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New champ Newgarden hails MRTI as IndyCar’s youth begins to rise

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New Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden, at 26 years old, is the series’ youngest champion since Scott Dixon in 2003 at 23. He’s also the first under-30 champion since Dixon, then 28, in 2008.

Additionally, Newgarden is the first Mazda Road to Indy champion since the formation of the program in 2010 who has also ascended the ladder all the way to the IndyCar championship.

Newgarden only spent one year in the Mazda Road to Indy in Indy Lights, when the series still had Firestone tires before its program-wide switch to Cooper Tires several years later.

But his one year back in 2011, winning the championship for Sam Schmidt Motorsports, revitalized his career at a time when his European career stalled out after one year in GP3, in 2010. That was his tough European stretch after getting there thanks to winning the Team USA Scholarship in 2008.

Newgarden after his Freedom 100 win. Photo: IndyCar

“We don’t want a championship filled with just American drivers, but it’s important to have the best of America in it,” Newgarden said, noting that IndyCar now combines both a solid number of American drivers along with a great variety of international drivers.

“You know, and I think the Mazda Road to Indy has come such a long way, and the farming system seems to be working again.”

Newgarden raced with Carlin in that 2010 GP3 season, a teammate to eventual IndyCar driver Mikhail Aleshin. Others in that field who’ve now moved to IndyCar this year include that year’s champion, Esteban Gutierrez, Alexander Rossi, who finished fourth that year on his road to F1 before coming Stateside, and Robert Wickens, who was second that season and had a one-off run with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in practice at Road America. James Jakes and Stefano Coletti also joined IndyCar after being in that year’s GP3 field, but both last raced here in 2015.

At 26, Newgarden has six years and 100 starts in IndyCar under his belt, which is more time than has been afforded to a number of recent MRTI graduates.

Of the next five champions from 2012 to 2016, Tristan Vautier (31 starts), Sage Karam (15), Gabby Chaves (26), Spencer Pigot (22) and Ed Jones (17), have 31 starts or less in IndyCar, and none has driven more than one full-time season although each of the first four have driven in parts of multiple seasons.

The tide may be beginning to shift though with the wave of recent top-five Indy Lights drivers solidifying their more consistent, regular presence in IndyCar.

Pigot was confirmed last week as a full-season driver with Ed Carpenter Racing, his first full-time shot after parts of two years. Chaves and Jones are expected to be back in full-time bows with Harding Racing and Dale Coyne Racing, respectively.

There’s also Zach Veach confirmed at Andretti Autosport in a three-year deal, and new Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser confirmed for at least three races and working on more.

Rossi never went to the MRTI but at 25 is another of the talented young guns in IndyCar, along with Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz and Max Chilton, who all won in Indy Lights themselves. While Rossi is confirmed in a multi-year deal with Andretti Autosport, these other three are also working to be back.

Additional Indy Lights race winners looking to break through into IndyCar include Jack Harvey, RC Enerson and Matthew Brabham, who’ve all been up to IndyCar for a cup of coffee with three starts or less in either 2016 or 2017.

Since the formation of the MRTI prior to 2010, in Indy Lights, 21 different drivers in the top five in points have graduated or will graduate to IndyCar for at least one start, with potentially more to come if there’s others from 2016 or 2017 who can assemble a program.

And since the introduction of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda in 2015, the training vehicle for IndyCar should be even better – the car is more closely aligned with the IndyCar itself, and rewards drivers who are good under braking.

  • 2010: James Hinchcliffe (second), Martin Plowman (third), Charlie Kimball (fourth), Pippa Mann (fifth)
  • 2011: Josef Newgarden (first), Stefan Wilson (third)
  • 2012: Tristan Vautier (first), Sebastian Saavedra (fourth), Carlos Munoz (fifth)
  • 2013: Sage Karam (first), Gabby Chaves (second), Munoz (third), Jack Hawksworth (fourth)
  • 2014: Chaves (first), Jack Harvey (second), Zach Veach (third), Matthew Brabham (fourth)
  • 2015: Spencer Pigot (first), Harvey (second), Ed Jones (third), RC Enerson (fourth), Max Chilton (fifth)
  • 2016: Jones (first), Kyle Kaiser (third), Veach (fourth)
  • 2017: Kaiser (first), Zachary Claman DeMelo (fifth)

Newgarden explained the importance of building the next generation of stars, as did his team owner, Roger Penske.

