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MRTI: Road America kicks off hectic six-week stretch of action

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The full Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder is on display this weekend at Road America for six more races that kick off a busy six-week stretch of action. The three series race four times in the next six weekends.

After Road America this weekend, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series also race at Iowa and Toronto back-to-back weekends in July; these two and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires are all in action at Mid-Ohio.

In total, there are 19 races to run over the next six weeks (7 Indy Lights, 7 USF2000, 5 Pro Mazda) that will go a long ways towards determining the champions who will receive the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarships to the next level at year’s end.

INDY LIGHTS

With the top six drivers separated by only 30 points and the top eight by only 49 points, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires title is fully wide open.

Thus far Kyle Kaiser has used consistency to move to the top for Juncos Racing, with finishes between first and ninth in all seven races thus far. His first win of the year came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course; he enters Road America, where he finished sixth both races last year, with a 14-point lead over Nico Jamin (151-137).

Jamin may have concerns over ultimate power this weekend, having been hamstrung a bit on top-end both at last month’s Freedom 100 and at a recent Road America test. Still, the Andretti Autosport driver has both his wins this year on permanent road courses – at Barber and IMS – and will be keen to add to that this weekend.

Colton Herta sits third in points with 129, 22 back of Kaiser, after a roller coaster debut season with Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing. The talented teenager has alternated between booms and bust with two wins, a second, and four finishes of 10th or worse. Some issues haven’t been of his own doing, but he needs a consistent weekend here.

Two more Americans, Aaron Telitz and Neil Alberico, are tied for fourth with 122 points. Telitz, the Birchwood, Wis. native, enters looking for another home race high after sweeping this weekend in Pro Mazda last year. He’s also with a team, Belardi Auto Racing, which won the first race here last year with Zach Veach. Alberico’s parlayed consistent finishes into a top-five spot in his sophomore season. The cool Californian looks to join teammate Matheus Leist as a winner for Carlin this season.

Leist comes to Road America sixth in points with 121 and with a lot of track time in the last month-plus. He made his IndyCar test debut last week, fresh off winning the Freedom 100 at Indy last month, and also has tested here in a Lights car. Another good weekend here could pay distinct dividends for his longer-term prospects.

At 46 and 49 points back, respectively, Santiago Urrutia (Belardi with SPM) and Zachary Claman De Melo (Carlin) have outside chances to keep their title hopes alive – but must get rolling here. Both have runner-up finishes on their scorecard this year but have been dogged by inconsistency.

Of the remaining six drivers entered, all bar rookie Ryan Norman have prior MRTI race experience at Road America. Norman and Herta have tested here though ahead of the weekend.

The pair of Indy Lights races are at 12 p.m. Saturday and 8:45 a.m. Sunday; Indy Lights TV coverage from Road America airs at 11:30 a.m. ET on Sunday on NBCSN, as the lead-in to the Verizon IndyCar Series race.

PRO MAZDA

The two-horse race for the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires championship heats up this weekend at Road America. Anthony Martin (Cape Motorsports) swept St. Petersburg while Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing) responded with a sweep at the Indy road course. Franzoni holds a six-point lead, 116-110, heading into this weekend’s action.

Team Pelfrey’s TJ Fischer is the only other driver with a realistic title shot. The Californian has finished on the podium in all four races with three third places and a second. At 25 points back, he’s not out of it; Telitz overcame a 55-point deficit last year starting with a Road America sweep, but he’ll need a bit of help from the two drivers in front of him to make it happen.

A further 20 points back of Fischer, 10 points cover fourth-placed Carlos Cunha to seventh-placed Phillippe Denes. Cunha, Denes, Nikita Lastochkin and Sting Ray Robb have been consistent top-five finishers but not threatened the leaders thus far.

There’s 10 other drivers in an enhanced 17-car field. Noteworthy there is the return of Max Hanratty, a Milwaukee native, with ArmsUp Motorsports while Kris Wright makes his series debut with JDC Motorsports, moving on after parting ways with John Cummiskey Racing in USF2000.

Pro Mazda races at 1:35 p.m. on Friday and 2:05 p.m. on Saturday.

USF2000

With a 60-point lead and a five-race win streak, the only questions for Team USA Scholarship winner and thus far USF2000’s most dominant driver Oliver Askew are how soon can he clinch the title and how many races he can win consecutively. The talented Floridian has been a cut above the rest this year with Cape Motorsports in all aspects, and will look to add to his season long tour de force this weekend. Only Robert Megennis has defeated him this season, doing so at the season opener in St. Petersburg.

