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Indy Lights trio buoyant after maiden IndyCar tests

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MONTEREY, Calif. – Three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers had their first day in an IndyCar on Thursday, at Sonoma Raceway, to continue to the run on Indy Lights drivers getting to test at the top level of North American open-wheel racing.

Zach Veach tested in Josef Newgarden’s usual No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing, while Andre Negrao took over the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda of James Hinchcliffe and Santiago Urrutia stepped aboard Mikhail Aleshin’s No. 7 SMP Racing Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda.

That brought the number of 2016 Indy Lights drivers who’ve tested in IndyCar to 10 of the 19 drivers this year.

The three drivers tested and then made it down to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca this weekend for the Soul Red Finale, where the champions will be decided in all three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Veach, 21, was seemingly over the moon with his maiden test in Newgarden’s car. The Stockdale, Ohio native is one of the most experienced drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, having competed full-time every year since 2010 (except 2015 owing to injury) between the three series.

Veach noted to NBC Sports how hard the car is to drive, but also said this was the culmination of nine years of work to attempt to get to this level. It’s doubtful he’d be back for a potential fourth season in Indy Lights, but he’s used the IndyCar test as a way to reveal himself and his ability to the paddock at large.

The mistake he made after completing his last Indy Lights season in 2014, he said, was targeting IndyCar and only IndyCar for 2015. Knowing if he can’t advance into IndyCar – much as he’d like to – he’s now smart enough and keen to explore other series as well for 2017.

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

The Schmidt Peterson teammates, meanwhile, have very different approaches to IndyCar next year.

Urrutia is hoping to graduate into IndyCar next year if he can win this year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. The champion gets a guaranteed three races, including the 101st Indianapolis 500.

He had a tough day with a mechanical issue limiting his running, but it was still cool for the Uruguayan to get to work in an IndyCar.

“The test at Sonoma Raceway was good and it was a great opportunity for me for sure,” Urrutia said. “The IndyCar was great and I could definitely feel a big difference between the Indy Lights car and the IndyCar. I’ve never driven a car with that kind of downforce. I think the biggest difference is in the brakes on the fast corners. With the downforce an Indy car has, you can carry a lot more speed through those corners.

“It was a great day and it’s a dream come true. I really enjoyed it. I was waiting for this day and finally it came. I hope one day I can get more than just the morning session to run in the car but now we just focus on the Indy Lights championship at Mazda Raceway.”

Photo: IndyCar
Photo: IndyCar

Negrao, meanwhile, would be considered a title contender in 2017 in Indy Lights if he returns for a second season.

“First of all, I want to say thank you to my entire SPM team for today. I really enjoyed every second in the Indy car and it makes me want to come back and do it again as soon as possible,” he said.

“I think the team worked well together for today’s test and we accomplished a lot of the goals that we set for ourselves. Thank you especially to Sam [Schmidt], Ric [Peterson] and Piers [Phillips] for working with me to make this opportunity happen. I am focused now on driving more in this car in a few years!”

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.”