I think it was extremely important just from the standpoint of showing people I wasn’t going to go away,” Veach said.

“I think I got a little criticism from others involved sometimes just saying, ‘Well, why are you there if you’re not doing anything and not driving?’ You have to stay relevant, and that’s just what we were trying to do. Luckily enough, IndyCar Radio gave me a great opportunity. It’s the first kind of real job I ever had with them.

“I owe them many thanks, and of course the Indy Racing Experience with the two-seater. Even though it’s a two-seater I still got to run at places I’ve never raced at before. So I’m going to a few new tracks next year. It’s not the same thing but at least I know which way to go. I think that’s going to help us be a little quicker.

“It’s just never giving up on the dream. It’s learning every day. It’s never taking no for an answer.”