The Bommarito Automotive Group 500 at Gateway Motorsports Park is the latest race to have its 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series date confirmed, and like most others on the 2017 schedule, it will stay in the same date as this year.
The track confirmed Tuesday that it will run on August 25, 2018 as the second year of its multi-year agreement with INDYCAR, but the big change is that there will be an earlier start time.
What was an initial 8:45 p.m. CT race start time this year has been bumped up at least one hour. The track listed a 7 p.m. CT start time, but whether that’s the pre-race activity time or green flag time is to be determined and potentially weather contingent, per the track.
While not listing support series beyond IndyCar – both Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races alongside IndyCar this year – Gateway did announce several changes for this year in response to customer feedback. Those are below:
A large display and exhibitions of vintage Indy cars in conjunction with the Vintage Indy Registry.
More pre-event and post-race live entertainment.
Expanded parking and more roadways entering and exiting the parking areas.
Expanded concession stands on the midway and in the infield.
Additionally, there’s incentives for ticket renewal and for new purchases. Per the track:
“Ticket renewals will start October 16. Tickets will go on sale to the general public on November 13. Renewal tickets can be secured with only a $10 down payment as part of our fan-friendly payment plan. Anyone purchasing tickets as a gift before December 15 will receive a special holiday card to present to their recipient. In addition, pre-holiday buyers will also receive a free Coors Light Pole Night ticket and a 2017 special event gift from Gateway Motorsports Park.
“Anyone purchasing INDYCAR tickets before August 11, 2018 will receive special advance pricing and a free Coors Light Pole Night ticket and will be registered for prize drawings that include exclusive event day experiences.”
Gateway’s confirmation adds another date to the 2018 IndyCar calendar. Announced dates are below:
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.
“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.”
“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
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.
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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
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.
Whereas last week at Pocono Raceway the Verizon IndyCar Series delivered arguably its best race of the season, on Saturday night at Gateway Motorsports Park it delivered its most pleasant surprise.
With an actual crowd of fans on site at the 1.25-mile oval just outside downtown St. Louis in Madison, Ill., there was a proper pre-race buzz so palpable it was on par with IndyCar’s marquee events on each of its three types of circuits: Indianapolis (ovals), Long Beach (street courses) and Elkhart Lake (permanent road courses).
And then when Josef Newgarden delivered his second statement, authoritative pass for the lead of one of his Team Penske teammates in three races – he snookered Will Power at Mid-Ohio and forced his way past Simon Pagenaud in Gateway – it showcased a will-not-be-denied moment of glory that could net him his first series championship.
Those combined elements provided IndyCar an excellent capper to its six oval races for the year, following IndyCar’s return to a track that last hosted a race in 2003.
THE EVENT ITSELF
A two-year process to bring IndyCar back to Gateway reached its conclusion this weekend.
The initial series test in May brought about the subsequent repave prior to August, which were the latest signs of the commitment from Gateway officials. Title sponsor Bommarito Auto Group was hailed across multiple outlets for its local activation.
Week-long fan events were front and center in downtown St. Louis all week, culminating with a several-hour fan fest on Thursday afternoon prior to the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Padres baseball game, ensuring fans knew the race was on and close to the area.
“It’s amazing to see the community come together, between the city, civic leaders and race fans. It’s been an amazing opportunity to bring this event back to St. Louis,” CurtisFrancois, Owner & CEO, Gateway Motorsports Park, said Thursday at a media lunch in the Ballpark Village outside Busch Stadium.
Fans started trickling in on race day even prior to Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires qualifying sessions at 1 p.m., which was as impressive as it was surprising. Single-car qualifying for fields of 15 cars or less don’t usually qualify as “scintillating,” but this was proof positive fans heeded the advice to come early, beat the traffic, and get situated.
Then with the autograph sessions happening on race day, long lines were evident for all three series competing, between IndyCar, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Some of the MRTI drivers said they were impressed and surprised with the turnout for their autograph sessions.
Both Pro Mazda and Indy Lights put on entertaining shows as buzz built in the infield with fans either coming through the paddock to watch the IndyCar race preparation or competing on the Gateway karting complex. That made it difficult to get places at times because of the swath of people, but again, not a bad thing.
Inevitably for a first-year or returning event, there were a few kinks that needed to be ironed out. There were some complaints witnessed about signage, credentials and ticket pickup, and parking that arose on social media. Leaving the track post-race was made a bit more complicated by a train derailment that closed I-55.
Then the actual start of the race left a bit to be desired with a handful of people in the paddock suggesting dust and debris from the pre-race fireworks display, more than rubber from the previous series, actually dirtied the track. That may have contributed to Tony Kanaan’s spin before the green flag and then the Turn 2 accident that involved Will Power, Ed Carpenter and Takuma Sato all making contact, so race action didn’t get going until Lap 18.