Second place could be up for grabs as Rinus VeeKay, Kaylen Frederick and Parker Thompson are separated by just 28 points. None has won yet this year although all have been regular podium finishers; Dutch rookie VeeKay leading Pabst Racing’s charge, Baltimore teenager Frederick impressing regularly with Team Pelfrey despite a disqualification at Indy that was devastating from a title standpoint, and Canadian veteran Thompson looking to break through for Exclusive Autosport’s first USF2000 win. Thompson won in F1600 competition at the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, which was a huge confidence booster for him and the Exclusive team.

Elsewhere there’s a bit of disappointment this weekend with a reduced, 18-car grid, including the absences of three drivers in the top-10 in points owing to financial straits.

All of Dakota Dickerson (fifth, Newman Wachs Racing), Luke Gabin (seventh, Exclusive Autosport) and Ayla Agren (ninth, Team Pelfrey) are no-shows for the weekend and only NWR, with Darren Keane moving over from BENIK, answers the bell among those cars this weekend.

The field hit a high of 24 cars at the Barber weekend but cars not present this weekend include Gabin’s No. 91 car, Agren’s No. 82 car, the two BENIK entries (Nos. 31 and 32), the two John Cummiskey Racing entries (Nos. 33 and 34), and the remaining Newman Wachs cars (Nos. 37 and 38) which have all run in earlier events this season. David Malukas (No. 79 BN Racing) and Jayson Clunie (No. 93 Exclusive Autosport) continue for a second weekend after making their season debuts at Indy.

USF2000 races at 11:45 a.m. on Friday and 1:10 p.m. on Saturday.

Christopher Bell survives caution-filled Chili Bowl Prelim

TeeJay Crawford
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Christopher Bell survived the most caution-filled Feature of the week to win Thursday’s preliminary night at the 33rd Annual Chili Bowl. His ability to hold the lead on restarts helped lock Bell into his seventh Saturday A-Feature since 2013.

“I pretty much suck on restarts. I do better when I get into a rhythm,” said Christopher Bell on twitter.

Bell started the feature in third place behind Danny Stratton and Jerry Coons Jr. He took the lead on the first official lap of the race, but not until after two Lap 1 cautions.

The Oklahoma native held the lead through the remaining 24 laps and eight cautions until being challenged by Shane Golobic and CJ Leary on the final laps. Golobic briefly made it past him though Turns 3 and 4 of the final lap. Bell regained control in 1 and 2 to claim the checkers.

“It was a lot busier than what I wanted them to be. Shane definitely made a race out of it and I hope the last four laps were a good show. It was a lot of fun … well it was fun because I won but if I hadn’t won it wouldn’t have been much fun,” Bell said regarding the final laps.

Golobic earned the second transfer into Saturday’s A-Main after starting to the outside of Bell.

Leary completed the podium with the pole sitter Stratton finished fourth.

Josh Most battled through the B after a hard crash in his heat. He rebounded to transfer to the A and drove from 22nd to fifth.

With the throng of cautions at the start and finish of the race, the goal quickly became survival. Only 15 of 24 entries completed the full feature. Notable DNF’s included Ryan Bernal who started fifth, Coons, who started on the front row and Thomas Meseraull in 15th.

NASCAR’s Justin Allgaier finished 13th and will have a long day ahead of him on Saturday.

Friday Jan. 18 will be the final Qualifying night for the 33rd annual Chili Bowl Nationals.

MORE: Rico Abreu wins Chili Bowl Night 3 
MORE: Kyle Larson wins Chili Bowl Night 2

Thursday’s Results

1. Christopher Bell
2. Shane Golobic
3. CJ Leary
4. Danny Stratton
5. Josh Most
6. Austin Brown
7. Tracy Hines
8. Casey Shuman
9. Kyle Cummins
10. Andrew Felker
11. Austin O’Dell
12. Seth Carlson
13. Justin Allgaier
14. Chase Johnson
15. Johnny Herrera
16. Ryan Bernal
17. Jerry Coons Jr.
18. Matt Sherrell
19. Thomas Meseraull
20. Jake Morgan
21. Andrew Deal
22. Kevin Bayer
23. Kaleb Currie
24. Joe B. Miller