Max Chilton. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRLS Saturday: Intense qualifying for MRTI, PWC

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Each of today’s Mazda Road to Indy races from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca – the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – are recapped in separate posts.

Here’s the rest of the day’s activities from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with qualifying for two of those three series, qualifying for the Pirelli World Challenge GT and GTS classes, and a second straight thrilling Touring Car race. Here’s quick recaps:

PRO MAZDA QUALIFYING

Championship leader Santiago “Santi” Urrutia was poised to take pole position at 1:22.959 in the No. 81 Team Pelfrey entry, but was pipped on the final lap by Garett Grist of Juncos Racing, at 1:22.879 in the No. 5 car. Urrutia will start second with Will Owen, Neil Alberico and Timothe Buret completing the top five. Weiron Tan reported a roll into the Corkscrew with his No. 22 Andretti Autosport car, but was checked and cleared after the accident.

INDY LIGHTS QUALIFYING

In the most crucial qualifying session of the year, records fell by the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda. Max Chilton set the new mark of 1:14.828, breaking Tony Kanaan’s 18-year-old track record of 1:15.090 set in 1997.

But then the records flew fast and furious from there, with Chilton finally nailing down the ultimate new track record mark of 1:14.233 in the No. 14 Carlin entry, now adorned with Activision’s Skylanders franchise this weekend.

“It’s the best lap I’ve done all year,” an exuberant Chilton told MotorSportsTalk after his lap, which netted him his second pole of the year (Iowa). “I just love it here. I was surprised by how the track developed, actually.”

Chilton noted that he started on scuffed Cooper Tires, then went to two new tires later in the run.

Kyle Kaiser, a seriously experienced driver at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, clocked in second in the No. 18 Juncos Racing entry at 1:14.359.

“I’m just focusing on myself this weekend,” said the California native, who seeks his first career series win. “I’ve wanted to win this race since the race was announced on the schedule. I’ve done countless laps here. I have no idea how many.”

The first three drivers in the championship – Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones and Jack Harvey – will roll off from third, fourth and fifth respectively after times of 1:14.393, 1:14.507 and 1:14.958 in the No. 12 Juncos Racing, No. 11 Carlin and No. 42 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports entries.

RC Enerson, who also has a shot at the title, qualified eighth.

The top six drivers on the grid eclipsed Kanaan’s old track record.

USF2000 RACE

There’s a new series champion in USF2000 and his name is Nico Jamin. A full breakout to today’s first race and lone USF2000 on-track activity is linked here.

PIRELLI WORLD CHALLENGE GT/GTS QUALIFYING, TC RACE

Jack Baldwin took his No. 73 GTSport Racing Porsche Cayman S to the pole ahead of tomorrow’s GTS race. Kris Wilson, the two Kia Optimas and the two title contenders, Andrew Aquilante and Michael Cooper, completed the top six.

“This was really a challenge for us the last two days. We usually roll off the trailer with a good setup.  That hasn’t been the case this weekend.  We have made a number of changes to the car already.  I have to hand it to the crew guys for making the car much better.  They kept grinding to improve the car.  I made a bunch of pit stops and the car became better this weekend,” Baldwin said.

“I wasn’t sure were going to win the pole today.  It’s a tough series and some great drivers are competing here.  So I feel very good about a pole position at this great, historic track.  I think I have only won here once over my career.  I have been on the podium a bunch but I’d love to win here again on Sunday.”

GT qualifying, meanwhile, saw NGT Motorsport’s of Alessandro Pier Guidi and Alessandro Balzan sweep the front row in their one-off races in the pair of MOMO Ferrari 458 Italia GT3s.

Johnny O’Connell will start fifth, and title rival Olivier Beretta in 12th.

