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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.

IMSA Prototype Season in Review

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IMSA Wire Service

It was a year of change for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda. The longtime sprint series evolved in 2018 to six one-hour, 45-minute endurance races that allowed teams to run single or two-driver combinations with a required minimum-time pit stop. The result: record-high car counts in the LMP3 class with Kris Wright ultimately winning the series championship for Extreme Speed Motorsports, while Cameron Cassels took home the LMP3 Masters title. In the MPC class, meanwhile, series veteran Jon Brownson won his first championship in the final season for the class with a breakthrough win one week ago in the season finale at Road Atlanta.

This season-in-review takes a look back at the path each of the three champions took on their way to history.

1. Daytona International Speedway, January 6

Winners
LMP3: Roman De Angelis, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Gary Gibson, No. 44 Ave Motorsports Ave-Riley AR2
MPC: Robert Masson, No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Not only was the season-opener during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 weekend the first endurance race for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda, it also was the first race for the series at the iconic Daytona International Speedway. Wright, driving the No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3 scored his first podium of the season alongside co-driver Daniel Morad with a third-place finish behind Porsche GT3 Challenge driver and winner Roman De Angelis and co-drivers Austin McCusker and David Droux, finishing second for the upstart Forty7 Motorsports team. Masson scored the MPC win, lapping all but one car, while Brownson came home fifth.

2. Sebring International Raceway, March 16

Winners
LMP3: Leo Lamelas / Pato O’Ward, No. 7 Charles Wicht Racing Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: James McGuire Jr., No. 26 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Dave House, No. 86 ONE Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The round at Sebring featured a late-race restart that saw eventual 2018 Indy Lights champion and 2017 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship Prototype Challenge champion O’Ward drive from fourth to first in the closing laps to secure the win for full-time driver Lamelas. Wright, meanwhile, finished third for the second consecutive time to start the season with a new co-driver, Michael Whelden. The No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry again finished second with McCusker now joined by TJ Fischer, who would go on to run the full season with the team. Coming out of Sebring, McCusker would lead Wright by four points, 64-60. Between Sebring and the next round at Barber Motorsports Park, Wright would decide to contest the full season for Extreme Speed Motorsports.

It was a special victory in the MPC class with House becoming IMSA’s oldest race winner at the age of 75. Foreshadowing a points race that what would ultimately come down to the season finale at Road Atlanta, the top five in the MPC standings are separated by two points leaving Sebring, with Brownson seventh, 12 points out, after a ninth-place finish.

3. Barber Motorsports Park, April 21

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Yann Clairay, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Rob Hodes, No. 51 K2R Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Michal Chlumecky, No. 31 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The only standalone event for the IMSA Prototype Challenge Presented by Mazda would prove to be the turning point in the LMP3 class. Leading all but one practice session on the weekend and starting the race from the pole, Wright and co-driver Clairay dominated the event, only losing the lead briefly on a cycle of green flag pit stops. Wright’s biggest competition for the championship, meanwhile, the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports team, seemed poised to score its third consecutive runner-up finish of the season to hold onto the LMP3 points lead, but contact between Fischer and an MPC car with five minutes remaining relegated the team to a 16th-place finish. Entering the weekend down four points in the standings, Wright left Barber up six points, 95-89, over Lamelas.

Chlumecky scored his first MPC class win since 2012, while teammate Brownson, the Sebring pole winner, capped off a Eurosport Racing 1-2 finish placing second in the team’s No. 34 entry. Masson rounded out the podium with a third-place finish in the No. 11 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02 to regain the class lead. Brownson left Barber eight points behind Masson, fifth in the standings.

4. Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, July 8

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The long overdue first victory for Forty7 Motorsports finally came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park for McCusker and Fischer, but a second-place finish for Wright meant McCusker could only gain three points on the series leader, with Wright keeping the deficit at 13 points. Dean Baker would score the LMP3 Masters win, the fourth winner in four races following Gibson at Daytona, McGuire Jr. at Sebring and Hodes at Barber. Cassels finished on the LMP3 Masters podium for the first time in 2018 at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, finishing the race seventh overall and third in LMP3 Masters.

Leading the MPC standings coming into Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Robert Masson enlisted son and defending series champion Kyle Masson as a co-driver for the remainder of the season. The plan appeared to work with the duo crossing the line first, but upon post-race analysis of drive-time requirements, it was concluded that Kyle Masson did not record the minimum 40 minutes of drive time and the car was moved to the back of the MPC results. That penalty elevated Jacobs and French to the race win in Performance Tech’s No. 77 entry and moved Brownson, who finished second for the consecutive race, to the class championship lead. Coming out of Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, the top six in points were separated by just two points with two races remaining.

5. VIRginia International Raceway, August 18

Winners
LMP3: Kris Wright / Stephen Simpson, No. 30 Extreme Speed Motorsports Ligier JS P3
LMP3 Masters: Dean Baker, No. 4 ANSA Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Howard Jacobs / James French, No. 77 Performance Tech Motorsports Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
Wright enlisted IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regular Stephen Simpson as co-driver at VIR and delivered a knockout punch in the LMP3 title fight, scoring the win and opening a 23-point lead over McCusker, who finished sixth. Baker would win his second consecutive race in LMP3 Masters with a second-place finish overall alongside Zacharie Robichon. Hodes would lead the LMP3 Masters points by two points over Jim Garrett, eight points over Cassels and nine points over Joel Janco.

Robert Masson seemed poised to take the points lead and win alongside Kyle Masson as the duo drove brilliantly in the rain, building a nearly one-lap lead. A mechanical issue with 17 minutes remaining, however, set up a late-race sprint to the finish with French winning on the last lap for Jacobs.

With only one race remaining, House moved into the class lead by three points, 143-140, over Jacobs. The top seven teams were mathematically eligible for the championship and separated by a mere eight points.

6. Road Atlanta, October 12

Winners
LMP3: Austin McCusker / TJ Fischer, No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports Norma M30
LMP3 Masters: Cameron Cassels, No. 75 Performance Tech Motorsports Ligier JS P3
MPC: Jon Brownson, No. 34 Eurosport Racing Elan DP02

How the Champions Fared
The second win of the season for the No. 47 Forty7 Motorsports entry and co-driver McCusker and Fischer was not enough to take the championship away from Wright, who finished second at Road Atlanta to sweep podiums in all six races on the series schedule.

Cassels scored his first LMP3 Masters win of the season, and despite entering the weekend eight points behind in the standings, would also win the LMP3 Masters championship after each of the title contenders ran into various issues on-track.

Brownson called it an “honor” to win the final race for the MPC class. Brownson, who started in the first race for the series in 2006, scored his first win of the season in the No. 34 Eurosport Racing entry to win the final championship for the class.