Pro Mazda

Franzoni and Juncos. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Juncos Racing’s title double caps surreal year for team

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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.”

Victor Franzoni seals Pro Mazda title; delivers Juncos a double

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Victor Franzoni has completed a weekend sweep in the pair of Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires races at Watkins Glen International, and secured the 2017 Pro Mazda title in the process.

The Brazilian driver led flag-to-flag from pole in tricky conditions with mist peppering the 3.37-mile circuit, and the track damp from earlier rain, for his seventh win of the year in the No. 23 Juncos Racing entry. His win Saturday came following a pivotal pass of title rival Anthony Martin for the lead on the outside into the Bus Stop.

This capped off the run for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine and the existing chassis before the new Tatuus PM-18 enters the series next year, the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

More to the point, Franzoni has now secured the Mazda Motorsports advancement scholarship valued at more than $790,000, to move into the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series in 2018.

“I am so happy, but there are so many things in my mind right now. It’s unbelievable. So many people helped me to get into Pro Mazda this season,” Franzoni said. “I grew up five or 10 years in my career this season. The difference for me was Juncos Racing this year, they gave me such a great car. The fight with Anthony was incredible. He’s really, really good. I had to push so hard to stay with him. We were so close in every single race and pushed to the limit all the time. This was the hardest season of my life, because I knew I could not make a mistake. We both did a great job and I think we both deserve to move forward. I want to thank everyone at Mazda, Cooper Tires and Andersen Promotions.

“There were so many things on my mind on that last lap that I couldn’t focus. The team told me to be careful when the white flag came out, and suddenly, I couldn’t drive! When I saw the checkered, it was so great. To know where I will be next year now is the best thing in the world. I didn’t get just prize money today, I got hope.”

With this win, Franzoni will join Kyle Kaiser in winning a title for Juncos Racing this year, giving Ricardo Juncos bragging rights as the first team owner and first team to win two MRTI titles in the same season. Kaiser will only need to start today’s Indy Lights season finale to score enough points to secure that title.

Franzoni entered the day with an eight-point lead over his closest title rival, Martin, and with Martin needing to win and hope Franzoni finished off the podium to realistically be able move ahead to bring the title back within his grasp.

Martin, however, was hamstrung as it was by starting fifth in his No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry after being assessed a two-spot grid penalty for running the checkered flag during qualifying late Saturday afternoon.

While he made it up to third place on the opening lap, Martin’s title hopes evaporated when he spun off at Turn 1 trying to pass Carlos Cunha’s No. 81 Team Pelfrey car for second place. Martin lost several seconds to fall more than 11 back of Franzoni in the lead, and resumed on track just ahead of Nikita Lastochkin’s No. 80 Pelfrey car, repaired after yesterday’s accident with teammate Robert Megennis.

Although Martin gained five seconds over the next three laps, he was unable to get any closer to Cunha for second, and was forced to settle into third.

“I was pushing 150 percent out there with the championship on the line. It sucks to be the first loser, as I call it, but I gave it my all,” Martin said.

“I didn’t leave anything out there. I’m very disappointed not to take the championship but I had a great time this year. I was a Mazda Scholarship driver, which is something I never thought I would be when I first arrived in America.

“To come this far and to not take the championship is bittersweet. The season has been one big bumpy rollercoaster. Victor and I traded the lead I don’t know how many times, and we had some intense battles. Congratulations to Victor and to Juncos Racing. Consistency wins and they were just a little more consistent than me.”

Up front though Franzoni enjoyed a comfortable drive to the win by 1.5903 seconds over Cunha, who scored his fifth straight podium to end the year, and his first runner-up result of the season with the race’s fastest lap of 1:59.8161 set on the final lap. All of his five prior podiums were third places. The 20-lap, 40-minute race ran to the checkered flag without a caution flag.

Martin’s third place, was, fittingly, his first third place of the year and only the second race where he didn’t finish first or second.

But with Franzoni having won seven races and finished second in the other five, the Brazilian is now the one who will don a Soul Red Mazda in Indy Lights next season.

MRTI: Franzoni scores Pro Mazda Race 2 pole in wet qualifying

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – A wet qualifying session for Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires at Watkins Glen saw Victor Franzoni again score pole, his second of the weekend, giving him a weekend sweep of qualifying. It also sees him increase his championship lead over Martin to nine entering the final race of the season.

