MRTI: St. Petersburg preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The 2018 season kicks off for all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida, and all three series will feature double-headers, with races on both Saturday and Sunday for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

All three series have seen many changes since their 2017 seasons wrapped up at Watkins Glen International last September, with all three featuring a degree of unpredictability as 2018 begins.

Below are previews of the opening weekend for all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy.

Indy Lights

Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, carries the “Soul Red” Mazda livery in Indy Lights for the 2018 season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Indy Lights saw three race winners from 2017 move on to the Verizon IndyCar Series. Kyle Kaiser, the 2017 champion, and Zachary Claman DeMelo will have part-time IndyCar rides with Juncos Racing and Dale Coyne Racing respectively, while Matheus Leist moves into the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet for A.J. Foyt Racing.

The drivers who return to Indy Lights in 2018 all experienced varying levels of success in 2017, but all had stumbling blocks that prevented them from taking home a championship.

Santiago Urrutia won two of the final four races in 2017, but also had five finishes of 11th or worse. Colton Herta won twice and had seven poles, but also displayed a level of inconsistency that saw him have a “feast or famine” first half of the season – his finishes in the first nine races were 2-1-10-1-12-10-13-12-3.

Aaron Telitz book-ended the season with wins in Race 1 at St. Petersburg and Race 2 at Watkins Glen, but he only had two other podium finishes all year. Ryan Norman and Nico Dapero finished outside the top ten in the championship, while Pato O’Ward only contested the first four races.

Last year’s Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni moves up to Indy Lights in 2018 and figures to be in the mix for the championship as well.

All told, there are 10 entries as of writing for the Indy Lights season opener. Andretti Autosport will have Norman, O’Ward, and Dalton Kellet, with Colton Herta piloting the sister Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing effort.

Belardi Auto Racing will see Urrutia and Telitz return. Juncos Racing has two entries, one for Franzoni, and a second with a driver yet to be announced as of writing. Team Pelfrey will field cars for Neil Alberico and Shelby Blackstock.

Carlin is not on the entry list for St. Petersburg, but expectations are that they will return later in the year on a part-time basis.

Telitz and Herta both took victories last year at St. Petersburg, while Urrutia was fastest during testing at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course in February. As returning race winners from the 2017 season, they will likely be the favorites heading into the weekend, but expect the field to be very competitive regardless.

Pro Mazda

Oliver Askew sports the “Soul Red” livery in Pro Mazda, having won last year’s USF2000 title. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pro Mazda has the potential to be the most intriguing series of the 2018 Mazda Road to Indy season. First and foremost, the Tatuus PM-18, with a new two-litre MZR-PM18A engine as well, makes its race debut after a year of testing and development.

And initial impressions are very positive, as IndyCar on NBCSN’s Kevin Lee noted from the Homestead test.

The driver lineup is also an intriguing prospect. The top three from last year’s USF2000 championship have all moved up to Pro Mazda. Defending USF2000 champion Oliver Askew is with Cape Motorsports (the team with whom he won the USF2000 crown), runner-up Rinus Veekay is with Juncos Racing, and third-place finisher Parker Thompson moves up with Exclusive Autosport.

Robert Megennis, the only other driver to win a race in the 2017 USF2000 season, joins VeeKay at Juncos as well.

Askew, VeeKay, and Thompson were fast during pre-season testing at Homestead and Barber Motorsports Park, but none of them actually had the fastest individual laps. VeeKay’s other teammate at Juncos Carlos Cunha went fastest at Homestead, closely followed by Team Pelfrey’s Sting Ray Robb, while BN Racing’s David Malukas was quickest at Barber.

Last year’s Pro Mazda season saw only two drivers take victory, the aforementioned Franzoni along with Anthony Martin – Martin also swept the weekend at St. Petersburg last year. The 2018 season looks to be completely different, however, and the stage looks set for an ultra competitive battle all year long.


