Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Thompson, Exclusive Autosport double up at Griffis test

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The shining light among Canadian drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires is Parker Thompson, the 19-year-old out of Red Deer, Alberta who completed his third season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda this year.

Thompson had perhaps the busiest weekend of any driver at last weekend’s Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as one of three drivers (Aaron Telitz, Carlos Cunha) who balanced driving in two series.

For Thompson, the return to the Griffis test for the first time since 2014 – when he was a then-unheralded 16-year-old making his debut with JDC Motorsports in advance of a season where he overachieved as a one-car entry in his 2015 rookie year – proved a major milestone in his career. The Griffis test is always the first look at the next year of what the MRTI will look like and after missing the 2016 test and not knowing what his future may hold within the ladder system, being back on track and as busy as he was was a welcome relief.

“I was so smiley around the paddock, even more than normal!” Thompson told NBC Sports. “Last year I had no options for Griffis to test. So I’m sitting at home in my office, watching the timing & scoring on my computer! So that was a big turning point to be not at the test.

“Coming back, I know how grateful I am to be back in a seat. I’m not sure where I’ll be yet but I know I’m hopeful to have a seat, and being with Exclusive Autosport, I couldn’t be in a better spot than here to showcase myself.”

Michael Duncalfe’s Saskatoon, Saskatchewan-based team made an immediate positive impact on the MRTI paddock, running up to four USF2000 cars in its first season last year but mainly two or three, with Thompson as its lead driver. He ended the year on a roll with three wins in the last five races, including a popular weekend sweep in Toronto. Unfortunately his title charge was blunted by mechanical issues outside his and the team’s control.

The new Tatuus PM-18. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Alas, Exclusive has now acquired two of the Tatuus PM-18 chassis for Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires next year, with one car that was all set from day one of the test and the second built up Saturday by the Exclusive crew before its maiden shakedown Saturday afternoon.

It meant Thompson, who’d initially only planned to test the USF2000 Tatuus USF-17 last weekend, would then be thrust into double duty with both cars, and always carrying his seat insert between the two cars. With USF2000 and Pro Mazda sessions back-to-back, Thompson wasn’t just making laps on track, but he was gathering a lot of steps to-and-from the paddock between cars.

“The USF2000 was the primary plan to have a refresher in that car, and help develop the next generation of Exclusive Autosport drivers,” Thompson said. “So heading to Indianapolis I didn’t know if I would be in the Pro Mazda. But Michael Duncalfe pulled some strings. He managed to get (the second) car within a week’s notice.

“The crew pulled a couple big nights getting the car together. It was almost ready when I got there, and they completed a few final finishing touches on Saturday before I could jump in fully. The crew did an awesome job to get a tub and engine two days before the event to piece it together, and it ran flawlessly Sunday. I was gracious to get to drive both when I thought it’d be only one!”

Even more impressive was how quickly the new car was on the pace. Barely half a second off Oliver Askew’s leading time on old Cooper Tires, Thompson’s engineer then stuck him on a set of sticker Coopers in Session 5 on Sunday morning, which propelled Thompson to a 1:19.9815 best lap – just 0.1673 of a second off Askew’s best time of the weekend at 1:19.8142 at the 2.439-mile road course.

Thompson was the only USF2000 veteran to really get on top of the new USF-17 chassis in that series this year, as it moved on from the Van Diemen. Other USF2000 veterans either struggled for consistent pace, or ran out of funding midseason. Stepping up to the PM-18, which Thompson is targeting to race next year, revealed a car more attuned to his driving style.

The Tatuus USF-17. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“It actually suits my driving style better than the USF car,” Thompson said. “I’m pretty aggressive and the new Pro Mazda seems to love that. The more you are pushing under the brakes, and rolling through the corner on power, the better it gets. If you’re not on the knife edge it doesn’t feel proper. You need the extra speed for the aero; you need the extra G-force in the corners for the car to work mechanically. The USF2000 car didn’t need it.

“I had the experience of jumping back and forth, so you had to switch up your style every time. The USF2000 is more about finessing the car; you want to keep the (corner) roll speed up. You can be aggressive but it’s a different type of aggression. The Pro Mazda car, you can unleash the anger, and it’s much better on the stopwatch!”

Nikita Lastochkin. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Thompson also had a chance to reunite with Los Angeles-based Russian teammate Nikita Lastochkin in Exclusive’s Pro Mazda entry. The two were teammates with Cape Motorsports in USF2000 in 2016 and are working towards an encore of that with Exclusive in Pro Mazda next season.

“It was great to work with Nikita again,” Thompson said. “We worked with Cape a couple years ago. He’s been one of my best teammates. Off the track you can be so open. At end of the day that allowed us to develop the car so quickly. That’s a team effort. Props to Nikita for working well together and hopefully I get to work more with him.”

