Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Parker Thompson hoping to end USF2000 year on high note

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When the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires heads to Watkins Glen International on Labor Day Weekend, most of the focus will be on drivers like Oliver Askew, Rinus Veekay, Anthony Martin, Victor Franzoni, and Kyle Kaiser. All will be fighting for their respective championships, or in position to clinch a championship in the case of Kaiser in position so it’s not surprising that they’ll likely get the lion’s share of the attention.

But one driver outside of that group keen to make an impression as the season draws to a close is Parker Thompson. A proven race winner in each of the last two seasons of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda championship, Thompson enters the final race of the 2017 season on a hot streak, having won three of the last four races, with the non-victory being a second.

Sitting third in the USF2000 championship, and having that spot clinched as a matter of fact, might seem like a strong result on paper. But, as Thompson revealed, finishing third in the championship was not a part of the plan.

“Coming into this season, it was do or die, really. I needed to win the championship in order to (move up the Mazda Road to Indy), and I knew that getting into this,” Thompson told NBC Sports of his expectations entering 2017.

“It was kind of like my final hoorah. I convinced all my partners ‘Here’s the deal: I have an opportunity to do one more shot at the USF2000 championship. If you help me get to this championship, I’m going to win it no matter what the cost.’”

An analysis of Thompson’s season reveals a tale of two halves. Through the first nine races, Thompson’s best finish was third, which he scored on two different occasions. Granted, his results were far from alarming on paper, as he finished between third and fifth in seven of those nine races.

However, something appeared to be missing for the driver who won four USF2000 races last year on his way to second in the championship. As it turns out, something was. A persistent mechanical problem had hamstrung the efforts of Thompson and his Exclusive Autosport team during the first nine events.

As Thompson explained, identifying and fixing the problem was ultimately the key to turning the season around.

“We found a problem that we’ve been struggling with all season long. It hasn’t been the team’s fault, it hasn’t been the driver’s fault. We fixed that problem, and all of the sudden results have come that should have been here all year long,” Thompson lamented.

Since Toronto, Thompson and Exclusive Autosport have been the hottest team across all three series within the Mazda Road to Indy. They swept the weekend at Toronto, dominating Race 1 and then taking advantage of a crash involving Alex Baron, David Malukas, and Oliver Askew to win Race 2. At Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, they finished second in Race 1 before returning to Victory Lane in Race 2.

Parker Thompson salutes his Exclusive Autosport team after winning at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

That’s three victories in the last four races and four consecutive podiums for the 19-year-old native of Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. While he admits the second-half results are bittersweet, in that they come too late in the season to vault him back into championship contention, Thompson remains very proud of the efforts of everyone involved with the team.

“We haven’t had the results we wanted to, but I’m proud that we found the problem. I’m proud that we fixed the problem and that we’ve had the results we have had in the second half of the season,” he asserted.

For Thompson, the success also comes with a team brand new to USF2000, and the Mazda Road to Indy as a whole. After racing with Cape Motorsports, the team that has won every USF2000 title since 2012, last year, Thompson joined Exclusive Autosport for 2017. Created in 2013, the Canada-based team has been a fixture in F1600 in Canada and has claimed a slew of championships across several F1600 series in the process, but hadn’t contested any Mazda Road to Indy events prior to this year.

As a new team to USF2000, a number of challenges awaited, and as a driver who left a championship winning operation for one that was brand new to the Mazda Road to Indy, the difficulties were not lost on Thompson.

“There’s a lot of pressure. In your third in USF2000, you leave the championship winning team to sign with a team that’s brand new to the Mazda Road to Indy: that’s a pretty big statement. With that, this team has never competed at any of the tracks that we’ve done in USF2000 the last couple years,” Thompson described.

As a driver, this means Thompson needed to take a larger role and help the team develop setups, something not required of him in his time at Cape Motorsports. Thompson explained how delicate of a balance it was to help Exclusive Autosport build its USF2000 notebook while not disturbing the general processes that led the team to become a force in F1600.

“In any team, in order to win, there’s a winning formula,” Thompson explained. “Exclusive Autosport has had a winning formula in everything else they’ve competed in. They had the winning formula in F1600, they’ve been champions in Canada, they’ve ruled the 1600 category. It was more or less refining what they already had, that winning formula, and adding my own flavor to it, and coming out this season and doing what we do best together.”

Being more hands-on with car development and setup development has been vital to Thompson’s growth as a driver, and it’s been a role he’s relished in 2017.

“Not only have I learned how to be successful on the track, I think off the track – working with people, working with a new team, being that team leader that a team needs to compete in the Mazda Road to Indy – that’s what I’ve learned and that’s where I think our success has come this last half of the season.”

Though he cannot move up or down from his current position of third in the championship, Thompson remains keen to end the season with one more victory, especially because he does not yet know what his future will be like in 2018.

“Right now, I’m racing for my career,” he revealed. “It goes without saying I don’t have many options. It’s going to be tough for me to move up to (the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires) next year. All I’m out to do is prove a point to myself, prove a point to the paddock in the Mazda Road to Indy that I belong on the Mazda Road to Indy. And hopefully a team will pick me up for next year and I can continue my career. I want to prove a point for Exclusive Autosport as well. I think we’ve had a winning car all year long.”

While he has the ultimate goal of eventually landing in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Thompson is well aware that branching out beyond the open wheel world is more than a viable option.

“I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: My goal in racing is to be a paid race car driver, whether that’s in IMSA sports cars, Europe, IndyCar, Formula 1…anywhere. I would take a paid race position. That’s the end goal. I know it sounds cheesy, but that’s real Parker Thompson. That’s from the heart. I just want to be a paid race car driver.”

