Pro Mazda practice. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRLS Friday: Practice, qualifying and a PWC TC thriller

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Action wasn’t completely intense during Friday’s sessions at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, since it was primarily practice for the three Mazda Road to Indy series and only practice for the Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS classes. However, the PWC Touring Car classes staged a thriller in the lone race of the day.

Mazda Road to Indy

Kyle Kaiser, who probably has more track experience than the rest of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field combined at Mazda Raceway, set the pace in Friday’s opening 30-minute session from 10:30 to 11 a.m. in the No. 18 Juncos Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda at 1:16.0457. Ed Jones and Sean Rayhall completed the top three, with Jones’ title rivals Spencer Pigot fourth, RC Enerson ninth and Jack Harvey 12th. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ fifth driver and series debutante Heamin Choi had an off course excursion at Turn 9 roughly halfway through the session, and returned to the paddock.

Max Chilton lowered the bar in session two to the day’s best time of 1:15.8720 in the No. 14 Carlin entry, and Jones was second at 1:16.0448. Kaiser’s morning time meant he ended the day third on the combined timesheets. Pigot was fifth, Enerson sixth and Harvey ninth on the combined times.

Chilton has new signage on his car this weekend, in the form of Activision’s Skylanders franchise.

In Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Juncos Racing also topped the timesheets with Will Owen  posting a 1:23.424 in the second session. Pato O’Ward led a Team Pelfrey 1-2-3 in the morning session, at 1:23.445 over teammates Raoul Owens and Santi Urrutia, driving at Mazda Raceway 16 years to the day after his hero, Uruguayan countryman Gonzalo Rodriguez, lost his life at the circuit going into the Corkscrew. Urrutia was fourth in the afternoon session, while title rival Neil Alberico was ninth and sixth in the two sessions.

Jake Eidson (1:26.207) and Nico Jamin (1:25.489) led the two Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda practice sessions, with Jamin some 0.787 of a second faster than the field in the second session. In the final session of the day, qualifying, Jamin took the pole position for the first of two races this weekend, and set a season pole record in the process (11 straight, 12 overall).

Pirelli World Challenge 

The first of three PWC TC/TCA/TCB races during the weekend was nothing short of a barnburner. Late race contact occurred between TC class leaders Ernie Francis Jr. and Vesko Kozarov, with Adam Poland then sneaking through following a two-lap shootout for the win after a late yellow. Poland’s first win of the season came after he’d made a crazy save through Turn 8, going into the gravel but catching the car before spinning out.

“In turn eight, the car got pulled right and I couldn’t catch it in time. Then I ended up in the gravel trap,” Poland said.  “Winning today’s race has made for a much better mindset for the weekend.”

Jason Wolfe and Joey Jordan won in TCA and TCB, the latter driver having completed an impressive last-to-first drive after his car was found out of compliance following post-qualfiying tech inspection (right front wheel with too much camber).

“Coming from the back is never easy, especially here at Mazda Raceway.  I definitely planned out how I was going make my moves for passing,” Jordan said.

Alessandro Pier Guidi (GT) and Ben Clucas (GTS) led the individual practice sessions for those classes. Both classes have qualifying tomorrow before their sole races of the weekend on Sunday.

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”