Saturday afternoon’s Touring Car race witnessed a thrilling bout between Corey Fergus and Ernie Francis Jr. Francis made several passing attempts in his No. 98 Mazda MX-5 on Fergus’ No. 00 Porsche Cayman – notably on the outside of the left-handed, downhill Turn 9 sweeper. At one point, Francis completed the pass, but then lost the lead the following lap on the entry to Turn 2, when he ran wide and left Fergus enough room to make it through.

It was a clean race between both drivers, neither giving an inch but both providing racing room.

“I had a lead for a while and then Ernie (Francis Jr.) got by Vesko (Kozarov) for second.  That made my race even more exciting as he began closing on me.  That Mazda was very fast behind me.  I definitely ran the rear tires off my car and I had a lot of fun,” Fergus said.

Paul Holton (TCA, No. 71 Honda Civic Si) and Joey Jordan (TCB, No. 47 Mazda 2) scored the other two class wins.

PRO MAZDA RACE

As Nico Jamin had earlier in the day, Santi Urrutia captured the championship in Pro Mazda. A full recap of that race is linked here.

INDY LIGHTS RACE

The championship was not decided, but Spencer Pigot took a pivotal step towards it on Saturday with a win in the first of two races. That recap is linked here.

FRIDAY CONTENT

Friday’s end of day recap from Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is linked here.

April 9 in Motorsports History: Al Unser Jr. gets sixth Long Beach win

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The list of winners in the Grand Prix of Long Beach is a ‘who’s who’ of open-wheel racing.

Mario Andretti won at the famed street course four times. His son Michael won there twice.

Paul Tracy is also a four-time winner at the beach. Alex Zanardi, Juan Pablo Montoya, Sebastien Bourdais, and Alexander Rossi also have won at the famed course multiple times.

But there is only one “King of the Beach”: Al Unser Jr.

The winningest driver in the race’s history, Unser won at Long Beach four consecutive times from 1988-91. He won again in 1994 and entered the 1995 edition as the race’s defending champion and the defending CART champion as well.

Starting fourth, Unser made slight contact with Gil de Ferran when he passed the Brazilian on Lap 3. He then continued to move up to the front, taking the race lead from Teo Fabi on Lap 30.

Once he had the lead, Unser ran away from the field, winning by more than 23 seconds over Scott Pruett.

Unser’s victory was such a familiar scene that after the race, CART news manager John Procida began the winner’s news conference with the following statement: “Well, we have a very familiar face on the top rung of the podium. As we listed on the prerace press release, this seems to be the Al Unser Invitational.”

Indeed it was. Unser’s victory was his sixth at Long Beach, and the 28th of his career. overall. While it would be his last win there, Unser continued to race at Long Beach through 1998 before missing 1999 with a broken leg and moving to the Indy Racing Leauge in 2000.

In 2009, Unser was inducted into the Long Beach Motorsports Walk of Fame, which honors significant contributors to the race and California motorsports community.

“It truly is just an honor to be mentioned with the names and the legends that have already been put into the sidewalk,” Unser said during the induction ceremony. “To have Brian (Redman, the inaugural winner of the race) and Parnelli (Jones) is really an honor and just to be in their company is very, very special.”

Also on this date:

1971: Jacques Villeneuve was born in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada. The second-generation driver was one of the best in open-wheel racing during the 1990s, winning the Indianapolis 500 and CART championship in ’95 and becoming a Formula One champion two years later.

1989: Rick Mears dominated CART’s Checker Autoworks 200 at Phoenix International Raceway, leading every lap from the pole and lapping the field.

2011: Chip Ganassi Racing’s Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas won the Porsche 250 at Barber Motorsports Park, their sixth consecutive victory in Grand Am competition. Their lengthy win streak, which started on Aug. 7, 2010 at Watkins Glen, prompted Grand Am to offer a $25,000 bounty for any Daytona Prototype team that could beat the dominant duo. The Action Express trio of Joao Barbosa, J.C. France, and Terry Borcheller finally unseated Pruett and Rojas in the series’ next round at Virginia International Raceway.

Follow Michael Eubanks on Twitter @michaele1994