Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Road America weekend digest

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It was a packed weekend at Road America for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece through the weekend. It marks the third time this year that all three series competed at the same facility on the same weekend, the other two being the streets of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. And the tightly-packed weekend saw no shortage of dramatics, ranging from first-time winners to drastic championship swings.

Carlin’s Rise

Prior to the month of May, Carlin was enduring somewhat of a disappointing run this season in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. A perennial front-runner the last two years and a championship winner in 2016 with driver Ed Jones, the British-based outfit had gone winless through the opening six races of the 2017 season.

However, that all changed when 19-year-old rookie Matheus Leist scored his first career Indy Lights victory at the Freedom 100, and the momentum appears to be permeating through the entire team.

Leist was strong again at Road America, winning Race 1 and finishing fourth in Race 2, while Zachary Claman De Melo took his maiden Indy Lights win in Race 2. Third Carlin driver Neil Alberico finished a somewhat disappointing seventh and eighth in the two races, but with two finishes of third and three finishes of fourth already to his name in 2017, the Californian is also building momentum of his own.

Race 2 winner Claman De Melo, who was all but speechless afterward, highlighted the overall strength of the team, specifically referencing his own engineer, who he described as a big influence on his development. “It’s such a great group at Carlin: from the team to the other drivers, we all push each other so hard. I’m learning from everyone on the team and I can’t thank my engineer, Matt Greasley, enough. He’s helped me develop as a driver to be in front like I was (in Race 2),” said the 19-year-old.

Zachary Claman De Melo scored his first career Indy Lights victory at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Leist, too, mentioned chemistry within the team as being crucial to their success, and is elated that race wins are starting to come their way. “It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” he said following his Race 1 triumph. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”

A championship run may be beckoning as Indy Lights begins its summer stretch. Currently, Leist ranks second in the overall standings, best of the Carlin group, while Alberico sits tied for fifth with Aaron Telitz. Claman De Melo sits seventh.

 

Consistent Kaiser Rolls on With Indy Lights Championship Lead

Kyle Kaiser might not have been the immediate title favorite at the beginning of the season. But, on the strength of one win (Race 2, Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course) and five podiums, including finishes of third and second at Road America, Kaiser has asserted himself as the man to beat in the 2017 championship.

Further, the 21-year-old’s consistency is juxtaposed with inconsistency from some of his title rivals.

Aaron Telitz won Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg to open the season, finished second at the Freedom 100, and has four additional finishes of sixth or better. But, he has also endured three finishes of 11th or worse.

Colton Herta, winner of a pair of races (Race 2 outings at both the streets of St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park), has had a “feast or famine” season, featuring the aforementioned wins along with two additional podiums, but also with five finishes of tenth or worse to counter.

The aforementioned Leist, admittedly on a hot streak, started the year slowly with finishes of 15th and 11th at St. Petersburg. And Nico Jamin, with a pair of 14th-place finishes his worst placings this year, has also encountered some struggles of his own.

Kaiser, however, has finished sixth or better in eight of nine races so far, with his worst finish being ninth at the Freedom 100. Still, one cannot assume that Kaiser is choosing to play prevent while those around him sputter. As he explained after Race 1, in which he finished third, he is still on the charge and looking to get the best finishes he can.

“I think it’s important to finish races but I’m not trying to be careful. When you’re too defensive and careful you get wrecked. I showed that this weekend. We made a lot of good passes. I was aggressive to the very last lap. That’s the plan the rest of the year,” Kaiser asserted.

As a result of his consistency, Kaiser holds a 28-point lead over Leist. But, with only 50 points separating the top six, the championship is still anyone’s for the taking.

 

Marvelous Martin Withstands Furious Franzoni Charge

Martin (8) and Franzoni (23) had an intense battle in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Perhaps the best battle across all three Mazda Road to Indy series came in Race 2 of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and involved title combatants Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni, the Race 1 winner over Martin, was forced to start 15th, last on the grid, when a red flag prevented him from setting a lap time in qualifying, but he very quickly rocketed his way through the field, climbing up to third four laps in. He then took advantage of a restart to get around then second-place runner TJ Fischer before setting his sights on Martin for the lead.

Martin, however, was firm but clean in his defense and withstood every challenge from Franzoni to score his third win of the season.

“I just had to put my head down and my bum up and really focus on the road ahead of me and not behind me,” Martin quipped afterward. “It’s hard, because you have that car in your mirrors but you can’t let it affect you. That worked out a lot better (in Race 2 than in Race 1). We will go back and work on a few things to find some speed and be ready for Mid-Ohio.”

Franzoni, meanwhile, tried to balance the disappointment of not winning against his impressive charge to second. “I’m sad not to win, but other people would say it’s good that I came back to finish second. But we lost points today, even though I came from last to second,” he explained. “I had to be really smart and really aggressive. I couldn’t lose time but I couldn’t crash. I had to pick my spaces, especially with guys who were battling with each other. It was fun.”

As a result of their battle, Franzoni leaves Road America with a slim seven-point lead over Martin.

 

Veekay Sweeps, Askew Hits Trouble in USF2000

Of the three Mazda Road to Indy championships, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda seemed to have the most straight-forward title picture. The dominant Oliver Askew, winner of five races in a row and with a worst 2017 finish of second (Race 1, St. Petersburg) looked all but unbeatable heading into the weekend, and there was no reason to believe his run would slow down.

And then the races happened. Camber shims on the left-front wheel became loose in the middle of Race 1, forcing an emergency pit stop for repairs, which dropped him to 17th in the finishing order.

