Mazda Road to Indy

Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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
Leave a comment

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.”

Askew wraps USF2000 title as VeeKay wins Watkins Glen finale

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Oliver Askew has clinched the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda title and his third scholarship in the last 12 months, while his closest title rival this year, Rinus VeeKay, ended the season with his third win of the year at Watkins Glen International.

Askew has secured Cape Motorsports its seventh consecutive USF2000 driver’s championship, while VeeKay’s season-long consistency – today was his 12th podium finish in 14 races this season – along with his two teammates netted Augie Pabst’s Pabst Racing the team’s first team championship.

With the title, Askew adds the USF2000 title to the $200,000 MRTI Mazda shootout and Team USA Scholarship wins achieved last fall. He won seven races this year and today marked his 11th podium finish of the year. This title nets Askew a nearly $400,000 scholarship to move into the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series next year.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Unofficially it’s a seven-point margin with Askew on 351 points, second place plus a bonus point for pole, with VeeKay second on 344 points with two bonus points for leading the most laps and setting the fastest race lap.

“I’ve dreamed about this moment for so long. It’s such a huge weight off my shoulders, to be champion,” said Askew. “My learning curve has been really steep this year but I’ve had so many great people around me who have helped me progress. I learned something every day at the racetrack.

“The priority was to finish on the podium in case Rinus won and got maximum points, and we did that. I just did the best I could to keep Calvin behind me. I can’t thank the Cape team enough. We started on the wrong foot this weekend but once again when it counted we got pole and I had a great car. I’m so happy to be able to continue my relationship with Mazda and Cooper Tires, they’ve helped me so much. Thanks also to Team USA Scholarship for giving me the opportunity, and Rising Star Racing. This is not going to sink in for a while – I can’t wait for next year!”

The 20-year-old Floridian scored a crucial pole position this morning, which netted him an additional bonus point after entering the weekend with a 13-point lead over VeeKay.

Needing only a fourth-place finish to wrap the title, Askew finished second behind VeeKay, the Dutchman having completed an outside pass around Askew from Turn 1 through to the end of Turn 2 to get by for the lead.

VeeKay won the race by 9.6053 seconds over Askew with Calvin Ming, one of VeeKay’s two teammates at Pabst Racing, shadowing Askew home all race. The 30-minute race ran to its conclusion without a caution flag.

“I’m happy but I could be happier,” VeeKay admitted. “I hadn’t really planned to pass Oliver at the start but I saw him brake for the inside and I went for the outside and all of the sudden I passed him. We had a good race down the back straight but I didn’t want to give the position back. I think he backed off to be sure of the position for the championship, but I put my head down and got away from the field.

“I will take some time in the off-season and figure out what I want to do next year. I definitely want to stay in the Mazda Road to Indy. I don’t know where on the ladder but I think we will move up. It was a great season, with 12 podiums out of 14 races with three wins, so I cannot thank the Pabst team enough for giving me a great car and getting better every weekend.”

Kaylen Frederick completed a solid first full season with Team Pelfrey in fourth, while David Malukas of BN Racing made a late-race pass on Andres Gutierrez of DE Force Racing for the final top-five position.

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

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

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.”

MRTI: Gateway weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Leave a comment

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.

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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

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

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

“Zero!” he laughed post-race.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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

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

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

A post shared by Kyle Kaiser Racing (@kylekaiser18) on

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

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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.