MRTI: Post-Iowa, crucial Toronto double set for Indy Lights, USF2000

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The stage is set for an important weekend of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires racing at Exhibition Place and the streets of Toronto.

With four races on tap between the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, there’s a chance for the championship leads to swell to near unassailable amounts heading to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course at the end of the month, or get reduced even tighter.

And as the first street course races since the season-opening weekend in St. Petersburg in March, it’ll be interesting to see who’s improved since that point.

Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires

Although American rookies Aaron Telitz and Colton Herta split the St. Petersburg races back in March, these two would be considered spoilers this weekend given where they’re at in the championship, as the course of the championship has changed.

Telitz, Herta and Neil Alberico (race one) and Herta, Santiago Urrutia and Pato O’Ward (race two) took the podium spots.

None enters the weekend higher than third in points, with Herta (third, 35 points back), Urrutia (fifth, 51), Telitz (sixth, 55) and Alberico (eighth, 57) all needing a huge weekend if they are to keep their championship hopes alive with six races remaining.

Instead the balance of power has shifted to Carlin, which surprisingly hasn’t won at Toronto in two years but enters this weekend on a four-race winning streak overall.

Matheus Leist has been the lead charger in that regard. The teenaged Brazilian has won three of those four, split between a big oval (Indianapolis), a permanent road course (Road America) and a short oval (Iowa) to move to within 13 points of championship leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing. A win this weekend would give Leist a quartet of victories on all disciplines of circuit, which is highly impressive in his first year in North America.

Leist’s summer boom has caught up the gap to Kaiser, whose consistency has been his strong suit, but where wins are needed if he is to hold off the Carlin surge. Luckily for Kaiser, he’s with a team that swept the Toronto weekend two years ago in the hands of Spencer Pigot.

The spoiler in all this is one of two Canadians in the field, Leist’s teammate Zachary Claman De Melo, who is seventh in points (56 back) but has been on a roll since the Indianapolis road course. The teenager out of Montreal broke through at Road America for his first win and seems poised to interrupt the title battle at the top. Pace has never been an issue for Claman De Melo, but consistency has.

Belardi swept the weekend last year with Felix Rosenqvist, but will look to recapture the form they’ve had at St. Petersburg if they’re going to do so again this weekend. Telitz has been mired in a rut since St. Petersburg often through no fault of his own, while Urrutia’s dogged aggression has sometimes played to his benefit. A win might not save his title hopes in what’s been a perpetually frustrating sophomore season, but it would be a needed boost of confidence for the talented, yet sometimes tempestuous Uruguayan.

Beyond Claman De Melo, Dalton Kellett flies the flag for Canada on home soil this weekend. The Queen’s University graduate, along with his Andretti teammates, will look to deliver this team its first Indy Lights win here since the Dallara IL-15 Mazda was introduced in 2015. Nico Jamin is due a bit of luck and Ryan Norman has improved as well in his rookie year.

Races run at 1 p.m. ET Saturday and 12:15 p.m. ET Sunday, with NBCSN coverage on Monday at 7 p.m. ET.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda

VeeKay, Askew, Frederick likely to impress in Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Oliver Askew and Cape Motorsports’ dominance on Sunday in the corn fields of Iowa Speedway temporarily staved off the charge from Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay, who made the USF2000 title a battle again after a weekend sweep in Road America.

At 32 points back, VeeKay will need another Road America-esque weekend to close that deficit to within shouting range with just five races remaining. If he can’t close the gap, it opens the possibility Askew could clinch the title at Mid-Ohio later this month. Pabst Racing’s street course setups are rather good though and beyond VeeKay, if teammates Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl continue their recent performance uptick, it could do well to upset Askew’s apple cart.

Askew will have support back in his corner in Ricky Donison, the Indian driver returning after being one of a handful to skip Iowa and the risk of incurring high crash damage bills.

Team Pelfrey actually beat Askew to winning the season opener and the debut of the Tatuus USF-17 Mazda at St. Petersburg in the hands of Robert Megennis. The revelation of last year, Megennis has endured a tougher sophomore campaign and like teenaged teammate Kaylen Frederick is out of the title fight. But again, with nothing to lose, they could impress this weekend, and if Megennis qualifies higher up he won’t need an encore of his passing heroics this race last year.

Exclusive Autosport flies the flag for Canada as both a team and with lead driver Parker Thompson, The talented Red Deer, Alberta native has had a tough go of his third USF2000 campaign but will look to carry winning momentum from his last start in Canada, in an F1600 race weekend in Montreal, to give both team and driver its first win of the season. He won here last year in race two.

ArmsUp Motorsports also has a potential spoiler in play with Alex Baron back for a second straight weekend. The team won here last year with Victor Franzoni and Baron’s most recent Toronto appearance witnessed an Indy Lights win with Belardi in 2014. Watch for him to be at the front this weekend.

Elsewhere, BN Racing’s David Malukas returns for his street course debut, the Chicago karting star having massively impressed at Road America. Darren Keane and Newman Wachs Racing are also back after a race absence. DE Force Racing adds a third car for Jose Sierra as well. The 17-car field had the potential to come back to 20 but remains down by comparison versus earlier in the year.

These two races are at noon ET Saturday and 9:40 a.m. ET Sunday.

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500