“I feel like team owners and people within IndyCar are looking to the youth in America, which is a great thing. I think there’s more guys that are capable that are coming up to help fly the flag in this series,” Newgarden said.

“But as I said, the best thing is we have people from all around the world that are the best at what they do, and we’ve got to continue to have that. We have to have the best from Europe and from anywhere overseas because if it’s just Americans running it wouldn’t mean anything. But certainly having successful Americans is a big deal, too.

“You know, the youth that is coming up, I do believe you’re going to hopefully see for a long time, and I think there’s a lot of bright spots within the Mazda Road to Indy and some of the guys that are coming over from overseas that are young. So I think there’s a lot of talent in the world that are yet to make their mark in IndyCar Series, and you’re going to see that for years to come. Hopefully that includes me, too, but there’s no telling what the future holds.”

Penske added, “I think if you look at racing today across all of the disciplines, these drivers, these young people are coming up with lots of capabilities. You see it in NASCAR, we see it in our Supercars. There’s no question that because they start early, we’re going to see younger people come to the top, as Josef has.

“I see these young guys coming in with the respect. He’s certainly from a commercial perspective like the other guys have been great for our sponsors, and it was just something we had to say, hey, come on with us, we’re ready to go, and he’ll be a long-term player with us, hopefully like most of the drivers have.”

Juncos Racing’s title double caps surreal year for team

Franzoni and Juncos. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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A year ago, Ricardo Juncos and his Juncos Racing team entered the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca with far more questions and uncertainty about its future than it did at this year’s season finale at Watkins Glen International.

Twice a champion in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires ranks, Juncos was staring down the barrel of its first winless season in the series, and was all set to end its program and sell off its equipment following a challenging, disappointing campaign.

Additionally the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program had fell from title contention after Spencer Pigot brought home the 2015 championship. Kyle Kaiser had won his first couple races in the series but still made a few too many mistakes to have a realistic shot at capturing the crown. He debated whether he’d move into IndyCar and the team’s second driver, Zachary Claman De Melo, opted to leave after one year and move to Carlin for 2017.

For good measure, the team had its state of the art, 41,000-square foot new shop in downtown Speedway, Ind. it was all set to move into – all while not knowing what the state of its MRTI efforts for 2017 would be, and what the scale of its potential Verizon IndyCar Series program could be.

Although the shop’s grand opening occurred in early December to coincide with the Performance Racing Industry trade show, all that was settled on the driver front was Kaiser and Nicolas Dapero in Indy Lights. Meetings began between Juncos and INDYCAR, particularly Jay Frye and Mark Sibla, to see the team begin its entry into the primary series and fulfill his dream.

PRO MAZDA’S LAST-MINUTE RUN

All the while, Pro Mazda was only there as a back-burner option with the equipment sold and no plans to run… until the week before the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla.

That’s when after a test at Homestead-Miami Speedway where Victor Franzoni and gentleman driver and automotive dealer Jeff Green out of Peoria, Ill. helped launch a story that will go down in open-wheel ladder history lore.

Jeff Green was the unsung hero of the Pro Mazda season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni, the 21-year-old Brazilian, had planned for another year of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda competition with ArmsUp Motorsports, where he overachieved for the Sheboygan Falls, Wis.-based team in 2016, before the Pro Mazda opportunity arose thanks in large part to Green’s support.

“We were in a tough situation looking at February and March when we decided three days before St. Pete to do Pro Mazda,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “Actually I was thinking, how can I avoid firing my guys? They have families and you’re always thinking about it.

“We actually tried to do GTS in Pirelli World Challenge (with Maseratis)… and we put out some news about it. But we didn’t do it and it didn’t happen.

“We had the IndyCar program coming but we didn’t know how to use my guys. I used the Pro Mazda guys for IndyCar. And we were able to do that without losing concentration on both our Indy Lights and Pro Mazda championships.”

Franzoni elaborated on how late in the game this all came together, but he was used to it given his previous three years in the Mazda Road to Indy.

“I had a big sponsor, then two terrible years in Europe, then I lost that. The Mazda Road to Indy was my only option, and my only place for hope,” Franzoni told NBC Sports. “In Europe, they don’t care for the drivers. They only care for the money. You pay; it’s done!

