Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Several Indy Lights drivers pushing for IndyCar graduation

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With the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, wrapping its season in front of Verizon IndyCar Series team owners for the first time since 2014, it was a showcase opportunity for the drivers on track at Watkins Glen.

And with the field of 14 full-time drivers at various stages in their Mazda Road to Indy careers, it’s worth examining the likelihood of how many Indy Lights drivers could realistically move up.

CONFIRMED: Kyle Kaiser

Kaiser is, at present, the only driver who will secure his spot in IndyCar next season courtesy of a three-race scholarship valued at $1 million from Mazda Motorsports.

The 21-year-old out of Santa Clara, Calif., who now lives in Indianapolis, is hoping to have more news solidified within the next couple weeks in terms of which team will race for. Kaiser works in tandem with Mazda, Andersen Promotions and INDYCAR to secure his spot.

Spencer Pigot’s initial three-race package brought him to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2016, before in collaboration with Rising Star Racing he found enough extra to run the remaining road and street races with Detroit with Ed Carpenter Racing. Ed Jones found enough beyond the three-race amount to secure a full season entry in Dale Coyne Racing’s second car this year.

Kaiser and Juncos celebrate title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Although it’d be natural to assume Kaiser will move up with Juncos Racing, that’s not a guarantee. Still, he’s grown by leaps and bounds over his four years with the team – one in Pro Mazda and three in Indy Lights.

Ricardo Juncos explained the challenge of wanting to hold onto Kaiser while also understanding that like with Pigot, the potential exists that Kaiser could leave.

“Obviously we know others want to have Kyle, too. That’s the way it is and we need to fight against those things,” Juncos told NBC Sports. “This is the beginning of the process. We enjoy the weekend and the championships, and then next week we go to the desk and make it happen.”

STRONG POTENTIAL: Santiago Urrutia, Zachary Claman De Melo, Zach Veach

Santi Urrutia celebrates his first win of 2017 at Mid-Ohio. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

At least two of these three, if not all three of these Indy Lights veterans could be poised to make their full-time IndyCar bows next season.

Urrutia has made the loudest waves in recent weeks. The Uruguayan has progressed from a “70 percent” number in the break in-between the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and Gateway Motorsports Park rounds to the “getting closer” mantra at Gateway, following that win, to now close to “100 percent” at Watkins Glen this weekend.

“I’m working on my deal for IndyCar. I want to put it together right before Sonoma or right around there,” Urrutia said at Watkins Glen. “I’m closer to 100 percent. I’ll decide which team I’m gonna go and sign the contract. It feels good. The time I sign the contract, I want to be competitive and win races.”

Urrutia has also spoken openly of his desire to retain engineer Tim Neff, who he’s worked with both years in Indy Lights, first at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in 2016 and then with Belardi Auto Racing last year. SPM has at least one open seat next year and Urrutia is one of several drivers who could make sense there; he tested an IndyCar for the team at Sonoma last season.

Zachary Claman De Melo in Victory Lane at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Claman De Melo will make his IndyCar race debut with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing next weekend at Sonoma and a quote within the release spoke greater volumes than this just being a one-off entry in the team’s second car.

“This opportunity marks an incredible moment for my career and for Canadian motorsport fans, as I’m getting that much closer to securing a full-time position with RLLR for next season,” he said.

While funding is there for the rapid teenager, the potential of what would be a third RLLR entry – in addition to Graham Rahal and the yet-to-be-confirmed-officially Takuma Sato – comes as a surprise. Again, consider Honda already ran 13 full-time cars this year. Claman De Melo is at nearly an identical place Kaiser was last year – he’s weighing his options for IndyCar, but he could win a title if he was to return to Indy Lights for a third year. Stay tuned.

Jones (left), Zach Veach (center) and Jack Harvey (right) were the three “traditional” rookies in 2017. Photo: IndyCar

Veach’s name has been rumored over the summer for a full-season bow, with news of his confirmation potentially imminent. The Stockdale, Ohio native has made his first two IndyCar starts this year with Ed Carpenter Racing at Barber and A.J. Foyt Enterprises, in the Indy Women in Tech Championship entry, at the Indianapolis 500. He raced the 2013, 2014 and 2016 seasons in Indy Lights, winning races and contending for the title in the 2014 and 2016 seasons.

