All photos: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Pelfrey’s Megennis arguably the revelation of USF2000 field

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A 27-car field appeared at the season-opening weekend of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship in St. Petersburg.

Packed among the grid were proverbial title favorites Anthony Martin and Parker Thompson, Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires veteran Victor Franzoni, Martin’s two Australian countrymen of note in Jordan Lloyd and Luke Gabin, all of Gabin’s 2015 Team Pelfrey teammates in Ayla Agren, Nikita Lastochkin and Garth Rickards and a host of other dynamic rookies.

Pelfrey’s new quartet for 2016 featured a wide range of competitors. Jordan Cane stepped up from Pelfrey’s F1600 program and it was fair to call the British teenager a prodigy, given his number of wins there. TJ Fischer had the unique story of being a football player who restarted a racing career. James Munro came over from New Zealand looking to impress, and Cane’s fellow F1600 graduating teen Robert Megennis completed the lineup.

Few could have predicted what would happen from there.

"Can you believe it?" -Rob Howden, most likely, to Megennis (right). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway LLC Photography
“Can you believe it?” -series announcer Rob Howden, most likely, to Megennis (right). Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway LLC Photography

Megennis, the 16-year-old New Yorker, emerged from this stacked USF2000 field with a third place on debut, a shock podium finish after starting ninth, and added an eighth on Sunday for good measure.

And that first weekend laid the groundwork for what would be an incredible season beyond pretty much anyone’s wildest expectations, least of all Megennis, who had struggled in preseason testing.

“It was ridiculous! It was nothing like what I’ve expected,” Megennis told NBC Sports, reflecting on that weekend. “Usually I was slowest in testing. So I had no expectations; it was, let’s learn as much as I can, as a first-year rookie driver. I was loose and free, then I got the results.

“But yeah on the start there was the crash ahead, I was fourth, then I dived Gabin into (Turn) 3, I’m in third and I had Martin, Franzoni and Luke behind me, and three-quarters into race, I’m still in third!”

Up against the significantly more experienced veterans, Megennis then went through a whirlwind of events in the following weekends.

Munro left the team after Barber, which left just three cars for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course weekend. Then Cane left after that weekend, with Fischer also leaving after being bumped up last-minute to a Pelfrey Pro Mazda seat starting at Road America.

Suddenly, Palo Alto Networks-supported Megennis was the equivalent of an Internet startup: he was a one-man wolfpack at Team Pelfrey. At 16.

The circumstances of how the car count within the team went from four to one had nothing to do with Megennis but everything to do with the other drivers being uncomfortable with their situations, and also with a bit of team turmoil at the top. Fischer maintained the Pelfrey relationship as the year went on, though.

“It was pretty chaotic because a lot went on,” Megennis explained. “So it was, James is gone, now TJ’s gone, now Jordan’s gone.

“But I kept the same mindset from the beginning of the year. I’m here to learn and do the best I can. And I think it actually helped me… of course, you don’t want the situation to occur. But initially, I learned from the experienced guys, and I learned how to drive and set up car, then I was forced to do it on my own. I’ve seen everything this year!”

Megennis at Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Megennis at Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Just two weekends after the driver exodus, Megennis turned in another drive on par with St. Petersburg, when in Toronto he went from 18th to fifth in race one and 12th to fifth in race two.

The street course drives were exceptional, because coming from F1600, Megennis had never been on a course with concrete confines. The F1600 races are almost always on permanent road courses.

“That race was a little awesome; I hadn’t got a proper time in qualifying so I knew I had pace to move forward,” Megennis said. “The first lap, obviously, I don’t want to crash, because this is Toronto, it’s sketchy. But I realized I had meta pace. I don’t know if it’s my fencing legs or something done to the car, but I was so good on the brakes all year. I don’t know how.

“It doesn’t seem like others seemed near the peak. I out-braked everyone. I went for every opportunity I saw. It was calculated, but it was good.”

Megennis went into Mid-Ohio nominated as a finalist for the Team USA Scholarship and although he didn’t win it – that honor eventually went to Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood – being nominated was a seminal moment because of his relative inexperience, and the fact he’d caught the eye of renowned North American open-wheel talent scout Jeremy Shaw.

“When you look at the alumni from Team USA Scholarship, there’s so many legendary drivers and people that have come from it,” Megennis said. “When Jeremy sees you have a shot to make it, you’re humbled. He has a good eye for it. He’s been in it for years. He knows what he’s doing.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Megennis ended the year with a pair of eighth-places at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, with Pelfrey back to a multi-car team for the first time since May. Kaylen Frederick and Phillippe Denes made their USF2000 debuts.

He ended sixth in points, behind the Cape twins, Franzoni, Lloyd and Gabin, but ahead of five drivers who had 2015 USF2000 experience. He won the Tilton Hard Charger award, with a season total of 67 overtakes, and was also the top-finishing American driver in the series.

He reflected on the step up on the whole.

“You’re moving from F1600 weekends which are chill, with not that many drivers, to IndyCar weekends, where it’s a big deal,” he said. “You meet so many important people and try to manage it around your track time.

“But you just have to focus on yourself. There’s no point in focusing on anyone else or setting super high expectations. If you do, you get disappointed and mentally screw yourself over.”