“But I’ve had help every year here. Afterburner was big help, M1 Racing was a big help, then ArmsUp was a huge help. But then Juncos gave me an amazing year.”

Green, Franzoni and Martin in St. Pete. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni and Green’s relationship grew at the outset of the year as Green acquired the equipment, advancing into the series from vintage racing, and saw the potential and effervescent smile from Franzoni to keep him going. And considering some of Franzoni’s teammates in Europe, in Formula Renault, a quote that followed next said a lot.

“For sure he’s the best teammate I’ve had… and I’ve had Daniil Kvyat and Ocon before!” Franzoni laughed. “I’ve had a lot of big names as teammates. But he was the best one for sure. He helped me a lot this year. Without him, the team wouldn’t have come back for the series.”

MONTH OF MAY PUSHES BOTH DRIVERS TO POINTS LEADS

The months ahead were crucial for Juncos Racing’s push towards its massive success in both series while also preparing for its landmark moment after 15 years in North America – making its debut in the Indianapolis 500.

Franzoni banked a pair of runner-up finishes in St. Petersburg behind Anthony Martin, but it was a weekend sweep at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course that asserted himself as a true title contender. It followed on the team’s successful Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test where Franzoni and Juncos, working together for the first time, set a track record.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Additionally, Kaiser, the 21-year-old out of Santa Clara, Calif., had ironed out the mistakes that had plagued his first two seasons in the series and opened the year with great consistency. Finishes of sixth, fourth, second, second and third before his first win of the year on the IMS road course propelled him into the points lead in mid-May.

“I’ve always had huge confidence in the team. I have a ton of faith in their ability,” Kaiser told NBC Sports in May. “We’re never satisfied. The first two years, we struggled a lot here. We said we’d figure it out. This year, we were pretty quick the whole weekend. I love their drive and passion to get better, wherever we are. This will be a huge month for the team.

Kaiser elected not to run the Indy 500 this year as well with Juncos, instead focusing solely on Indy Lights – a move that ultimately paid dividends.

“You gather it up and remember the objective – it’s to win the Indy Lights championship. I wanted to, but it didn’t all line up, so it’s not the right time,” he said.

Franzoni added on the same weekend, “We tested, which was super important. We don’t have anymore tests planned. So it’ll be difficult here to the end of season. This was my second race with Juncos Racing. We need this for the championship.”

Despite the “any more tests” line, Green and Franzoni completed a one-day test at Watkins Glen later in the year, which paid huge dividends down the road.

Juncos Racing has debuted. Photo: IndyCar

Meanwhile, Juncos Racing completed the Indy 500 with both cars, Pigot coming home 18th after fighting an ill-handling car and Sebastian Saavedra overachieving for a solid 15th. With the former KVSH Racing equipment, this result was a culmination of Juncos’ dream, not fully secured until the checkered flag flew.

“The Indy 500 when we finished the race was everything,” Juncos said. “Starting was good, as I saw the ‘500 several times from outside. But inside, it’s very different. We were making history for my own country. But there’s so much tension. We had to finish and when the checkered flag flew, that was a relief. I will remember it forever.”

SUMMER TITLE BATTLES PUSH BOTH DRIVERS TO BRINK

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle today. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Franzoni had Martin to deal with and the weekends at Road America and Mid-Ohio brought significant tension between the two of them at times.

Franzoni politely as possible accused Martin of blocking him at Road America, halting a potential last-to-first charge and ending a hard-luck second. Meanwhile, Martin felt aggrieved at Mid-Ohio when trying to lap Green, but instead thinking Green had spun on purpose to allow Franzoni through to the lead – as it was Green was actually trying to let both of the leaders through unscathed but just lost the rear end.

Kyle Kaiser with Peter Dempsey after victory in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser hadn’t solidified his stamp on the title until Toronto, as he had pressure from any of Nico Jamin, Colton Herta, Santiago Urrutia, Matheus Leist, Zachary Claman De Melo or Aaron Telitz – but none of them having had a consistent enough run to quite supplant it. Either through unreliability or mistakes, each of those other six drivers fell out of the picture, and Kaiser’s weekend sweep north of the border all but assured his title.

All the while, Juncos – at the helm – never lost focus of either program with sole attention back on the MRTI after the Indy 500 bow.

