Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Parker Thompson hoping to end USF2000 year on high note

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When the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires heads to Watkins Glen International on Labor Day Weekend, most of the focus will be on drivers like Oliver Askew, Rinus Veekay, Anthony Martin, Victor Franzoni, and Kyle Kaiser. All will be fighting for their respective championships, or in position to clinch a championship in the case of Kaiser in position so it’s not surprising that they’ll likely get the lion’s share of the attention.

But one driver outside of that group keen to make an impression as the season draws to a close is Parker Thompson. A proven race winner in each of the last two seasons of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship, Thompson enters the final race of the 2017 season on a hot streak, having won three of the last four races, with the non-victory being a second.

Sitting third in the USF2000 championship, and having that spot clinched as a matter of fact, might seem like a strong result on paper. But, as Thompson revealed, finishing third in the championship was not a part of the plan.

“Coming into this season, it was do or die, really. I needed to win the championship in order to (move up the Mazda Road to Indy), and I knew that getting into this,” Thompson told NBC Sports of his expectations entering 2017.

“It was kind of like my final hoorah. I convinced all my partners ‘Here’s the deal: I have an opportunity to do one more shot at the USF2000 championship. If you help me get to this championship, I’m going to win it no matter what the cost.’”

An analysis of Thompson’s season reveals a tale of two halves. Through the first nine races, Thompson’s best finish was third, which he scored on two different occasions. Granted, his results were far from alarming on paper, as he finished between third and fifth in seven of those nine races.

However, something appeared to be missing for the driver who won four USF2000 races last year on his way to second in the championship. As it turns out, something was. A persistent mechanical problem had hamstrung the efforts of Thompson and his Exclusive Autosport team during the first nine events.

As Thompson explained, identifying and fixing the problem was ultimately the key to turning the season around.

“We found a problem that we’ve been struggling with all season long. It hasn’t been the team’s fault, it hasn’t been the driver’s fault. We fixed that problem, and all of the sudden results have come that should have been here all year long,” Thompson lamented.

Since Toronto, Thompson and Exclusive Autosport have been the hottest team across all three series within the Mazda Road to Indy. They swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 and then taking advantage of a crash involving Alex Baron, David Malukas, and Oliver Askew to win Race 2. At Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, they finished second in Race 1 before returning to Victory Lane in Race 2.

Parker Thompson salutes his Exclusive Autosport team after winning at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

That’s three victories in the last four races and four consecutive podiums for the 19-year-old native of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. While he admits the second-half results are bittersweet, in that they come too late in the season to vault him back into championship contention, Thompson remains very proud of the efforts of everyone involved with the team.

“We haven’t had the results we wanted to, but I’m proud that we found the problem. I’m proud that we fixed the problem and that we’ve had the results we have had in the second half of the season,” he asserted.

For Thompson, the success also comes with a team brand new to USF2000, and the Mazda Road to Indy as a whole. After racing with Cape Motorsports, the team that has won every USF2000 title since 2012, last year, Thompson joined Exclusive Autosport for 2017. Created in 2013, the Canada-based team has been a fixture in F1600 in Canada and has claimed a slew of championships across several F1600 series in the process, but hadn’t contested any Mazda Road to Indy events prior to this year.

As a new team to USF2000, a number of challenges awaited, and as a driver who left a championship winning operation for one that was brand new to the Mazda Road to Indy, the difficulties were not lost on Thompson.

“There’s a lot of pressure. In your third in USF2000, you leave the championship winning team to sign with a team that’s brand new to the Mazda Road to Indy: that’s a pretty big statement. With that, this team has never competed at any of the tracks that we’ve done in USF2000 the last couple years,” Thompson described.

As a driver, this means Thompson needed to take a larger role and help the team develop setups, something not required of him in his time at Cape Motorsports. Thompson explained how delicate of a balance it was to help Exclusive Autosport build its USF2000 notebook while not disturbing the general processes that led the team to become a force in F1600.

“In any team, in order to win, there’s a winning formula,” Thompson explained. “Exclusive Autosport has had a winning formula in everything else they’ve competed in. They had the winning formula in F1600, they’ve been champions in Canada, they’ve ruled the 1600 category. It was more or less refining what they already had, that winning formula, and adding my own flavor to it, and coming out this season and doing what we do best together.”

Being more hands-on with car development and setup development has been vital to Thompson’s growth as a driver, and it’s been a role he’s relished in 2017.

“Not only have I learned how to be successful on the track, I think off the track – working with people, working with a new team, being that team leader that a team needs to compete in the Mazda Road to Indy – that’s what I’ve learned and that’s where I think our success has come this last half of the season.”

Though he cannot move up or down from his current position of third in the championship, Thompson remains keen to end the season with one more victory, especially because he does not yet know what his future will be like in 2018.

“Right now, I’m racing for my career,” he revealed. “It goes without saying I don’t have many options. It’s going to be tough for me to move up to (the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) next year. All I’m out to do is prove a point to myself, prove a point to the paddock in the Mazda Road to Indy that I belong on the Mazda Road to Indy. And hopefully a team will pick me up for next year and I can continue my career. I want to prove a point for Exclusive Autosport as well. I think we’ve had a winning car all year long.”

While he has the ultimate goal of eventually landing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Thompson is well aware that branching out beyond the open wheel world is more than a viable option.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: My goal in racing is to be a paid race car driver, whether that’s in IMSA sports cars, Europe, IndyCar, Formula 1…anywhere. I would take a paid race position. That’s the end goal. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s real Parker Thompson. That’s from the heart. I just want to be a paid race car driver.”

Parker Thompson is flanked by Rinus Veekay and Kaylen Frederick on the Mid-Ohio podium. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

And even though the year has not gone exactly to plan, he is hopeful that he has done enough to move up to the Pro Mazda ranks.

“I honestly didn’t think I was racing this year, so it’s going to be tough to put together a budget for Pro Mazda next year. I already know that. I was really banking on the championship this year. I thought I could come in and win it. But, that’s how racing goes. Sometimes you’re in that position, and sometimes you’re not. I still think we’ve had a great season.”

“I’ve already started to work on (next season), trying to put a deal together and trying to scratch up some sponsorship. But, it’s going to be tough. I just hope the performances that I put forward this year help out in negotiations.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”