Veach’s fellow ‘500 rookie, Jack Harvey, is another recent Indy Lights graduate hoping to stick in IndyCar beyond the handful of races he’s done this year with the Michael Shank Racing/Andretti Autosport combination and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

MID-RANGE POTENTIAL: Matheus Leist, Nico Jamin, Dalton Kellett

At present, Leist isn’t exploring a return to Indy Lights. The Brazilian driver talked openly at Watkins Glen of his desire to move into IndyCar, but like several others, whether he has the budget to do so is a question mark. Although Leist had a strong summer run with Carlin, inconsistency limited his title pursuit.

Jamin could make an excellent IndyCar driver. The Frenchman’s versatility is on par with countrymen Simon Pagenaud and Sebastien Bourdais; he’s won races in Indy Lights, Pirelli World Challenge and IMSA Prototype Challenge this year alone in three wildly different types of machinery. Whether he’ll want to put himself through another season of Indy Lights though remains a question mark because of engine issues that hampered his campaign. He’s worth keeping on IndyCar team’s radars before any potential move to sports cars, and he’s regarded more for his talent than budget.

Kellett would like to do a handful of IndyCar races in 2018 and may have the means to do so. One of the smarter drivers in the series, the Queens University engineering graduate expects to return to Indy Lights for a third season. He’s not the out-and-out quickest driver in the field, but has shown particularly well on ovals throughout his Indy Lights career.

All three of these drivers – plus Claman De Melo – have at least one IndyCar test under their belts. This quartet tested at Road America this summer and Claman De Melo and Kellett had one run apiece in 2016, as well.

WAIT UNTIL 2019: Colton Herta, Aaron Telitz and others

Telitz (center) and Herta (right) are likely a year out from IndyCar. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Herta’s keen on staying in Indy Lights for another year with Andretti/Steinbrenner Racing. Although NBC Sports confirmed with both sides of the program that nothing is yet completed for a 2018 return to Indy Lights, they still expect it to happen, in preparation for Herta and Steinbrenner’s step-up to IndyCar in 2019. And it’s something Herta wants too.

“I think we exceeded our expectations,” Herta told NBC Sports. “We’re third in the championship, so third my last three years! I want to come back next year. That’s something I’ve never had. I’ve never had a second year in any series besides karting. That will help a ton.”

Telitz, Mazda’s scholarship driver this year in Indy Lights, endured a roller coaster year of inconsistency but impressed many in the IndyCar and MRTI paddocks with his win in the wet at Watkins Glen. He’s another driver who could improve and contend for the title in a second year in Lights.

“In terms of growth, I took a lot more of off-track prep more seriously,” Telitz told NBC Sports. “In lower divisions, I relied on being fast and driving. Now you had to take it more seriously with video, data and becoming more physically fit.”

Neither has yet tested an IndyCar, although either over the winter or into 2018 should provide them that chance.

Among others in the Indy Lights field:

  • With at least two years under their belts, Neil Alberico, Juan Piedrahita and Shelby Blackstock have been occasional podium finishers but have lacked the consistency, reliability and pace needed to fulfill their talent completely. It’s hard to see them realistically on IndyCar radars. Of the three, only Blackstock (2016 at Watkins Glen) has enjoyed an IndyCar test.
  • Rookies Ryan Norman and Nico Dapero often overachieved in their first seasons. Norman had 14 top-10 finishes which tied for most in the series with Kaiser and Claman De Melo. Dapero really came on strong towards the end of the year, a run to fifth at Gateway particularly impressive. With returns planned for both drivers, expect Kaiser and/or Claman De Melo-type improvements in a second year.
  • Rookie Garth Rickards was, frankly, overmatched at this level. A talented enough driver in the lowest rung on the ladder, USF2000, Rickards would need a big leap in performance in a second year of Indy Lights to put himself on any IndyCar radar.

NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
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Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

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FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

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