“That guy knows how to handle pressure!” Kaiser told NBC Sports at Watkins Glen. “He can be everywhere and take care of so much stuff to be a great team owner. Any stress he may have had in the Pro Mazda program, I haven’t had to worry about any of that in the Indy Lights program all year. It’s been great. He does a good job at separating the two.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, described how tough Martin pushed him over this summer stretch of races.

“Anthony was the best and worst guy to fight for championship,” he reflected. “As a driver he’s exactly like me, which is the problem! He’s so aggressive and fast. No mistakes. He’s good at setup. Fast all the time. It’s like competing with myself. It’s difficult. Any other driver would be easier for both of us to beat.”

THE GATEWAY TO TITLE SUCCESS

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The final oval for Indy Lights and the lone one for Pro Mazda – the 1.25-mile Gateway Motorsports Park – proved the ultimate test for both programs in their title pursuit, and it left Juncos concerned after a tough Mid-Ohio weekend. Kaiser’s pair of 12th-place finishes brought the field back to him while Franzoni trailed Martin and was behind on pace during the weekend.

“The lowest point this year was probably right before Gateway,” Juncos admitted. “We thought we couldn’t do it. We managed to do both. The formation of IndyCar team was a lot of stress, but I knew it was going to happen. These titles, we didn’t.”

What followed in both races was both huge gambles and huge tour de forces from Kaiser and Franzoni that all but assured them the titles heading to Watkins Glen.

Juncos made a radical setup change to trim out – Franzoni admitted post-race he went ahead with it despite zero confidence – and promptly passed Martin for the lead, and the win, on the outside of Turns 1 and 2. That netted him the title lead in Pro Mazda.

“Gateway showed how confident he was in the whole combination of the team, with the way we work and express our thinking,” Juncos said of Franzoni. “When you believe in yourself and the team and the setup, the driver will get it and it’s a combination. If there’s not the trust, you lose a bit.

“We didn’t have an option. When you don’t have an option, and I know myself, you just have to make it happen.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kaiser, then, delivered a statement, bounce back drive after Mid-Ohio. Fourth place came after a couple great passes, surviving incorrect tire pressure, a few near misses and a deep exhale. With a 31-point lead leaving, Kaiser needed only to start at Watkins Glen to clinch the title.

“Gateway was definitely the closing weekend. That weekend really sealed this,” Kaiser said. “We knew anything could happen here and we’d be fine. We just had to start the race. We executed, and we did what we needed to do. I wanted to get on the podium but knowing where I was, being fourth with three laps to go, I just had to bring it home.

“That restart, I almost put it in the wall but I didn’t – I saved it! That was a season-saving catch, for sure.”

SEALING THE DEAL IN STYLE AT THE GLEN

Before Watkins Glen, Juncos Racing had made two other pieces of news. The team announced a purchase of three Tatuus PM-18 cars for the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season. Additionally, it announced it’d be collecting donations for trucks of supplies to then drive from Indianapolis to Texas for Hurricane Harvey relief.

On track, Kaiser’s final race was simply about surviving – seventh wasn’t the ultimate result but knowing his race was in the rain and the importance of bringing the car in one piece, it was fine for him to cap off four years of growth with the team, the last three in Indy Lights.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

But Franzoni’s weekend, first passing Martin for the lead on the outside in Saturday’s race, then crushing it in the wet on Sunday, was the stuff of legend that will be looked back on so fondly.

The dream for all three parties – Juncos, Kaiser and Franzoni – has been achieved, with Juncos becoming the first team to win two MRTI titles in the same year.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

For Juncos, these titles come after taking on a year with significant financial risk – and coming out the other side with everything achieved. He hailed every member of his team, and family, as family. As it stands now, he plans for an IndyCar program of at least three and up to five races next year, with or without Kaiser alongside.

For Kaiser, his title propels him into the Verizon IndyCar Series, which was an unlikely thought for those who saw him at the start of his MRTI career but shows how well the ladder works.

For Franzoni, it means he has his next season confirmed more than a week before the new year, and after a year of being a go-kart mechanic, sharing rooms, coming with his family and assisting the BN Racing team throughout its campaign, he now has his best shot at IndyCar. He expects to stay with Juncos Racing in Indy Lights next season, although that won’t be formally confirmed until Mazda Motorsports posts its scholarship driver release after December.