Keith Donegan will sports the “Soul Red” livery in USF2000 in 2018, having won the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The four drivers won races in the 2017 USF2000 season – Askew, VeeKay, Thompson, and Megennis – have all moved on to Pro Mazda in 2018, leaving this year’s USF2000 championship up for grabs.

Still, while many drivers are relative unknowns, there are a number of drivers who could be poised to emerge as title contenders. Below is a selection of drivers to watch in the USF2000 ranks.

  • Kyle Kirkwood: A former Team USA Scholarship recipient and last year’s F4 United States Powered by Honda champion, Kirkwood joins the powerhouse Cape Motorsports outfit in USF2000. Cape drivers have won every USF2000 title since 2011, and Kirkwood’s young but impressive resume indicates he has everything he needs – both in his driving skills and in the team he has behind him – to continue that dominance.
  • Kaylen Frederick: One of the pleasant surprises from last year, the 15-year-old Frederick quickly established himself as a contender with a pair of second-place finishes at Barber Motorsports Park. He added three more podiums on his way to fourth in the championship. Now entering his second USF2000 season, he joins Pabst Racing – Frederick was with Team Pelfrey in 2017 – and looks to secure his first USF2000 victory in 2018 and become a championship contender.
  • Rasmus Lindh: One of Frederick’s teammates at Pabst, Rasmus Lindh joins USF2000 from the karting ranks in Europe. A native of Sweden, Lindh spent 2017 running in the OK Senior class of the karting World Championship, where he finished fifth. He showed impressive speed during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, turning the second fastest lap of the weekend, so Lindh could easily surprise people with his prowess in 2018.
  • Lucas Kohl: Another driver from the Pabst lineup, Kohl comes off a 2017 season that saw him get better as the year went on. He scored a podium in Race 1 at Road America on his way to seventh in the standings. He also impressed at the Homestead test, turning the third fastest lap of the weekend.
  • Calvin Ming: With a quiet run to fifth in the 2017 standings, Ming flew under the radar somewhat, but did score four podiums in a solid effort with Pabst. Back with the same team in 2018, Ming looks to build on that foundation and become a regular frontrunner.
  • Keith Donegan: The 2o-year-old Donegan is the recipient of the $200K Mazda Motorsports scholarship after winning the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout. Joining ArmsUp Motorsports for 2018, Donegan will look to emulate the success of last year’s shootout winner Oliver Askew, who parlayed that scholarship into a USF2000 title. Donegan’s debut with ArmsUp at the Homestead test did not stand out – he had the 13th fastest lap of the weekend – but it’s not necessarily indicative of a struggling team or driver. Donegan will most certainly be one to watch this weekend.
  • Other drivers to watch include Kory Enders (DEForce Racing), Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), and Sabre Cook (Team Benik).

All three series have practice and qualifying for Race 1 of their weekends on Friday, qualifying for Race 2 on Saturday morning, with their first races of the weekend scheduled for Saturday late in the morning (for USF2000) through the afternoon (Pro Mazda and Indy Lights).

Indy Lights will have its second race of the weekend on Sunday morning, with Pro Mazda and USF2000 running their second races later on Sunday afternoon after the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Entry lists are linked as follows: Indy Lights, Pro Mazda, USF2000.

A weekend schedule can be found here.


Tom Blomqvist keeps eye on IndyCar during impressive rise: ‘ I would love to give it a go’


DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – In between two of his latest superstar-driver-in-waiting performances, Tom Blomqvist walked through the Daytona International Speedway garage in anonymity.

“Nobody knows who the (expletive) I am,” he said to a team member with a laugh (and without a trace of being miffed), evincing the cheeky humor of someone born in England, raised in New Zealand and also of Swedish descent.

The lack of recognition in the garage might have been because he was clad in a relatively nondescript shirt, hat and sunglasses instead of a colorful firesuit covered by sponsor logos. But he also was on the way to a Friday race eve media availability where his entrance was greeted by only one reporter (after a few minutes).

