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.”

Penske: No room for Patrick in Indy 500 lineup. Ganassi? OK

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. (AP) Roger Penske has no room in his Indianapolis 500 lineup for Danica Patrick.

“The Captain” has a hunch where Patrick’s Indy comeback will take her in May – with Chip Ganassi.

“I sent him a note and said, `Congratulations. Danica better be driving your car at Indy because unfortunately she’s not driving for us,”‘ Penske said, laughing.

The 35-year-old Patrick said this week she will race only in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500 next year and then she will walk away from racing. Patrick is the only woman to have led laps in both the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Patrick ran the Indy 500 from 2005 through 2011. Her highest finish was third in 2009, and she was the first woman to lead laps in the race when she paced the field for 19 trips around the Brickyard as a rookie.

Penske has a full field for Indy with Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and 2017 series champion Josef Newgarden racing as fulltime entries and three-time winner Helio Castroneves returns on a one-shot deal to try and win a fourth.

Chip Ganassi Racing is the likely ride at Indy. Ganassi has room to field additional cars – he’s scaling down from four full-time cars to two next year – and would give Patrick a car capable of winning. Ganassi said Friday he has met with Patrick and called her “Danica Double” a great idea.

Penske said Patrick and Ganassi, who has Ed Jones and IndyCar great Scott Dixon in his lineup, would be a perfect pair.

“I think that’s a great seat for her,” Penske said Saturday. “That’s a great team. They’re the ones that’s always been competitive there. I take my hat off that she wants to continue to go back to open wheel. That’s going to be terrific for the sport and there’s going to be a lot of interest around the country.”

Patrick was highly marketable early in her career even though wins were rare. She won the pole for the Daytona 500 in 2013, but finished 24th in the standings the last two seasons. She won her only IndyCar race in 2008, in Japan. Patrick never scored a top-five finish in NASCAR and had only seven top 10s (though she led laps at the Daytona 500) in 189 career starts.

Penske, a 16-time winner as a car owner of the Indy 500, said Patrick would return to IndyCar a better driver.

“I think she’s going to come back to IndyCar a lot tougher having run in NASCAR,” he said. “I think she’s going to be someone that, in a good car, is going to pick it up. She’s got plenty of time to practice.”

Team Penske won the owner championship Saturday in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. Sam Hornish Jr., who won three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500, said the sport would welcome back Patrick.

“She’s probably going to have a better shot at Indy because of what she’s done the last five years,” Hornish said.

Patrick has not revealed the team she’ll race for but surely a package deal with the same team and same sponsor for the biggest races in motorsports would make her again racing’s most marketable driver.

“I think it’s a great way for her to say, hey, I’m here, I’ve done it, I’m going to go back to the two biggest races and see if I can’t get out on top,” Penske said.

Penske can win a NASCAR championship with Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup race.

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