“Ricardo’s not only a team owner but he’s really a good mechanic and engineer. It’s a family,” Franzoni said. “Everyone, the engineers, mechanics… they all came from when they arrived in U.S. and started in go-karts. We have the same history, but in different ways. They started so small in go-karts, and made a great team; I started without money, also in go-karts. Now we’re together in Indy Lights. It’s the same kind of career. It’s why he believes in me and helps me.”

Juncos added, “It’s the best weekend ever so far. We’ve won championships in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights before, but both this year in the same year we did the Indy 500, it’s been amazing.

“We gambled big time. We knew it. Sometimes if I think more, I wouldn’t do it! Many things in my life I do without thinking. It was a huge risk. I talked to my wife, we said let’s do it, and here we are – we’re champions.”

Several Indy Lights drivers pushing for IndyCar graduation

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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With the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, wrapping its season in front of Verizon IndyCar Series team owners for the first time since 2014, it was a showcase opportunity for the drivers on track at Watkins Glen.

And with the field of 14 full-time drivers at various stages in their Mazda Road to Indy careers, it’s worth examining the likelihood of how many Indy Lights drivers could realistically move up.

CONFIRMED: Kyle Kaiser

Kaiser is, at present, the only driver who will secure his spot in IndyCar next season courtesy of a three-race scholarship valued at $1 million from Mazda Motorsports.

The 21-year-old out of Santa Clara, Calif., who now lives in Indianapolis, is hoping to have more news solidified within the next couple weeks in terms of which team will race for. Kaiser works in tandem with Mazda, Andersen Promotions and INDYCAR to secure his spot.

Spencer Pigot’s initial three-race package brought him to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2016, before in collaboration with Rising Star Racing he found enough extra to run the remaining road and street races with Detroit with Ed Carpenter Racing. Ed Jones found enough beyond the three-race amount to secure a full season entry in Dale Coyne Racing’s second car this year.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Although it’d be natural to assume Kaiser will move up with Juncos Racing, that’s not a guarantee. Still, he’s grown by leaps and bounds over his four years with the team – one in Pro Mazda and three in Indy Lights.

Ricardo Juncos explained the challenge of wanting to hold onto Kaiser while also understanding that like with Pigot, the potential exists that Kaiser could leave.

“Obviously we know others want to have Kyle, too. That’s the way it is and we need to fight against those things,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “This is the beginning of the process. We enjoy the weekend and the championships, and then next week we go to the desk and make it happen.”

STRONG POTENTIAL: Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman De Melo, Zach Veach

Santi Urrutia celebrates his first win of 2017 at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

At least two of these three, if not all three of these Indy Lights veterans could be poised to make their full-time IndyCar bows next season.

Urrutia has made the loudest waves in recent weeks. The Uruguayan has progressed from a “70 percent” number in the break in-between the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Gateway Motorsports Park rounds to the “getting closer” mantra at Gateway, following that win, to now close to “100 percent” at Watkins Glen this weekend.

“I’m working on my deal for IndyCar. I want to put it together right before Sonoma or right around there,” Urrutia said at Watkins Glen. “I’m closer to 100 percent. I’ll decide which team I’m gonna go and sign the contract. It feels good. The time I sign the contract, I want to be competitive and win races.”

Urrutia has also spoken openly of his desire to retain engineer Tim Neff, who he’s worked with both years in Indy Lights, first at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2016 and then with Belardi Auto Racing last year. SPM has at least one open seat next year and Urrutia is one of several drivers who could make sense there; he tested an IndyCar for the team at Sonoma last season.

Zachary Claman De Melo in Victory Lane at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Claman De Melo will make his IndyCar race debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next weekend at Sonoma and a quote within the release spoke greater volumes than this just being a one-off entry in the team’s second car.

“This opportunity marks an incredible moment for my career and for Canadian motorsport fans, as I’m getting that much closer to securing a full-time position with RLLR for next season,” he said.

While funding is there for the rapid teenager, the potential of what would be a third RLLR entry – in addition to Graham Rahal and the yet-to-be-confirmed-officially Takuma Sato – comes as a surprise. Again, consider Honda already ran 13 full-time cars this year. Claman De Melo is at nearly an identical place Kaiser was last year – he’s weighing his options for IndyCar, but he could win a title if he was to return to Indy Lights for a third year. Stay tuned.