Carlos Cunha qualified second, while Franzoni’s title rival Anthony Martin qualified third, provisionally. Nikita Lastochkin and Kris Wright completed the top five.

Things went from bad to worse for Martin ahead of tomorrow’s race, as he was later assessed a two-spot grid penalty for running the checkered flag. That sees him drop back to fifth on the official grid as Lastochkin and Wright were moved forward.

The wet qualifying session was problematic for a handful of drivers, especially in the early minutes. Martin brushed the wall in Turn 11 and Sting Ray Robb spun as well, but both drivers were able to continue. However, TJ Fischer spun exiting the bus stop and impacted the wall, bringing out a red flag before any drivers were able to record flying laps. Fischer was not credited with a timed lap and will start 13th.

Also of note: Robert Megennis will not participate in Race 2. Megennis was involved in a Race 1 crash with teammate Lastochkin that took both cars out of the race.

Qualifying results are below. Race 2 begins at 7:55 a.m. on Sunday morning.

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Franzoni captures decisive Pro Mazda win Saturday at Watkins Glen

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – For the second straight race, Victor Franzoni stalked his prey running ahead of him in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires competition – Anthony Martin – and for the second straight race he made the move by for the lead and the win.

Franzoni, the Brazilian, got the pole in his No. 23 Juncos Racing entry but lost the lead on the opening lap to Martin’s No. 8 Cape Motorsports car off the line. Contact between Team Pelfrey teammates Robert Megennis and Nikita Lastochkin on Lap 2 brought out a full-course caution.

While Martin led from the restart on Lap 5, Franzoni stalked him – with gaps anywhere from 0.2 to 0.4 of a second as Franzoni tried to use a run up the hill in the esses to pass Martin on the outside. But Martin was able to defend.

The Australian, however, was not able to do so for the rest of the 30-minute race.

On Lap 12, Franzoni got an earlier run on Martin up the hill and made it past the Australian around the outside into the Bus Stop chicane. The outside pass of Martin for the lead was the same as was done last week at Gateway Motorsports Park.

“Every time you learn a bit more. I tried the outside of Turn 7 and it didn’t work. I thought I’d lose too much time!” Franzoni told NBC Sports post-race. “That lap, now it’s my chance. We can see in the straight how much time left. I was seeing 20-22-23 minutes! I was excited as I had to do something. It was risky to overtake; I think there’s such a small space but I had to go for it to overtake.”

What was a gap of only a couple tenths from there grew to a final margin of victory of 3.5743 seconds, for his sixth win of the year in 11 races.

With Franzoni scoring two bonus points for pole and fastest race lap (a 1:43.574 to Martin’s 1:44.277), he now takes an unofficial eight point lead on Martin into Sunday’s season finale, 319-311. Martin got one bonus point for leading the most laps, 11 of the 14 but not the one that counted most.

Martin was, like last week, left to tip his cap to Franzoni.

“My car was very good first couple laps. I was able to get the lead and hold onto it for a bit. It exponentially got worse and worse. I was just, I knew he had a run on me going into the Bus Stop. I had to do what I could to defend. Only so much you can do. We’ll go into tomorrow for a wet one, and do the best I can,” Martin said.

Carlos Cunha upheld Pelfrey’s honor with his fourth consecutive third place finish, with Sting Ray Robb and Kris Wright scoring season best finishes for World Speed Motorsports and JDC Motorsports to complete the top five finishers.

The second race of the weekend and the final race for the Mazda Renesis rotary engine takes place Sunday morning at 7:55 a.m., with more than $790,000 available to the season champion to step up into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires.

MRTI Friday Notebook: Watkins Glen

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – All three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires kicked off their season-ending weekend on Friday at Watkins Glen International, with the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda completing practice sessions and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires completing both practice and qualifying for Race 1 (Saturday, 11:30 a.m. ET).

Pro Mazda and USF2000 will see their championships come down to the final races of their seasons, with Oliver Askew leading Rinus Veekay by 13 points in the USF2000 title chase, and Victor Franzoni leading Anthony Martin by a scant two points in Pro Mazda, with a double-header on tap this weekend as well.

Below is a wrapup of Friday action for all three series.

Pro Mazda

Victor Franzoni led opening practice and then followed that up by snagging pole for Pro Mazda Race 1 (Saturday, 11:30 a.m.). Franzoni’s best lap of 1:42.4376 was over eight tenths of a second quicker than Anthony Martin, who qualified second with a best lap of 1:43.2497. Critically, this also gives Franzoni one bonus point, bringing his points lead over Martin to three entering Race 1.