During a news conference a day earlier, he sat patiently on the dais while his Indy 500-winning teammates and car owner fielded nearly all the questions – even though Blomqvist had turned maybe the most impressive lap of the month to win the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position in the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category.

The Meyer Shank Racing driver still might lack the attention commensurate with his already world-class CV (which expanded Sunday with his second consecutive Rolex 24  victory for MSR), but Blomqvist, 29, clearly isn’t bothered by it.

He carries the quiet confidence of knowing his immense talent will ensure results that will make him impossible to ignore.

“To a degree, I guess, it’s definitely ramped up a lot for me,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports. “In America, I’m starting to get a lot more (attention). In the last year, I’ve quite often got a lot of maybe what you’d call the glory moments. It’s been fun. And within the paddock, there’s a lot of respect for me anyway. It’s been good.”

There have been several moments of acclaim since he joined MSR barely a year ago in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. In his first start for the team at last year’s Rolex 24, Blomqvist turned in a Herculean performance to position the No. 60 Acura for the victory (giving way to Helio Castroneves because he was too “cooked” to complete the last 74 minutes).

He was even better this year at Daytona.

He ripped off a monster “one and done” pole-winning lap to beat the clock in qualifying on the 12-turn, 3.56-mile road course. During the race, Blomqvist was as dominant in his first stint as his last in the ARX-06 while taking the checkered flag. He set the mark for the fastest time on Lap 6 that no one topped over the final 755 laps.

The 10 fastest laps in the race belonged to Blomqvist, carrying over his speed from the 2022 when he won the Petit Le Mans season finale to clinch the premier prototype championship at Michelin Road Atlanta.

A year earlier at the same track, he had burst onto the radar of car owner Mike Shank, who was intrigued by Blomqvist’s results as a BMW factory driver in the Formula E and DTM series. In 2014, Blomqvist also finished between second in F3, between champion Esteban Ocon (now with Alpine’s F1 team) and Max Verstappen (who has won the past two Formula One championships).

“He did a lot of high-level stuff, and then kind of fell out of favor, or I don’t know what happened, but he was a free agent,” Shank said. “I started looking at his numbers, and I’m like, ‘We should test this guy. So I take him to Road Atlanta in the fall of ’21, and he got in the car and just slayed it.”

Within minutes, he had called co-owner Jim Meyer.

“I’ve got our guy,” Shank said. “This is our guy. There’s no question about it.

Honda Performance Development president David Salters hugs Tom Blomqvist after the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

“Now what’s happened, though, and I think if you look back at the Rolex here last year (and) what he did, he’s a gold nugget. He reminds me a little bit when (Robert) Wickens came into IndyCar out of DTM (as a rookie in 2018).

“He truly believes he’s the fastest guy out there, and he proved it (at the Rolex 24).”

Said David Salters, president for Honda Performance Development: “We love Tom. He’s the real deal, isn’t he? Immensely talented, super smart, and on it.

The great thing about our teams, the strength in depth is tremendous. But if you look through the sports car racing now, that’s the standard you have to have. Tom, brilliant, Filipe (Albuquerque), brilliant. Ricky (Taylor). You can go through that list. They’re all superstars. Tom is awesome. His lap in qualifying quite frankly was unbelievable.”

Having conquered one of the world’s greatest endurance races twice with Acura, Blomqvist could be ticketed for the world’s biggest race next – the Indy 500 — with HPD’s primary brand.

He tested a Dallara-Honda for MSR last October at Sebring International Raceway, and while he plans to focus solely on IMSA this season, he remains very intrigued by IndyCar.

And with Castroneves, 47, beginning a one-year deal with MSR’s IndyCar team, there could be an obvious opening in 2024.

“Obviously, it’s not in the cards this year,” Blomqvist told NBC Sports the day before the Rolex. “Yeah, I would love to give it a go. To be honest, I think that would be an amazing step for me in my career. I enjoy the sports car stuff so much. It’s been really good to me lately. I really enjoyed the style of racing.