Jones (left), Zach Veach (center) and Jack Harvey (right) were the three “traditional” rookies in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Veach’s name has been rumored over the summer for a full-season bow, with news of his confirmation potentially imminent. The Stockdale, Ohio native has made his first two IndyCar starts this year with Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, in the Indy Women in Tech Championship entry, at the Indianapolis 500. He raced the 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons in Indy Lights, winning races and contending for the title in the 2014 and 2016 seasons.

Veach’s fellow ‘500 rookie, Jack Harvey, is another recent Indy Lights graduate hoping to stick in IndyCar beyond the handful of races he’s done this year with the Michael Shank Racing/Andretti Autosport combination and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

MID-RANGE POTENTIAL: Matheus Leist, Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett

At present, Leist isn’t exploring a return to Indy Lights. The Brazilian driver talked openly at Watkins Glen of his desire to move into IndyCar, but like several others, whether he has the budget to do so is a question mark. Although Leist had a strong summer run with Carlin, inconsistency limited his title pursuit.

Jamin could make an excellent IndyCar driver. The Frenchman’s versatility is on par with countrymen Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais; he’s won races in Indy Lights, Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA Prototype Challenge this year alone in three wildly different types of machinery. Whether he’ll want to put himself through another season of Indy Lights though remains a question mark because of engine issues that hampered his campaign. He’s worth keeping on IndyCar team’s radars before any potential move to sports cars, and he’s regarded more for his talent than budget.

Kellett would like to do a handful of IndyCar races in 2018 and may have the means to do so. One of the smarter drivers in the series, the Queens University engineering graduate expects to return to Indy Lights for a third season. He’s not the out-and-out quickest driver in the field, but has shown particularly well on ovals throughout his Indy Lights career.

All three of these drivers – plus Claman De Melo – have at least one IndyCar test under their belts. This quartet tested at Road America this summer and Claman De Melo and Kellett had one run apiece in 2016, as well.

WAIT UNTIL 2019: Colton Herta, Aaron Telitz and others

Telitz (center) and Herta (right) are likely a year out from IndyCar. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta’s keen on staying in Indy Lights for another year with Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing. Although NBC Sports confirmed with both sides of the program that nothing is yet completed for a 2018 return to Indy Lights, they still expect it to happen, in preparation for Herta and Steinbrenner’s step-up to IndyCar in 2019. And it’s something Herta wants too.

“I think we exceeded our expectations,” Herta told NBC Sports. “We’re third in the championship, so third my last three years! I want to come back next year. That’s something I’ve never had. I’ve never had a second year in any series besides karting. That will help a ton.”

Telitz, Mazda’s scholarship driver this year in Indy Lights, endured a roller coaster year of inconsistency but impressed many in the IndyCar and MRTI paddocks with his win in the wet at Watkins Glen. He’s another driver who could improve and contend for the title in a second year in Lights.

“In terms of growth, I took a lot more of off-track prep more seriously,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “In lower divisions, I relied on being fast and driving. Now you had to take it more seriously with video, data and becoming more physically fit.”

Neither has yet tested an IndyCar, although either over the winter or into 2018 should provide them that chance.

Among others in the Indy Lights field:

  • With at least two years under their belts, Neil Alberico, Juan Piedrahita and Shelby Blackstock have been occasional podium finishers but have lacked the consistency, reliability and pace needed to fulfill their talent completely. It’s hard to see them realistically on IndyCar radars. Of the three, only Blackstock (2016 at Watkins Glen) has enjoyed an IndyCar test.
  • Rookies Ryan Norman and Nico Dapero often overachieved in their first seasons. Norman had 14 top-10 finishes which tied for most in the series with Kaiser and Claman De Melo. Dapero really came on strong towards the end of the year, a run to fifth at Gateway particularly impressive. With returns planned for both drivers, expect Kaiser and/or Claman De Melo-type improvements in a second year.
  • Rookie Garth Rickards was, frankly, overmatched at this level. A talented enough driver in the lowest rung on the ladder, USF2000, Rickards would need a big leap in performance in a second year of Indy Lights to put himself on any IndyCar radar.

Telitz a winner, Kaiser a champion after wet Indy Lights race

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The skies opened up completely for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season-finale on Sunday morning, as a heavy rain storm dropped buckets of water on Watkins Glen International throughout the race.

