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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.

Steinbrenner brings winning tradition to IndyCar Victory Lane

INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
INDYCAR Photo by Chris Jones
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AUSTIN, Texas – Opening Day for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball is Thursday against the hapless Baltimore Orioles. But the Steinbrenner family can already celebrate a big-time, major league victory in 2019.

George Michael Steinbrenner, IV is the 22-year-old son of Yankees co-owner and co-chairman Hank Steinbrenner. He is the grandson of the legendary Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, whose fiery tenure at the helm of the Yankees restored the team to the prestige and pride it continues to enjoy as the most successful professional sports franchise in the world.

Steinbrenner, IV, is co-owner of Harding Steinbrenner Racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and the youngest team owner in IndyCar history.

When his grandfather was ruling the Yankees, excellence wasn’t expected; it was demanded. Those are traits that define the Steinbrenner family.

On Sunday at Circuit of the Americas, young Steinbrenner became an IndyCar winner in just his third race in the series in the INDYCAR Classic. It was also historic as his driver, Colton Herta, became the youngest driver in history to win an IndyCar race at race at 18 years, 11 months and 25 days. Graham Rahal was 19 years 3 months and 2 days when he won the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2008.

“Break up the Yankees” was a popular battle cry around baseball in the glory days of the boys in pinstripes, from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle to Reggie Jackson to Derek Jeter and A-Rod.

What makes the latest Steinbrenner winner so stunning, is how quickly it happened.

“We didn’t think this was possible so soon,” Steinbrenner told NBC Sports.com from the team’s pit stand seconds after the checkered flag waved for Herta’s victory. “What a drive by Colton and what a job by the crew. They did everything they could to keep us ahead of the 2 car (Josef Newgarden) all day. Wow, I can’t believe it.”

Steinbrenner has the Yankees in his blood and DNA, but his passion has always been IndyCar racing. He was just 16 when he met then 12-year-old Herta at a Skip Barber race at Lime Rock, Connecticut. The two became friends and joined together to begin their climb to IndyCar.

“I interned at Bryan Herta Rallysport for the 2016 season, learning the top to bottom of how a race team operates during the week and during the weekend,” Steinbrenner recalled. “When Colton and I decided that we’d start this crazy journey together in Indy Lights, being able to partner with Andretti Autosport in Indy Lights was huge. They’re a buttoned-down organization, do everything right. To be able to learn from the folks there was a huge jump-start, the perfect jump-start I could have hoped for, for INDYCAR ownership.”

For two years, they joined forces with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights. Andretti helped broker a deal for Steinbrenner and Herta to step up to IndyCar by joining a team owned by Indianapolis paving company owner Mike Harding.

Harding Steinbrenner Racing was announced last summer with tremendous fanfare at Yankee Stadium before a New York Yankees game.

Andretti is still part of the operation as Andretti Technologies supplies engineering and crew support to Harding Steinbrenner Racing.

“None of this would have been possible without Michael Andretti,” Herta said. “I’d like to say thank you to Michael and his team. He elevated us to the top really quick and without them we wouldn’t be here.”

When Steinbrenner announced his goal of taking Herta to the IndyCar, it was a long-term commitment. Herta’s first victory at an 18-year-old could be the start of something great, beginning another winning tradition for the Steinbrenners.

“We’ve had a pretty good start here,” Steinbrenner said. “This is huge, to get this win off our belts. We showed the IndyCar world what we could do.”

Herta qualified fourth and raced his way to third in a race that Will Power dominated. The Team Penske driver led the first 45 laps from the pole while he was pursued by Alexander Rossi.

The two front-runners planned on being the last two drivers in the 24-car field to make their final pit stop.

That plan was foiled, however, when James Hinchcliffe’s Honda ran into the back of Felix Rosenqvist’s Honda, sending it into the barrier in Turn 20. That was the only caution in the 60-lap race. Power and Rossi would go from the top two to 14thand 15thafter making their pit stops.

Power’s race ended on pit lane when a broken half-shaft kept his car from engaging in gear and he went from first to worst in the 24-car field.

That put Herta in the lead under caution. Right behind him was the intimidating sight of the No. 2 Chevrolet driven by Team Penske’s 28-year-old Josef Newgarden, the 2017 NTT IndyCar Series champion and the winner of the 2019 season-opener at St. Petersburg, Florida.

“We knew we got on the right side of the pit strategy and had the pace to stay ahead of two extremely fast guys behind us,” Steinbrenner said. “It was a matter of Colton staying out in front and nursing it home.”

When the green flag waved to restart the race with 10 laps left, the 18-year-old was calm and cool as he was able to get a great restart and pull away from Newgarden.

Back in the pit area, Steinbrenner stood on the timing stand in the pits alongside co-owner Mike Harding and team president and race strategist Brian Barnhart. Because COTA is a 20-turn, 3.41-mile road course, it takes a while to complete a lap. Herta had the fastest lap in the race on Lap 54 and it was 108.9853 seconds.

The long course added to the tension as the 60-lap race neared its conclusion.

Steinbrenner, who bears a resemblance to 1980s actor Fisher Stevens, remained cool on the timing stand.

When Herta’s Honda came out of Turn 20 on the final lap to the checkered flag, Steinbrenner could finally celebrate, pumping his fist in the air.

“I was very concerned,” Steinbrenner admitted. “Most of the guys in the paddock, you are concerned with in a situation like that, especially a former champion. It was nerve-racking.

“Wow. It’s a dream come true.”

Steinbrenner got his first win in IndyCar before the New York Yankees.

“Not too far apart, but a couple of days in front,” Steinbrenner laughed.

For a Steinbrenner, there are always more goals to achieve. Sunday’s first victory is like a “regular season” win to the Yankees. That team’s goal is to win the World Series.

Steinbrenner, IV’s goal is to win the biggest race in the world – the 103rdIndianapolis 500 on May 26.

“I think there’s a pretty big race in May,” Steinbrenner said. “I think for us, that’s the next big goal.

“I grew up with two passions: baseball and racing. I thought my family had one pretty well covered. We’ll go and chase another one.”

When a Steinbrenner sets a goal, don’t bet against it.