Indy Lights 2016 season preview

Enerson and Serralles. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Just three years ago at Pocono Raceway in July 2013, Indy Lights had eight cars, and no immediate plans for a new car or a new management direction.

At the next race at Toronto, plans were announced for Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions to take over series operations. A new car, the Dallara IL-15 Mazda, was launched the following May and tested in the fall, ahead of a 2015 race debut. The support of Cooper Tires and Mazda has also been huge.

Now, 2.5 years later after the nadir for the series, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires enters not just with double the field to 16 cars, but with half of them as realistic win contenders for 2016.

Things are on the rise in Indy Lights and if you’ve still got the “yeah, but the car count is bad” jokes in the upholstery, then put them away. Chances are, you haven’t been paying attention.

This week marks the start of the Mazda Road to Indy season and without further adieu, here’s a look through the Indy Lights grid for 2016:

VETERANS: Kyle Kaiser, RC Enerson, Ed Jones, Felix Serralles, Shelby Blackstock, Zach Veach, Juan Piedrahita 

ROOKIES: Zachary Claman DeMelo, Santiago Urrutia, Andre Negrao, Heamin Choi*, Neil Alberico, Dalton Kellett*, Dean Stoneman, Felix Rosenqvist, Scott Hargrove*

*Note: Choi, Kellett and Hargrove all have two starts or less in Indy Lights. The remaining six make their debuts at St. Petersburg.

Juncos Racing 

The defending champion team has a busy year from an operational and organizational standpoint, as it breaks ground on its new facility in Speedway, Ind. while also continuing its six-car effort in the Mazda Road to Indy. The odds of a title are far better for Juncos in Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires though, rather than in Indy Lights.

  • 18-Kyle Kaiser: The 20-year-old American assumes team leader role with Spencer Pigot’s graduation. Looks to improve from sixth place last year. Should win his first race, and could contend for the title, but isn’t the outright favorite.
  • 13-Zachary Claman DeMelo: The Quebecois rookie is only 17, with some F3 experience and a wealth of karting background. Has podium potential, but may find it tough to stand out in a deep field.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports

The most dominant team of the Indy Lights era has one, perhaps two title contenders in its four-car arsenal for 2016. The team has strength in numbers but with all other teams boasting at least two or three cars, it will be harder for SPM to lock out the top of the leaderboard.

  • 7-RC Enerson: One of two preseason title favorites. It’s easy to forget Enerson is only 19, but has been a Mazda Road to Indy staple since 2012. Should win multiple races and boast the consistency needed for title success.
  • 55-Santiago Urrutia: The Pro Mazda champion has impressed in testing and should win at least once. Must improve on ovals, where he struggled in Pro Mazda.
  • 17-Andre Negrao: The Brazilian GP2 veteran has a good head on his shoulders and the potential to surprise, although it remains to be seen how many races he’ll do.
  • 77-Heamin Choi: The Korean driver isn’t the highest-rated on the grid and will look to keep it clean in his starts. This car has been mentioned as a possible ride share this season, and Scott Anderson tested at Barber this past week. 

Carlin

After its incredible start and arrival to U.S. soil last year, Carlin’s only gone bigger and bolder for 2016. The Trevor Carlin-led team has one of the series’ top engineers in Geoff Fickling, and arguably the deepest driver lineup among the teams.

  • 11-Ed Jones: The Dubai-based Brit, who makes his U.S. residence in Miami, must be considered the other of two preseason title contenders. Jones won his first three starts last year and seeks later season consistency to match his undoubted pace if he’s to secure the Mazda scholarship to advance.
  • 4-Felix Serralles: Serralles has past team experience and flew mostly under the radar in 2015. He’s a good bet to finish higher than seventh this year, maybe fourth or fifth, and should secure his first road and street course win.
  • 22-Neil Alberico: In a deep rookie class, where Alberico excels compared to Dean Stoneman and Felix Rosenqvist among others is with track knowledge. Needs to adapt to the Indy Lights Cooper Tires a little better. Another potential winner and a possible rookie-of-the-year, with a top-five championship finish a realistic target.

Andretti Autosport

Andretti Autosport’s expansion from one to three Indy Lights cars is among the bigger changes of the offseason and one that should pay dividends.

  • 51-Shelby Blackstock: Blackstock, 26, enters as team leader and should improve from 10th in points last year. The question is how high. Needs regular podiums and a potential first win.
  • 28-Dalton Kellett: While not a world-beater, the 22-year-old Canadian is one of the smartest drivers in the series. Kellett is among the most experienced in the Mazda Road to Indy and seeks consistency, with the occasional podium thrown in for good measure.
  • 27-Dean Stoneman: Along with Belardi’s Felix Rosenqvist, Stoneman is the wild card to watch this year. A true talent and a great story, the 25-year-old Englishman has only had sporadic open-wheel seasons in the last few years after beating cancer.

Belardi Auto Racing 

The Brian Belardi-led team is consistently good on ovals but will need to measure up to stiffer competition on road and street courses. The driver lineup though should be an upgrade from 2015.

  • 5-Zach Veach: After a year out of the cockpit, 2016 is very much a make-or-break year for 21-year-old Veach’s career. Smart, experienced and determined though makes for a good combo. I’d be surprised if Veach isn’t a race winner this year, although a title run would be a minor surprise.
  • 14-Felix Rosenqvist: The 24-year-old Swede is one of the most talented Europeans to head to North America in some time. How he balances learning the tracks with adapting to the series, plus splitting his time with sports cars, will be the keys to his success. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t win multiple races and contend for the title.

Team Pelfrey

Team Pelfrey, although it’s the same name as its Pro Mazda and USF2000 teams, operates independently. It’s the former 8Star Motorsports team, run at the 8Star headquarters in Pompano Beach, Fla. and is led by Gary Neal (team manager) and Yves Touron (engineer), and now owned by Dale Pelfrey. A nightmare Phoenix test where two engine issues occurred hampered preseason testing, but resiliency is the goal for Indy Lights’ newest full-time team.

  • 2-Juan Piedrahita: The 23-year-old Colombian is Pelfrey’s lone full-season driver and high on experience within the Mazda Road to Indy. Given the variables against him though, success might be harder to achieve.
  • 3-Scott Hargrove: The 21-year-old Canadian has incredible upside and potential, having won a USF2000 title and nearly a Pro Mazda title. Confirmed only for St. Pete, Hargrove is this team’s best bet for success if a deal can be reached for him to see out the season. 

Schedule 

Indy Lights has an 18-race schedule, with two races apiece at St. Petersburg, Barber, the Indianapolis road course, Road America, Toronto, Mid-Ohio and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Single races occur at Phoenix, Indianapolis, Iowa and Boston.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)