In fact, the race needed to be red flagged after 16 laps, as heavy rainfall resulted in standing water out on the circuit. However, the race was eventually restarted and ran the full distance.

Ultimately, it was Aaron Telitz taking the win, his second of the 2017 Indy Lights season (he won the season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, while Kyle Kaiser survived the conditions, though he did have a quick spin in the middle of the race, and finished seventh to clinch the 2017 Indy Lights championship.

Starting third, Telitz went three-wide with Santi Urrutia and pole sitter Colton Herta entering Turn 1. Herta managed to briefly hold the lead on the opening lap, but Telitz dove up the inside of Herta in Turn 1 on Lap 2 to take the lead.

Aaron Telitz, Colton Herta, and Santi Urrutia went three-wide in turn one to start the Watkins Glen race. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The three drivers dueled each other in the early laps in a three-way battle for the lead, but Telitz was able to start building a gap, leading by over four seconds on Lap 6. Urrutia, meanwhile, emerged ahead of Herta in second and began trying to chase down Telitz.

The red flag and subsequent restart, on lap 17, gave Urrutia a chance to battle Telitz for the win in the closing laps, but Telitz held off every challenge, winning by over two seconds.

“I think relief is my primary emotion – the team joked with me that I might not remember how to get to Victory Lane. But it was a great way to end the year. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the off season, thinking that all the hard work was worth it,” said a relieved Telitz, who endured a roller-coaster 2017 campaign in between his bookend victories.

Telitz revealed that a tire test from earlier this year, in which he took advantage of a chance to run on rain tires, was critical in his ability to hold the lead, especially in the early laps. “The start was tricky but I had some rain experience here earlier in the year – we did a Cooper Tire test and it was raining in the afternoon, so I thought I would go out and run in the rain. I did about 10 laps, so I knew where the grip was going to be on the track, whereas everyone else was still figuring it out,” Telitz said of his prior rain experience.

Colton Herta held on for third, with Matheus Leist and Nico Jamin completing the top five.

Prior to the red flag, the race was slowed by a crash involving Dalton Kellett, who spun exiting the bus stop and hit the outside tire barrier on corner exit. Shelby Blackstock also stalled under the caution.

Kyle Kaiser, respectively, drove a quiet race, spending a large portion of it even outside the top ten, even spinning in the middle of the race as the rain grew heavier.

Kyle Kaiser survived a treacherous and difficult season-finale to clinch the 2017 Indy Lights championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

However, he survived the treacherous conditions and the chaos to finish seventh and become the 2017 Indy Lights champion.

“I never could have imagined this at age 7, getting into a kart for the first time. It has been an absolute dream,” said an elated and relieved Kaiser afterward.

He also added that, contrary to the easy assumption, he never thought about winning the title. “The championship never entered my mind during the race – I was just trying to manage the conditions,” he detailed. “I think these were the trickiest conditions we’ve had all year. I tried pushing and that’s why I spun. But I just really wanted to bring the car home. We just won the Indy Lights championship and it’s time to celebrate.”

Results are below.

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MRTI: Colton Herta takes Indy Lights pole at Watkins Glen

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Colton Herta will start on pole for the season finale of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires at Watkins Glen International. Herta’s best lap of 1:32.439 was more than three tenths of a second quicker than second-place Santi Urrutia, whose best lap came in at 1:32.795.

For Herta, this is his seventh pole of 2017 and comes at the end of a year that seen a lot of speed from the 17-year-old, but a string of inconsistent finishes and bad luck hampered his overall championship efforts

“I think it’s just been a lot of me gaining my confidence in the races. We’ve been quick all year. We’ve had a lot of poles this year, but just haven’t quite gotten it done in the races. But, we have a car for the race, we were really quick on old tires, and we were obviously quick on new tires. So, it should be good,” Herta told NBC Sports after qualifying.

The aforementioned Urrutia will flank Herta on the front row. Aaron Telitz, Nico Jamin, and Zachary Claman De Melo completed the top five. Champion-elect Kyle Kaiser, who need only start Sunday morning’s race to clinch the 2017 Indy Lights championship, qualified tenth.

Qualifying results are below. Sunday morning’s race begins at 10:50 a.m.

Follow@KyleMLavigne