But compared to some of the other first-year or returning events INDYCAR has had in recent years – street races in Baltimore and Houston and the one-year NOLA Motorsports Park experiment come to mind – there was nothing at Gateway that suggested these were elements that can’t be fixed. Instead, the cohesion between the sanctioning body, the track officials and the city of St. Louis combined to create a first-year event without most of the first-year headaches.
“Curtis Francois, Chris Blair and the staff did a phenomenal job,” Jay Frye, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, told NBC Sports. “Everything we did from day one exceeded our expectations, which were very high going into the event. We can’t thank them enough for all the hard work and enthusiasm they did for the effort.
“Curtis had a great vision for the future of this track and this event, and we had great confidence in Curtis. They showed what had to be done, and they did it. Those are the type of people you enjoy working with.”
Once the front straight grandstand was close to filling up, the crowd was eager to witness a good race. And thanks to the race winning pass, the estimated 40,000 in attendance weren’t disappointed.
THE PASS, AND MENTAL CHESS MATCH BETWEEN NEWGARDEN, PAGENAUD
The move itself has ignited debate on whether it was a cheap move by Newgarden to contact Pagenaud, or whether Pagenaud could have defended better to where the inside line wasn’t left open in the first place.
The attitudes by both drivers after the race reveal a lot about where they sit mentally at the moment.
Would Senna, known for his ruthlessness on track, have gone for that gap that Pagenaud left slightly ajar – but enough ajar – that Newgarden did? It’s hard to say no, and very easy to imagine yes, even though we never got to see Senna, like Nigel Mansell, race on an oval.
“There’s no crash (so it wasn’t reviewed); it’s more, how do you call it, a driver rule. It’s how much you respect each other,” he added.
“When you think the gap is open enough to risk it on an oval. I’m not talking road course. I think on a road course, that was a beautiful pass. But we’re not on a road course. There we are going 40, 50 miles an hour. Here we’re doing 190 there. It’s completely different story.”
Yes, it was at a slower rate of speed – but the point still exists that he went for a gap, made contact with a teammate and got ahead in the process. Such a pass was key to him securing last year’s championship, and created a 20-point swing in a single move.
And Newgarden was far from angry in the post-race press conference. He wasn’t oblivious to the controversy; he was more matter-of-fact about it.
“I mean, Simon gave me a lane to work with,” he said. “I had a good tow on him, put my car inside in the opening, got about halfway alongside of him. One thing I didn’t want to do was touch him too hard. I think if I would have stayed too far left, I would have jumped the curb and that would have taken both of us out.
“I tried to get Simon to move over a little when we were coming to the opening of the corner. We both had to slow up. Fortunately worked out well for us on the 2 car side. Pagenaud, didn’t get up into the wall or anything like that, so I would say it worked out okay for him, too.”
Where Pagenaud made a mistake in this case was by leaving the inside open to begin with, and if I had to guess, was probably more upset about that than he was the fact there was contact.
It was showcased in the two earlier MRTI races Saturday that moving from outside of the track to the inside, and forcing drivers to go around the outside, would be the way to defend the lead and break the draft. Had Pagenaud mirrored Power’s late-race defense of Newgarden last week at Pocono, he may well have held him off.
Pagenaud executes at his best when he’s the clear team leader and has the full focus of the team around him. This was often the case for him in sports car racing and when he was at Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports his first few years in IndyCar, and was also true for the better part of last year as he ascended up the unofficial Penske depth chart.
This year, it seems he’s been playing catch-up both on pace and in the headlines.
Newgarden’s arrival dominated the winter discussion, even as Pagenaud was enjoying the spoils of his first championship, and got to celebrate at home in France. Will Power had a baby over the offseason and has been far more laid back all season, as he keeps wracking up the poles, but has fought inconsistency. Helio Castroneves’ future has been a talking point in his 20th season, with his future in a Penske IndyCar for the following year not assured for the first time in a decade.
That’s left Pagenaud, who’s been most consistent of all of them this year but not quite as fast, almost overlooked.
Santiago Urrutia is closing on moving up to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018, even if the Uruguayan driver does not win this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.
Urrutia was a hard-luck runner-up finisher in the 2016 season driving for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but fell into an uncertain situation over the offseason as SPM shuttered its Indy Lights program.
A late and rather interesting deal came together later during the offseason between Urrutia and Belardi Auto Racing, with his No. 5 Dallara IL-15 Mazda then having taken on Arrow Electronics signage at the first race at St. Petersburg and a full change to a gold and black Arrow Electronics livery under the Belardi Auto Racing with SPM banner from the second weekend at Barber Motorsports Park.
That allowed Urrutia a second season in the series. While a tough start occurred with three finishes outside the top-10 in the first four races, Urrutia’s won twice since and scored eight top-five finishes in the last 10 races, and has closed to within 31 points of points leader Kyle Kaiser. Kaiser will clinch the title at the Watkins Glen season finale next week provided he starts the race.
