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.

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images
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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500