MRTI: Thompson, Exclusive Autosport double up at Griffis test

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

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

IndyCar releases schedule for 2023 season

IndyCar schedule 2023
Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The NTT IndyCar Series’ 2023 schedule will feature the same number of races and tracks as this season with some minor reshuffling of dates.

IndyCar will open the 2023 season March 5 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and will conclude Sept. 10 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, California. The 107th Indy 500 will take place May 28 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The 17-race schedule will conclude with a stretch of eight races in the final nine weeks.

“The NTT IndyCar Series is on an impactful upward trajectory, making progress at a pace that befits our thrilling style of competition,” Penske Entertainment Corp. president and CEO Mark Miles said in a release. “The 2023 season provides an opportunity to further build on this trend, bringing our sport and its stars to more markets and households and reaching new consumers across the globe.”

There will be 15 events on NBC: 13 races (including six of the final seven) plus Indy 500 qualifying May 20-21. There also are three races on USA Network and the Toronto race exclusively on Peacock. All races on NBC and USA also will have live simulstreams on Peacock.

In partnership with NBC Sports, the 2022 IndyCar season was the most-watched in six years and the most-watched across NBC Sports on record. The 2022 season also was the most streamed season on record.

“We’re very excited for our 2023 NTT IndyCar Series schedule and to build on this past season’s viewership milestones,” NBC Sports vice president of programming Mike Perman said in a release. “In providing comprehensive coverage across NBC, Peacock and USA Network, NBC Sports is once again looking forward to telling the stories of these world-class drivers and this compelling series.”

Notable elements on the 2023 schedule:

–There will be the same balance of seven road course races, five street courses and five ovals.

–St. Pete will be the season opener for the 13th time.

–The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix will move from Belle Isle to the streets of downtown.

–The NASCAR doubleheader weekend at the IMS road course will shift to mid-August.

–The World Wide Technology Raceway event will move from Saturday to Sunday.

Start times for the 2023 events will be announced at a later date.

Here’s the 2023 IndyCar schedule:

Date Race/Track Network/Platform
Sun., March 5 Streets of St. Petersburg NBC, Peacock
Sun., April 2 Texas Motor Speedway NBC, Peacock
Sun., April 16 Streets of Long Beach NBC, Peacock
Sun., April 30 Barber Motorsports Park NBC, Peacock
Sat., May 13 Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Road Course) NBC, Peacock
Sun., May 28 The 107th Indianapolis 500 NBC, Peacock
Sun., June 4 Streets of Detroit NBC, Peacock
Sun., June 18 Road America USA Network, Peacock
Sun., July 2 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course USA Network, Peacock
Sun., July 16 Streets of Toronto Peacock
Sat., July 22 Iowa Speedway – Race 1 NBC, Peacock
Sun., July 23 Iowa Speedway – Race 2 NBC, Peacock
Sun., Aug. 6 Streets of Nashville NBC, Peacock
Sat., Aug. 12 Indianapolis Motor Speedway (Road Course) USA Network, Peacock
Sun., Aug. 27 World Wide Technology Raceway NBC, Peacock
Sun., Sept. 3 Portland International Raceway NBC, Peacock
Sun., Sept. 10 WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca NBC, Peacock

*dates and networks/platforms are subject to change