Parker Thompson is flanked by Rinus Veekay and Kaylen Frederick on the Mid-Ohio podium. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

And even though the year has not gone exactly to plan, he is hopeful that he has done enough to move up to the Pro Mazda ranks.

“I honestly didn’t think I was racing this year, so it’s going to be tough to put together a budget for Pro Mazda next year. I already know that. I was really banking on the championship this year. I thought I could come in and win it. But, that’s how racing goes. Sometimes you’re in that position, and sometimes you’re not. I still think we’ve had a great season.”

“I’ve already started to work on (next season), trying to put a deal together and trying to scratch up some sponsorship. But, it’s going to be tough. I just hope the performances that I put forward this year help out in negotiations.”

Title contenders stumble on the streets of Toronto

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The championship picture of the Verizon IndyCar Series saw a massive shakeup after Sunday’s Honda Indy Toronto. While points leader Scott Dixon ended up in victory lane, his third win on the streets of Toronto and his third win of the 2018 season, all of his championship rivals stumbled.

Josef Newgarden, the pole sitter and second-place man in championship – he trailed Dixon by 33 points entering Sunday – led from the pole and looked to be a contender for the win, but a Lap 34 restart saw his day come apart.

Newgarden ran wide exiting the final corner coming to the green flag and smacked the outside wall. He plummeted through the field and pitted under caution – for a Turn 1 pileup involving Graham Rahal, Max Chilton, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, and Sebastien Bourdais – to allow the No. 1 Hitachi Chevrolet Team Penske group to examine the car for damage.

Newgarden continued on, but was never a contender the rest of the day, ultimately finishing ninth.

“I knew it would be low grip, but not zero grip. I just lost the front end completely,” Newgarden said in describing how the wall contact happened. “I feel terrible, it’s not fun to make a mistake.”

Alexander Rossi, who sits third in the championship, ran a steady sixth in the first stint until Lap 27, when contact with Will Power damaged his front wing. Rossi was then caught up in the melee on the Lap 34 restart, getting airborne over the left-front of his Andretti Autosport teammate Hunter-Reay.

Rossi again pitted for a new front wing – he had six stops in total – and ended up eighth on a day when he felt like a podium beckoned.

“It’s a pretty disappointing result. I don’t think we had the car to beat Scott (Dixon), but for sure with the problems that everyone had, we could’ve finished second. It’s been a difficult string of races,” Rossi said afterward.

Hunter-Reay, too, had a day forget. After going from sixth to third on the start, he spun his No. 28 DHL Honda into the Turn 3 Barrier on Lap 27. And like Rossi, he was caught up in the Lap 34 pileup, falling off the lead lap in the process.

Hunter-Reay languished in 16th at the checkered flag.

“It was a very unfortunate day and a big loss for us in points,” Hunter-Reay lamented. “The DHL Honda was running comfortable in third and pushing hard, but I had too much front brake lock and found the tire barrier – that’s my fault. Then after that, we got caught up in a wreck, which put us a lap down. From there we just fought to stay in front of the leader.”

Power, too, hit his struggles after the first stint, when contact with the Turn 11 wall, an incident similar to the one that his Team Penske teammate Newgarden had, bent the right-rear suspension of his No. 12 Verizon Chevrolet. He also had contact with Rossi later that lap.

Power lost two laps in the pits as the team made repairs, and he took the checkered flag in 18th.

“In the last corner, I brushed the wall and bent a rear toe link, so the car was a little bit out of whack. I didn’t even know that (Alexander) Rossi and I touched. I was just kind of trying to hang on until we got a yellow and could pit,” Power explained. “I’ve never had so many DNFs; not DNF for this race, but like a DNF in a season. Still, it’s kind of how this sport can go.”

All told, their struggles mean that Dixon leads the championship by 62 points over Newgarden. Rossi sits third, 70 points of the lead, followed by Hunter-Reay and Power, who sit 91 and 93 points out of the lead respectively.

And the next race, the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio (July 29 on NBCSN) won’t make it easy for them to make up ground, as Dixon’s record there is astoundingly strong. The four-time IndyCar champion has five wins at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, his most recent triumph coming in 2014, a race in which he famously came from last on the grid (22nd) to win.

Conversely, Newgarden, Rossi, Hunter-Reay, and Power have a combined one win at Mid-Ohio (Newgarden, last year).

However, the likes of Newgarden and Rossi still appear confident that they can make up for their Toronto struggles.

“We have to move on now and try to pick it back up. With the championship battle, we’ve got a long way to go. This doesn’t help but look, we have plenty of racing (left),” said Newgarden. “We need to keep our head up here. We’re going to be just fine, we’ve got fast cars and the best in the business. If we get our mistakes sorted out, we’re going to be just fine.”

Rossi, who finished sixth at Mid-Ohio last year, echoed similar sentiment, and thinks Mid-Ohio presents an opportunity to get back on track.

“We’re very good at Mid-Ohio, we’re kind of circling Toronto and Mid-Ohio as two races we were going to be pretty good at, so we got to reset, man, and just execute,” Rossi explained afterward. “We’re fast. We’re there every weekend. That’s the important thing. It’s a lot harder to be outside the top 10 and looking for answers. We’re fighting for pole every weekend. We’re in the Fast Six virtually every weekend, so you’re putting yourself in position to have a good result, it hasn’t come really since Texas.”

The 2018 championship is far from over – the season-ending GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma being a double-points event helps ensure as much. But, if Dixon does claim the 2018 title, Toronto may be the race that serves as the turning point.