There’s one other intriguing nugget that makes Megennis’ year all the more miraculous. When he’s not racing, he’s actually a competitive fencer, as a nationally ranked sabre fencer.

The worlds couldn’t be more different but the competitive juices flow just the same.

Megennis in the new USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
Megennis in the new USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“Those two sports could not be further apart. But there’s the mental preparation and focus, and everything you need for sports in general in the real world, that’s what it’s taught me. It’s a big part of my edge, being so chill,” he said.

Megennis also starred in the rollout of the new USF2000 chassis, the Tatuus USF-17, which premiered at the Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The New York driver, who’s half Korean, set a track record of 1:25.3194 (102.912 mph) on the first day of testing in session four.

“It was an epic first test in the new USF-17,” Megennis said. “I am super happy with how everything went this weekend. We made a ton of tweaks to the car and made vast improvements. We showed serious speed and I can’t wait for the for the first rounds in March!”

Megennis will likely slot in as a potential title contender for the 2017 USF2000 campaign, as he’ll be back for a second season.

Newgarden tries to regain control of IndyCar championship race at Iowa

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NEWTON, Iowa – There are just six races left in the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series championship and Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden has a hard-charging Alexander Rossi closing in on his gearbox. Newgarden’s lead is down to just three points after last Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto.

Newgarden has been the leader in the standings after every race this season, with the exception of the 103rdIndianapolis 500, when he trailed Team Penske teammate and Indy 500 winner Josef Newgarden by one point.

Is Newgarden worried entering Saturday night’s Iowa 300 at Iowa Speedway?

“I’m confident we have good cars,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com. “You can have bad weekends here and there. I think we can have a good result the rest of the year. But there are a lot of guys still in it. Rossi is the guy who is the closest, but you can’t count out Simon Pagenaud, Scott Dixon or Will Power. It’s going to be a fight until the end for this championship.

“We briefly lost the points lead after the Indy 500. Simon and I were one point apart. We’ve had better consistency this year. That is what is going to pay off at the end. We’ve been consistent up to this point and we have to continue it to the end.

“Look at all of these championship runs, most of the times it goes to the most consistent driver. You have to have clean finishes for every run. If you don’t, it’s pretty tough to make up the deficit.”

Newgarden has had a remarkably consistent season with three wins, six podiums (top three) and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

Rossi has nearly matched him with two wins, six podiums and nine top-five finishes in 11 races.

These two drivers are nearly in a dead heat, so as the championship leader, can Newgarden force his fiercest foes into making mistakes?

“I’m a little bit boring,” Newgarden said. “I do the same thing every time. It puts more pressure on guys like Scott Dixon, who has to win races to catch up. They are going to be more aggressive. Our program is boring and that is trying to maximize each race individually. That is what we have to do.

“I don’t know if it is that different than being in a fight with Will Power or Simon Pagenaud or Scott Dixon. They have different tendencies. Alex is the more aggressive of those other drivers. It’s fun going up against all of them. Alex is really good. He has a certain style you have to play against. If it was Scott, it would be just as exciting, but it would be a different game.

“Alex brings a more aggressive side to the conversation.”

That aggressive fight continues to the .875-mile short oval at Iowa Speedway, site of Saturday night’s Iowa 300.

It’s one of Newgarden’s better tracks. He set an IndyCar Series record for leading the most laps in a single race when he was in front for 282 laps in his 2016 Iowa win with Ed Carpenter Racing. That was preceded by two straight second place finishes at Iowa in 2014 and 2014.

Since joining Team Penske in 2017, Newgarden finished sixth that season and fourth in 2018 in a race where he led 211 laps.

“We were pretty good there last year,” Newgarden admitted. “We qualified well, but we were a little shy of what we needed last year. The race didn’t pan out the way we needed it to. Our strategy wasn’t perfect there. But those are things we can clean up. We have a really capable group. I think we’ll have a good car there, again. I feel good about it. We’ve had good cars there in the past, we were just a tick off. I think we will be better there this year.

“We should be fine.”

Short oval racing is a unique form that adds diversity to the schedule as drivers have to get on an off the accelerator and on and off the brake, all while dealing with traffic throughout the 300-lap contest.

It’s that type of close quarter racing that real racers love.

“Iowa, for sure is a racer’s track,” Newgarden said. “It’s very bumpy, with a lot of character. It’s one of my favorite short ovals that we go to. I love that place. A lot of the tracks we go to are racer’s race tracks. There aren’t a lot of bad ones of the schedule. There are tracks with diverse challenges and you like that. Going from Toronto to Iowa to Mid-Ohio, they are all different tracks that require different setups, different driving styles.

“It’s like the championship is a driver’s championship. That is what it demands.”

An NTT IndyCar Series race at Iowa Speedway is a special experience because it’s played out in front of grass-roots racing fans. These are the fans that following auto racing on a regular basis, many of which are regulars for sprint car racing down the road at Knoxville Speedway in Knoxville, Iowa.

“They are all different race fans,” Newgarden said. “Toronto has a bustling city vibe. Iowa is a bunch of farmers. Really nice people who are salt of the earth farmers who come out and enjoy racing. Mid-Ohio is a hybrid. It’s very much a Midwest race but different from Iowa.

“You get these different pockets of different fans, different people, different racers but they all like IndyCar racing and that’s pretty cool.”