Thompson, who also conducts anywhere from 50 to 100 events annually for his Drive To Stay Alive campaign – a program meant to cut down on distracted driving – again hailed Exclusive’s program and also offered a suggestion to a team trying to own the “Team Canada” moniker: IndyCar operation Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

“Compared to any other team, for a rookie team, Exclusive Autosport and Michael Duncalfe have, like you said, jumped in with both feet,” he said. “They’ve been a huge supporter for MRTI. He’s shown the commitment level and it’s the place to be, where the next drivers for IndyCar will come from. It fits perfectly with his 1600 program. We have a ‘mini IndyCar program,’ to grab drivers out of karting, then move them onto our own ladder. He’ll have a great farm team for future IndyCar drivers because of the dedication.

“It’s too funny you bring that up. I talked with Michael this weekend. So we have to trademark, ‘Eh team.’ We came up with the hashtag off the Canadian phrase, and people get pretty used to it when they’re around me. We wanted to trademark it… so we’re worried this new ‘Team Canada’ might take it!

“But I’m happy Canada is getting more awareness of racing; that’s what James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens will do. So more will watch in Canada. I’m happy there’s another Team Canada. And with more of a Canadian presence in IndyCar, I think that’ll help me in the future.

“Hopefully by the time I’m ready for that jump to IndyCar, we’ll have more fans. It’ll benefit all of us.”

Thompson. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photogrpahy

NHRA Bristol: Schumacher, Capps, Coughlin Jr. take home wins

Tony Schumacher, from left, Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Ron Capps. Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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You’ve heard of classic rock, right?

Well, Sunday’s 18th annual Fitzgerald USA NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol (Tennessee) Dragway was classic drag racing – old school style, you might say.

Drivers who have combined for 14 national championships between them emerged at the top of the heap, with eight-time champ Tony Schumacher taking Top Fuel honors, former champ Ron Capps took Funny Car honors and five-time champ Jeg Coughlin Jr. grabbing Pro Stock honors.

In Top Fuel, Schumacher earned his sixth career win at Thunder Valley, as well as his first win overall of 2018.

Known as “The Sarge” due to his U.S. Army sponsorship, Schumacher marched through the field to reach the Winner’s Circle.

Schumacher (3.946 seconds at 313.58 mph) defeated Mike Salinas in what would prove to be Schumacher’s third final round of the season and the 150th of his career.

He now is 6-2 in career final round showings at Thunder Valley.

“We have had little things bite us this season, but we knew we had to overcome adversity and we knew we had a great car that was capable of winning,” Schumacher said. “I’m proud of my team for sticking to our plan, and I know our team is going to be a factor for the rest of the season.”

Schumacher was the No. 2 qualifier in the race and defeated Terry McMillen, Pat Dakin, points leader Steve Torrence and Salinas to take the win.

It was the first runner-up finish of Salinas’ career, defeating Leah Pritchett, No. 1 qualifier Clay Millican and Scott Palmer before meeting Schumacher in the final.

In Funny Car, like Schumacher, Capps won for the first time this season on the NHRA national event circuit. It was also his second consecutive win at Bristol, having won last year’s event there.

Capps earned the 59th win of his career with a pass of 4.234 seconds at 296.37 mph, defeating Bob Tasca III.

Capps also earned Don Schumacher his 300th career nitro victory as a team owner.

“This is a great facility, and when you roll into this place you get a special feeling,” Capps said. “Getting to the Winner’s Circle at a track like this is even more special because you feel like you really had to earn it, and this weekend I am proud of what my team accomplished in some tough conditions.”

Capps went to the top of the Funny Car mountain starting from the No. 11 qualifying position, defeating 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, 2017 Funny Car national champ Robert and J.R. Todd before defeating Tasca in the final round.

Capps qualified 11th for the event before defeating John Force, defending Funny Car world champion Robert Hight and J.R. Todd on his path to Winner’s Circle.

Tasca was the No. 4 qualifier and defeated Tim Wilkerson, Cruz Pedregon and points leader Courtney Force to reach his first final round since at Seattle in 2013.

In Pro Stock, Coughlin earned his second win in the last three races. It took an effort of 6.709 seconds at 205.10 mph to defeat points leader Greg Anderson in the final round.

“My team has made some transitions this season and now we are running much faster, and it feels pretty great to be on the right track now this season,” Coughlin Jr. said. “Winning at Thunder Valley is historic and it feels fantastic, so to be crowned a champion here is really special.”

Coughlin qualified No. 2 and beat Tommy Lee, Chris McGaha and Drew Skillman en route to overtaking Anderson in the final round.

Anderson now has two runner-up finishes this season, but continues to seek his first win of 2018.

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule moves on to its 12th race of the season – the halfway mark of the 2018 campaign – next weekend at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, from June 21-24.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Tony Schumacher; 2. Mike Salinas; 3. Steve Torrence; 4. Scott Palmer; 5. Pat Dakin; 6. Doug Kalitta; 7. Antron Brown; 8. Clay Millican; 9. Brittany Force; 10. Leah Pritchett; 11. Shawn Reed; 12. Richie Crampton; 13. Dom Lagana; 14. Bill Litton; 15. Terry Totten; 16. Terry McMillen.