“But I feel like IndyCar would be a step up for me and my career. It would be fantastic if I could get that opportunity. But yeah, I guess I have to keep pushing Mike or something to give me a shot. But obviously for now, the focus is here in the sports car stuff. It’s not really down to me at the end of the day. And I’ve got to do my job and then the people who pay the bills and make the decisions obviously have to decide if that’s something worth pursuing.

“But yeah, I’d love to give it a go, and I definitely would be up for it.”

Tom Blomqvist after winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole on the final qualifying lap (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

A transition from IMSA to IndyCar naturally would be easier than switching teams, but it also would be comfortable because Blomqvist already seems such a good fit at MSR.

It might have seemed an unusual pairing given his European-heavy background, but Blomqvist likes the Midwestern culture that’s been built at MSR. Based just outside Columbus, Ohio, the team’s shop has “no egos, and that just enables each and every one of to reach our potential.

“Obviously, with Honda, we obviously have some great resources, but we’re up against Porsche, BMW and some big heavy hitters in the motorsports world,” he said. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got a huge team compared to them, but we’ve obviously got a very capable team, and I think that’s what has been so impressive and really, really nice to see about the work that’s been done. No stone has been left unturned.”

Blomqvist still is living in Europe and planning to commute for the nine-race GTP schedule (which has a nearly two-month break after the Rolex 24 until the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring). But though he’s “got good friends in America, so I do have places to stay,” he seems open to being based more permanently near MSR in America.

“Let’s see what the future brings, and if that means me spending more time over here,” he said. “It’s a fantastic team. It’s a different environment to what I’m used to. It’s obviously now a hugely successful team, but it is a small team. It does feel like a very small family-operated team, which it is.

“I think Mike’s really just built this thing. It hasn’t happened overnight. Mike’s a great guy and put a lot of trust and faith in me, and I played a relatively good part in some of the success last year. I was able to reward him and give him my all every time I’m on track, and he respects that. But we are still a small team. In the grand scheme of things, we still are a really, really small team.”

Blomqvist said the BMW factory program would have two or three times the staffing of MSR – just on one of its two GTP cars.

“But it’s not the number of people that makes a difference, it’s the quality of people, and obviously Mike and HPD are a fantastic operation to go racing,” Blomqvist said. “We’re racers at heart.

“I’ve been part of some big outfits, and the European way of working is very, very different to how people go about racing in America. I’d say it’s more seat of your pants. A lot of emotion and kind of rides on that competitive spirt, competitive nature and on their personalities. It’s a lot more pure. It feels very pure. You want to win, so we go out and don’t cut corners on trying to win.”

Though it’s aligned with Liberty Media and has big-budget backing and support from Honda Performance Development, MSR also is much less corporate than most GTP teams.

A longtime and respected team owner who has built a sponsor portfolio, Shank also describes his maniacal dedication to success as “messed up,” and he’s known for dropping vulgarities into postrace interview with his blunt and self-deprecating sense of humor.

Meyer Shank Racing co-owner Mike Shank congratulates Tom Blomqvist on the Rolex 24 at Daytona pole position (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).

With a more laid-back but sometimes just as biting demeanor, Blomqvist has become the team’s unquestioned leader behind the wheel

“I definitely feel a lot more immersed,” he said. “Within the team, I was a bit more of an unknown quantity the start of last year. Obviously after last season, the team trusts me a lot. And that gives me a lot of pleasure, pride and confidence. In this sport, confidence is a huge aspect of drivers’ psychology in a way. We’re in extremely high-pressure moments where my job is to perform under the pressure of these organizations and the brand as well.

“It’s just a good, healthy team to be a part of. It’s a high-pressure environment, but the team obviously have put a lot of faith in me, and I’ve been able to deliver for them on occasions.”

Rolex 24 starting lineup
Tom Blomqvist celebrates after winning the pole in the No. 60 Acura ARX-06 (Mike Levitt/LAT/IMSA).