Title combatants Victor Franzoni (right) and Anthony Martin (left) will be on the front row for Race 1. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Despite the pressure of battling for a championship and a $790,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship to move up to Indy Lights next year, neither driver appears fazed.

“I don’t feel pressure,” Franzoni asserted in a press conference prior to qualifying that featured all of the Mazda Road to Indy championship contenders. “I’m not thinking about the championship. I have to win it; if I do that, I can’t think about championship. There’s two races to do everything perfect, and whatever happens after the checkered, happens.”

Martin, too, expressed confidence ahead of the weekend, and described that his experience battling for last year’s USF2000 championship, in which he beat Parker Thompson to the title, gives him a foundation to build on.

“Last year I learned about handling the pressure. It’s immense fighting for championships and the Mazda scholarships. I learned more from last year and it’s made me a lot better today,” Martin said of his mindset ahead of qualifying.

Carlos Cunha, TJ Fischer, and Nikita Lastochkin completed the top five.

Qualifying results for Race 1 are below. Of note: Robert Megennis, running both USF2000 and Pro Mazda events this weekend, qualified sixth for Race 1. He was also ninth fastest and 15th fastest in the two USF2000 practices.

USF2000

A pair of practice sessions are in the books for USF2000, with Rinus VeeKay firing the first shot. The 16-year-old Dutchman led the opening practice, with a quick lap of 1:47.0341, which was nearly eight tenths of a second ahead of second-place runner David Malukas. Championship leader Oliver Askew was third in opening practice with a quick lap of 1:48.4421, 1.4 seconds behind VeeKay.

Rinus VeeKay was fast out of the box at Watkins Glen. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Second practice saw a more jumbled order, with Veekay not turning a flying a lap in order to conserve tires per Trackside Online’s open-wheel junior series site, TSO Ladder.

Veekay’s teammate Calvin Ming led the way in second practice, ahead of Kory Enders, Oliver Askew, Kaylen Frederick, and David Malukas.

Practices times for each session are below, beginning with Practice 1 and followed by Practice 2. Of note: six drivers (Alex Baron, Devin Wojcik, Callan O’Keeffe, Darren Keane, Niall Murray, and Kaylen Frederick) were listed as not turning laps during Practice 1, owing to transponder issues.

 

Indy Lights

Unlike the other two Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Indy Lights crown has been all but clinched. Points leader Kyle Kaiser, with a lead of 31 points over second-place Santi Urrutia and a maximum points swing of 27 possible, given the 14-car lineup, Kaiser needs to only start Sunday morning’s lone Indy Lights race of the weekend to clinch the 2017 Indy Lights title.

Kyle Kaiser has three victories in 2017 and is in position to clinch the Indy Lights championship. Photo: IndyCar

Kaiser revealed that entering the weekend with the championship all but wrapped up has been surreal.

“It’s started to sink in over five days,” said Kaiser, whose fourth-place finish last week at Gateway Motorsports Park has him in position to the clinch. “I’ll wake up and still can’t believe it! It doesn’t feel real yet. I need a wake up call. Have to treat this weekend the same. Let’s put on a show. I’m excited to go out there.”

In his third year in Indy Lights, and fifth total on the Mazda Road to Indy (Kaiser contested two seasons in the Pro Mazda ranks), Kaiser described that driver development and growth is critical in a driver’s time on the Mazda Road to Indy, and he highlighted his own growth as an example of what other young drivers can follow.

“Learning and developing is what the whole program is about,” Kaiser said of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder. “I’ve taken three years, a year more than most would say; taking your time to compete for the championship, not making rookie mistakes is the way to do it. You can see the progression. Sixth as a rookie with mistakes, then third last year and now in position to win the championship. That’s what (young drivers) should strive to be.”

Indy Lights did not venture out on to the 3.4-mile road course until late Friday afternoon, their lone practice session rolling off at 4:25 p.m. ET. Shelby Blackstock of Belardi Auto Racing led the way, turning his fastest lap of 1:32.7903 on his final lap of the day. Colton Herta, Matheus Leist, Aaron Telitz, and Neil Alberico completed the top five. Blackstock has extensive experience at the track in sports cars, raced here in Indy Lights last year and made his IndyCar test debut here with Andretti Autosport last year.

Practice 1 results are below. Practice 2 for Indy Lights begins at 8:45 a.m. on Saturday.

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