MRTI: Friday St. Petersburg notebook

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Friday saw all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires hit the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida for practice and qualifying ahead of Race 1 on a double-header weekend for all three series as they kick off their 2018 seasons.

Some familiar faces rose to the occasion in qualifying for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, while a new face ended up taking pole in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.

Below are reports on happenings from all three series.

Indy Lights: Aaron Telitz Edges Pato O’Ward for Race 1 Pole

Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz, who scored a victory in Race 1 at St. Petersburg last year, put himself in prime position to do the same in 2018, scoring pole for Race 1 with a lap of 1:05.128, about one-and-a-half tenths quicker than Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward, who qualified second.

Colton Herta, who won Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg last year, qualified in third for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, while Santiago Urrutia, Telitz’s teammate at Belardi, qualified fourth. Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, qualified fifth in his Indy Lights debut.

Results are below. Race 1 for Indy Lights rolls off at 1:05 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Pro Mazda: Askew Survives Frantic Final Minutes to Grab Race 1 Pole

Oliver Askew will lead the Pro Mazda field to green in Race 1. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The final minutes of Pro Mazda qualifying were about as frantic as they get, with a number of drivers taking the top spot, only to be overtaken by the next car on the track, and then again by the next car on the car, and so on.

All told, at least five different teams had drivers at or near the top of the time charts as qualifying drew to a close. In the end, it was Oliver Askew and Cape Motorsports, last year’s USF2000 champions, surviving the last-minute chaos to take pole for Race 1 with a lap of 1:08.103, almost two tenths of a second ahead of the second-place run from Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson.

RP Motorsport Racing rookie Harrison Scott impressed on his debut, qualifying a strong third after leading the session at various points, with the Juncos Racing duo of Carlos Cunha and Robert Megennis rounding out the top five.

Qualifying results are below. Pro Mazda Race 1 rolls off at 12:10 p.m. ET on Saturday.

USF2000: Jose Sierra Knocks Off Kyle Kirkwood to Take Surprise Race 1 Pole

Jose Sierra surprised many by qualifying first for Race 1 of the USF2000 weekend. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports’s Kyle Kirkwood and DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra found themselves in a duel for the pole at the end qualifying. Sierra actually led the way, but Kirkwood managed to take the top spot from him on his final lap.

Sierra, however, had one more trick up his sleeve and retook the top spot as the session came to end, and the 18-year-old native of Mexico will lead the USF2000 field to the green for Race 1.

Kirkwood managed to qualify in second, followed by Pabst Racing’s Kaylen Frederick in third. Newcomer Igor Fraga was fourth for Exclusive Autosport while Zach Holden, one of Sierra’s teammates at DEForce, qualified fifth.

Results are below. Race 1 for USF2000 rolls off at 10:15 a.m. ET.

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Robert Wickens in the Indy 500? Bryan Herta making plans to field a car for next year

Robert Wickens Indy 500
Brett Farmer/LAT Images/IMSA
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Bryan Herta wants to enter Robert Wickens in the Indy 500 as early as 2024 – a year longer than preferred as work continues on the hand controls needed for the paralyzed driver.

Wickens suffered a spinal cord injury in a crash at Pocono Raceway in his 2018 IndyCar rookie season. He’s worked as a driver coach for the Arrow McLaren IndyCar team since, but last year with Bryan Herta Autosport and Hyundai returned to racing in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge.

The 33-year-old Canadian won a pair of races (including the season opener at Daytona) driving a Hyundai Elantra N-TCR that is fitted for Wickens to race strictly through hand controls. Herta said Thursday that perfecting that technology for an Indy car in the biggest race in the world has slowed the project he’s determined to do with Wickens.

‘I’M AS HUNGRY AS EVER’: Robert Wickens’ return to racing

“I’d love to take Robbie back to Indy because I know he could do that, and I think that would be a next step for him in his journey,” Herta told The Associated Press. “We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the logistical side of things, hand controls, and I think we have solutions for that.”

Herta said Honda has been supportive of the process, which Herta called “one of the most important things we’ve done in racing” last year.

“We actually looked at doing it this year, but the logistics of it, the timing, it just wasn’t enough,” Herta said. “That’s not something you can rush. There’s some things that we have to work very closely with IndyCar on, and things we just have to get right. It’s a process, but I can see a path to it.”

Wickens, when told his boss was openly discussing the Indy 500, grinned widely. Herta as a team owner won the Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon and Alexander Rossi.

“That’d be fun,” he said of running the Indy 500.

But like Herta, Wickens said the effort has to be both done correctly and be competitive.

“We’d like to do it right. If we started right now, can we get a car ready for the open test in April? Probably,” Wickens told The AP. “But I don’t know where the systems would be and I want to get on proper simulators to make sure its correct.

“We all want to do a proper, professional effort,” he added. “I don’t want to do it for a marketing campaign. I want to do it for a chance to win.”

Wickens in 2021 did a demonstration in Canada that marketed advancements for paralyzed drivers and gave him a chance to again drive. His entire life had been upended 14 races into his rookie IndyCar season, just three months after winning top rookie honors at the Indianapolis 500.

Wickens has since married, returned to racing last year and welcomed the birth of his first child, an son named Wesley whom is infatuated with both race cars and the trip to Disney he took this week during the off days at Daytona International Speedway.

Wickens, who uses a wheelchair but can stand with some support, marks a full year back racing on Friday in the season-opening IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race. Despite success last season, Herta made changes to his lineups and Wickens this year will be teamed with Harry Gottsacker.