Askew rebounded to finish third in Race 2, but Dutch driver Rinus VeeKay (full surname of Van Kalmthout) swept the weekend with two race wins, the first of his USF2000 career.

Rinus Veekay won both USF2000 races at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An elated Veekay was beside himself over the success, which occurred at the home track for his team, Pabst Racing. “We’re so happy – it’s great to do this here, the home track for the team. I was screaming on the radio again! I’m so happy that we have the speed and we can really show what we can do.”

Veekay’s triumphs combined with Askew’s troubles to slice the championship deficit to 24 points between the two. With 30 points available for race wins and seven races remaining, the USF2000 championship has suddenly been blown open.

Indy Lights and USF2000 resume action at Iowa Speedway on July 9, while Pro Mazda returns at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course for a triple-header on July 28-30.

Follow Kyle Lavigne.

 

NHRA Denver: John Force one away from 150 career wins; Pritchett, Anderson, Arana Jr. also win

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John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.

The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).

Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.

Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”

Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.

“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).

“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.

“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”

It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.

Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.

“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.

Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:

  • Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
  • 376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
  • Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
  • He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
  • He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
  • He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
  • He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
  • He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
  • He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
NHRA Denver winners, from left: Hector Arana Jr., Greg Anderson, John Force, Leah Pritchett. Photo courtesy NHRA.

Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.

The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.

Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.

“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”

In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.

Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.

“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”

Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.

In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.

“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”

The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.831 seconds, 316.45 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.852 seconds, 319.82 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.075, 315.42 def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.943, 196.53 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.170, 185.89 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Scott Palmer, 3.894, 317.34 def. Antron Brown, 4.047, 300.13; Blake Alexander, 3.863, 320.81 def. Mike Salinas, 5.827, 118.72; Leah Pritchett, 3.857, 322.81 def. Terry Totten, 4.156, 276.18; Jim Maroney, 4.267, 264.96 def. Brittany Force, 5.524, 129.54; Steve Torrence, 3.899, 325.06 def. Bill Litton, 5.216, 121.99; Clay Millican, 3.824, 327.59 def. Greg Carrillo, 4.088, 309.98; Richie Crampton, 3.870, 317.19 def. Terry McMillen, 6.020, 120.89; Doug Kalitta, 3.849, 320.43 def. Tony Schumacher, 3.852, 321.12; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.847, 322.58 def. Torrence, 3.903, 321.12; Pritchett, 3.806, 321.96 def. Palmer, 3.890, 317.34; Millican, 3.887, 295.85 def. Crampton, 5.045, 158.99; Kalitta, 3.897, 302.08 def. Maroney, 4.227, 249.53; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.872, 311.63 def. Alexander, 3.857, 320.20; Pritchett, 3.826, 312.93 def. Millican, 3.826, 320.36; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.831, 316.45 def. Kalitta, 3.852, 319.82.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.103, 293.15 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.186, 311.92; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.089, 315.78 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.089, 285.65 def. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.834, 193.54; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.689, 182.21 def. Todd Simpson, Charger, Broke – No Show; John Force, Camaro, 4.158, 285.77 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.279, 265.69; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.094, 308.28 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.998, 167.99; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.101, 312.93 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.133, 311.27; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.057, 315.64 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 5.128, 165.01; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 4.139, 313.44 def. Pedregon, 4.137, 252.61; Hight, 4.052, 318.09 def. Johnson Jr., 4.117, 313.58; Capps, 4.082, 309.70 def. Beckman, 4.528, 214.25; C. Force, 4.121, 306.88 def. Wilkerson, 4.268, 272.12; SEMIFINALS — J. Force, 4.048, 318.62 def. C. Force, 4.453, 206.29; Capps, 4.052, 313.88 def. Hight, 4.035, 314.31; FINAL — J. Force, 4.075, 315.42 def. Capps, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.970, 196.27 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 7.098, 195.68; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.974, 196.79 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.968, 196.99; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.991, 196.04 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.969, 196.93; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.983, 196.42 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.975, 195.96 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 7.178, 190.14; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.975, 196.13 def. Will Hatcher, Dart, 15.790, 58.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.968, 196.67 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.969, 197.02 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 7.017, 195.85; QUARTERFINALS — Coughlin, 6.994, 195.87 def. Gray, 6.996, 196.27; McGaha, 6.975, 196.44 def. Kramer, 6.959, 196.96; Line, 6.983, 197.16 def. Laughlin, 6.994, 195.90; Anderson, 6.985, 197.02 def. Nobile, 6.986, 196.24; SEMIFINALS — Anderson, 6.945, 196.27 def. Coughlin, 6.994, 195.79; Line, 6.958, 196.87 def. McGaha, 6.965, 195.79; FINAL — Anderson, 6.943, 196.53 def. Line, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.290, 182.26 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.412, 180.60; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.229, 181.11 def. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.276, 181.86; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.265, 182.75 def. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.252, 184.85; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.212, 184.55 def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.296, 184.32; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.199, 186.25 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.364, 180.40; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.142, 188.75 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.349, 181.50; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.345, 180.36 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.982, 125.40; Matt Smith, 7.194, 186.00 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.279, 182.48; QUARTERFINALS — Stoffer, 7.347, 181.20 def. Johnson, 7.427, 180.19; Hines, 7.219, 186.18 def. Pollacheck, Foul – Red Light; Savoie, 7.274, 183.82 def. M. Smith, Broke; Arana Jr, 7.159, 188.46 def. Tonglet, 7.312, 184.37; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.284, 183.19 def. Stoffer, 7.329, 181.25; Arana Jr, 7.163, 188.15 def. Hines, 7.215, 185.31; FINAL — Arana Jr, 7.170, 185.89 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.

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