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

PRO STOCK: 1. Jeg Coughlin; 2. Greg Anderson; 3. Tanner Gray; 4. Drew Skillman; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Tim Freeman; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Jason Line; 10. Bo Butner; 11. Alex Laughlin; 12. John Gaydosh Jr.; 13. Wally Stroupe; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Deric Kramer; 16. Tommy Lee.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Tony Schumacher, 3.946 seconds, 313.58 mph def. Mike Salinas, 5.251 seconds, 152.18 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.234, 296.37 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: Jeg Coughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.709, 205.10 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.741, 205.07.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Mike Salinas, 4.023, 295.53 def. Leah Pritchett, 4.011, 287.72; Scott Palmer, 4.017, 304.39 def. Bill Litton, 4.172, 261.07; Clay Millican, 4.018, 295.14 def. Terry Totten, 4.542, 182.58; Tony Schumacher, 3.917, 316.82 def. Terry McMillen, 5.112, 141.40; Antron Brown, 3.897, 316.82 def. Richie Crampton, 4.057, 297.22; Doug Kalitta, 3.998, 286.38 def. Brittany Force, 3.942, 307.51; Steve Torrence, 3.970, 303.71 def. Shawn Reed, 4.018, 283.25; Pat Dakin, 4.015, 307.30 def. Dom Lagana, 4.107, 272.12; QUARTERFINALS — Salinas, 4.035, 299.20 def. Millican, 9.938, 76.57; Palmer, 4.067, 302.41 def. Kalitta, 4.292, 230.92; Schumacher, 4.028, 288.64 def. Dakin, 4.041, 298.14; Torrence, 4.232, 253.33 def. Brown, 5.090, 155.65; SEMIFINALS — Salinas, 4.042, 301.07 def. Palmer, 4.356, 211.89; Schumacher, 4.038, 297.02 def. Torrence, 4.104, 254.04; FINAL — Schumacher, 3.946, 313.58 def. Salinas, 5.251, 152.18.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.757, 227.23 def. Jeff Diehl, Toyota Solara, 5.978, 124.51; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.169, 307.65 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.382, 262.18; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 4.213, 300.26 def. Del Worsham, Camry, 4.362, 252.61; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.133, 303.09 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.183, 289.82; Cruz Pedregon, Camry, 4.582, 229.00 def. Jim Campbell, Dodge Charger, 5.030, 159.02; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.243, 296.37 def. John Force, Camaro, 5.824, 128.57; Jack Beckman, Charger, 4.283, 281.30 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 4.569, 266.37; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.253, 291.26 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 5.381, 142.06; QUARTERFINALS — C. Force, 4.197, 298.14 def. Johnson Jr., 5.139, 158.45; Tasca III, 4.233, 292.90 def. Pedregon, 5.757, 126.33; Todd, 4.203, 295.92 def. Beckman, 4.333, 277.49; Capps, 4.208, 299.33 def. Hight, 4.233, 300.73; SEMIFINALS — Capps, 4.242, 298.93 def. Todd, 4.372, 285.65; Tasca III, 4.219, 298.60 def. C. Force, 4.271, 286.62; FINAL — Capps, 4.234, 296.37 def. Tasca III, 4.300, 286.98.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Vincent Nobile, Chevy Camaro, 6.739, 204.45 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.776, 204.45; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.736, 205.32 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.729, 204.88 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.726, 203.95; Tim Freeman, Camaro, 6.787, 202.58 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.823, 201.94; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.754, 205.13 def. John Gaydosh Jr., Chevrolet Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.715, 204.23 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 9.845, 93.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.716, 204.35 def. Wally Stroupe, Camaro, 7.027, 176.70; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.719, 205.10 def. Tommy Lee, Camaro, Broke – No Show; QUARTERFINALS — Gray, 6.789, 204.94 def. Freeman, Foul – Red Light; Coughlin, 6.740, 205.26 def. McGaha, 16.733, 48.09; Anderson, 6.723, 204.73 def. Nobile, 6.755, 204.29; Skillman, 6.727, 203.98 def. Enders, 6.743, 204.54; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.750, 204.51 def. Skillman, Foul – Red Light; Anderson, 6.768, 204.91 def. Gray, 6.764, 205.19; FINAL — Coughlin, 6.709, 205.10 def. Anderson, 6.741, 205.07.

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UPDATED POINTS STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 896; 2. Clay Millican, 786; 3. Tony Schumacher, 760; 4. Doug Kalitta, 717; 5. Leah Pritchett, 663; 6. Antron Brown, 588; 7. (tie) Brittany Force, 552; Terry McMillen, 552; 9. Scott Palmer, 461; 10. Mike Salinas, 421.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 937; 2. Jack Beckman, 736; 3. Robert Hight, 717; 4. J.R. Todd, 694; 5. Ron Capps, 693; 6. Matt Hagan, 669; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 606; 8. Cruz Pedregon, 508; 9. John Force, 502; 10. Bob Tasca III, 500.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 823; 2. Tanner Gray, 768; 3. Vincent Nobile, 758; 4. Erica Enders, 738; 5. Drew Skillman, 679; 6. Jeg Coughlin, 671; 7. Chris McGaha, 659; 8. Bo Butner, 642; 9. Deric Kramer, 627; 10. Jason Line, 569.

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