In the break in-between the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Gateway Motorsports Park race weekends, Urrutia held a press conference in his home country of Uruguay to say he has “70 percent” of the budget secured for IndyCar next year.
He expanded on that a bit this weekend at Gateway, following his win in Saturday night’s penultimate race of the year.
“It’s getting close. I’m not sure I can say anything, but I definitely want to be in IndyCar next year,” Urrutia told NBC Sports.
“I think I’ve showed everyone that I’m ready for IndyCar. So, let’s see what we can find at the end of the year if I can sign a contract. But right now I’m in a really good position, so I hope I can sign as soon as I can a contract.”
Urrutia had to win Saturday night in Gateway to keep his Indy Lights title hopes alive, and did so after a late-race pass of Juan Piedrahita for the victory.
“Yeah, it was good. The only thing I got to do was win, so that’s what I did. 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. If I win again at Watkins Glen, it’s going to help even more (trying to get to IndyCar).”
The Gateway win was also important for Urrutia from an overall development standpoint, as it marked his first win on an oval. He’d driven very well at Iowa this year, climbing to second and then overlooking race winner Matheus Leist before accidentally doing donuts on the front straight.
But this Saturday evening showcased a tenacity on the ovals without making a mistake, which had happened previously in Urrutia’s Indy Lights career the last year and a half.
By far, he’s excelled most on the permanent road courses, as his five other Indy Lights wins have come on those tracks (three at Mid-Ohio, one apiece at Barber and Road America).
“It was good,” he said. “I was pretty close in the Freedom 100, but I hit the wall. I like the ovals. This oval I didn’t like the first time. I got here, in the first few laps, I crashed into the wall. I said ‘Oh, this oval is going to difficult for me.’
“But as soon as we got the car ready, it was good. The car was super, super quick. So I think the Belardi guys did a great job today. The car was awesome, so thank you to the team.”
In a recent “Meet the Contenders” series piece on those drivers eligible for the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires titles, Urrutia hailed his close relationship with engineer Tim Neff, who came with him from SPM to Belardi over the offseason.
“I really trust Tim. I don’t have a lot of friends in racing and I can call him my friend,” Urrutia said. “I believe in him and we have a really good relationship. If he makes a mistake, he tells me – and if I make a mistake, I tell him what I did. I can work closely with him and he really helps me. I know he’ll give me 100 percent to make the car as quick as he can, and he knows I’ll drive it as fast as I can. I’m really glad that we were able to do a deal for this year and I hope that if I go to IndyCar I can bring him with me.”
If Urrutia can make it to IndyCar, as he’s aiming to do and having tested previously with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last year, he’d be the first Uruguayan driver in the series since Juan Caceres made one Champ Car start for Dale Coyne Racing in 2006.
It’s the late Gonzalo Rodriguez though, who is Uruguay’s racing idol. He drove for Team Penske in CART two race weekends in 1999. Urrutia’s 2015 Pro Mazda title was clinched at the same track and on the same September weekend when Rodriguez lost his life 16 years earlier.
“It’s a country that is all about soccer but people are learning more about motorsports and they hope to see another driver in the biggest league, like Gonzalo Rodriguez did in 1999. It’s great for everyone,” he said.
“Fans at home and fans here in America want to see me in IndyCar next year and we’re working hard toward it. I know it won’t be easy, especially if we don’t win the scholarship, but it’s not impossible.”
Everyone was surprised to hear that Dale Coyne Racing’s Sebastien Bourdais would make his Verizon IndyCar Series return on Saturday night’s Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline. A result of that surprise was likely a lack of expectations about just how well he would do, especially given the apparent drag disadvantage Honda’s short-oval aero package has.
Bourdais qualified a conservative, albeit solid 19th to knock the dust off, but the race was expected to be a considerable challenge for the driver of the No. 18 UNIFIN Honda.
Yet, while Bourdais’ run on Saturday was a quiet one, he nonetheless drove a clean race aamid tricky conditions that caught out the likes of Will Power, Tony Kanaan, Ed Carpenter, and Takuma Sato early on.
Bourdais slowly moved forward throughout the Saturday night affair and, at the checkered flag, he found himself in tenth, a more than solid result on his first race back.
Bourdais described afterward that the restarts were a complicated affair for him, and he nearly crashed on multiple occasions.
“It wasn’t an easy race. We knew the car wasn’t perfect and I had some really complicated restarts. I don’t know what was going on, but I got loose three times and I almost stuffed it, and so I went to the back of the pack,” Bourdais said of his near-misses.
Still, Bourdais and the team got stronger as the race went on, and through a stretch of good pit stops and a strong final restart, managed to sneak into the top ten.
“The guys did a really good job in the pits and got us back in contention there at the end. I finally had a good restart and a couple of wobbles in front of me and I benefitted from it. I’m just really happy with my top 10. It’s a good way to salvage something this weekend.”