MRTI: Can SPM Indy Lights road course juggernaut be stopped?

Urrutia (55) and Stoneman (27). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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With just two race weekends left on the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, it appears the road to the title will go through Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian.

Via both incredible weekend performance and the best luck, both Santiago Urrutia in the No. 55 Soul Red Mazda and teammate Andre Negrao in the No. 17 Lucas Oil-backed Dallara IL-15 Mazdas have been on a roll of late.

Urrutia’s won the last three races on permanent road courses and four overall this year; they’ve been the site of all four of his wins this season.

Additionally, the Uruguayan who seeks his second straight Mazda Advancement scholarship after winning last year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires crown, has been a points-scoring machine on the road courses.

He has 201 points in the eight permanent road course races, two apiece at Barber Motorsports Park, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, Road America and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Closest title rivals Dean Stoneman and Ed Jones are second and third, respectively, with 165 and 163 points.

That being said, Urrutia has also had luck on his side. He’s one of only two full-season drivers – Shelby Blackstock is the other – who has had not a DNF in one of the eight road course races this year.

Either mechanicals or accidents have hit the rest of the grid at least once. So with three road course races remaining, you worry if the law of averages will catch up with Urrutia.

Negrao, meanwhile, has been on a roll as well and this could be the site of his first career victory. He’s scored two seconds and a third in the last three road course races, and with second in Toronto race two as well, he’s been on the podium four of the past six races.

Since Road America race two, Negrao has scored 115 points, which is second only to Urrutia’s 151 in the same time frame of six races.

Zach Veach (111), Felix Serralles (105), Stoneman (103), Kyle Kaiser (101) and Jones (89)  – the other title contenders – have all scored less in that same time frame.

With just the two cars, SPM’s road course performance has perhaps surprisingly gone up in the last two road course weekends – and SPM has six of a possible six podiums achieved in the last three races. Stoneman, with two at Mid-Ohio, and Veach, with one at Road America, have been the only drivers to break the stranglehold.

Jones, surprisingly, has not stood on a road course podium since his win at the first of two IMS road course races back in May. Carlin teammate Serralles managed a third behind Veach and Stoneman in Road America race one, the last weekend before Indy Lights Race Director Tony Cotman placed Jones, Stoneman and Urrutia all on probation for the rest of the season.

So what will happen at Watkins Glen? It’s a one-race weekend, and only a two-day event with two practice sessions on Friday before qualifying and the race both take place on Saturday (race airs Sunday, 1 p.m. ET on NBCSN, as a lead-in to Verizon IndyCar Series race coverage).

Judging by recent performances, it’s hard to say SPM will be toppled. The repaved Watkins Glen track will produce smooth, fast lap times.

And while the cars were different, SPM has a potential setup edge – along with Andretti Autosport – from having run here in Indy Lights’ past races at Watkins Glen from 2005 to 2010. Combined, they won the last six Indy Lights races (Andretti with Wade Cunningham, Raphael Matos and JR Hildebrand and Schmidt with Alex Lloyd, Richard Antinucci and JK Vernay) from 2007 through 2010.

But Andretti’s trio could do well here. Stoneman, Blackstock and Dalton Kellett all recently tested one of Andretti’s IndyCars apiece here – so they have a bit of track experience. Blackstock loves the circuit; he has a good amount of sports car experience here, and a podium or top-five finish should not be discounted for him. Jones, who tested with RLL Racing, also had a chance to sample this track surface.

Meanwhile Carlin, Belardi Auto Racing, Juncos Racing, Team Pelfrey will all be making their first Indy Lights starts at the track. Belardi’s Veach and/or Pelfrey and Garett Grist could be sleepers; Pelfrey team manager Gary Neal knows the track well from 8Star Motorsports’ sports car days and Grist has overachieved at times in his first few Indy Lights starts.

Ken Roczen signs with HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki for 2023

Roczen Progressive Ecstar Suzuki
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ANAHEIM, California – Ken Roczen will make the move from HRC Honda to H.E.P. Motorsports with the Progressive Ecstar Suzuki team, ending a long and eventful offseason that saw his split from his longstanding team after he committed to running World Supercross (WSX).

“H.E.P. Motorsports is thrilled to announce that the team has signed Ken Roczen as its premier rider for the 2023 season,” the team announced on Instagram. “Former AMA Motocross champion Roczen will be aboard a Suzuki RM-Z450. Roczen, who won his most recent championship on a Suzuki, will be reunited with the brand and bring his exciting style, determination, and grit back to the RM Army.

“Ken Roczen will compete in the upcoming 2023 Supercross and Motocross Championship series which is set to start on January 7 at Anaheim Stadium in Southern California.”

For Roczen, it is a return to the bike of his youth and on which he had some of his greatest professional success.

“This thing has been going on for weeks and weeks and weeks in the making, but there was so much uncertainty,” Roczen told NBC Sports during Monster Energy Supercross Media Sessions. “It was a very unique situation. I just finally signed two nights ago, so it’s really only legit once the ink hits the paper. It’s been in the works for a long time, but there were just a lot of questions and a lot of input from a lot of other teams too.

“Good things take time, and I’m okay with that. I grew up riding Suzuki. Ot’s like a homecoming. It’s a special feeling”

Roczen won the 2016 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship on a Suzuki before making the move to Honda. That year he won nine of 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second as he easily outpaced Eli Tomac by 86 points. He finished third in his next Pro Motocross outing in 2018 after sitting out the outdoor season in 2017.

“I am beyond excited to reconnect with Suzuki for the 3rd time in my career. We’ve had a lot of success in the past and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish together in our future.” Roczen said in the Instagram post.