Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Saturday St. Petersburg notebook

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Saturday saw the first races of the weekend for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, with all three series kicking off their 2018 seasons.

Indy Lights and USF2000 saw displays of dominance by a pair of drivers who took their first wins in both series, while Pro Mazda saw a late-race duel between two drivers expected to battle for the championship.

Reports on all three series are below.

Indy Lights: O’Ward Dominates Race 1 for First Career Indy Lights Win

Pato O’Ward celebrates his victory in Race 1 at St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti Autosport’s Pato O’Ward assumed the pole for Race 1 after Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz, who had been the polesitter, crashed on the final lap of qualifying for Race 2, and his No. 9 Dallara IL-15 suffered too much damage to be repaired in time for Race 1.

O’Ward took advantage of the change in fortune and rocketed into the lead off the initial start and led the entire 35-lap race on his way to his first career Indy Lights victory.

“I’m so happy for everyone who has helped me, who have believed me and helped me get here,” said an elated O’Ward. “I want people to see that if you have the right factors in the right moment, you can do it. The Andretti guys and girls gave me an awesome car, my CDX Mazda was great. I just kept it on the black stuff, didn’t tag any walls.”

O’Ward’s dominant display saw him lead Santiago Urrutia, Telitz’s teammate at Belardi, by over six seconds at the checkered flag. Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta finished in third, outdueling Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni. Team Pelfrey’s Shelby Blackstock rounded out the top five.

Results from race 1 are below. Race 2 rolls of at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday morning, with O’Ward starting on the pole.

Pro Mazda: VeeKay Outduels Thompson for Race 1 Victory

Rinus VeeKay used a late-race pass on Parker Thompson to win race 1. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The opening race of the Pro Mazda season saw Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson and Juncos Racing’s Rinus VeeKay engage in a thrilling late-race duel for the win

Thompson led most of the way, taking the lead off the start from polesitter and Cape Motorsports driver Oliver Askew.

Thompson then dominated the race from there until a caution flew for DEForce Racing’s James Raven, who impacted the wall between Turns 8 and 9.

The subsequent restart put second place runner VeeKay right on Thompson’s gearbox, and he was quickly able to work his around Thompson to take the lead.

VeeKay held the lead from there to win Race 1, with Thompson coming in second. VeeKay’s Juncos teammates Robert Megennis and Carlos Cunha finished third and fourth, while Oliver Askew was shuffled back to fifth at the finish.

“I knew Parker was fast and that I could not pass him in dirty air, so I knew my only chance was on the restart under braking,” VeeKay said of the late-race battle. “I set it up well and he was in the dust on the inside, and he kept it safe and let me go.”

Results from Race 1 are below. Race 2 begins at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, with VeeKay starting on the pole.

USF2000: Kirkwood Dominates Race 1

Kyle Kirkwood dominated USF2000 Race in St. Petersburg to take the win in his first USF2000 start. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports Kyle Kirkwood immediately jumped into the lead off the start, passing DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra on the outside in Turn 1 just after the green flag waved.

Kirkwood’s move ended up being perfectly timed as an incident behind them necessitated a full-course caution. Two of the Exclusive Autosport entries, Igor Fraga in the No. 91 and Manuel Cabrera in the No. 90 both spun simultaneously in separate incidents, with the Newman Wachs Racing No. 38 entry of Oscar Deluzuriaga also getting collected.

Fraga was fortunate to escape without damage and continued on after getting restarted, with Deluzuriaga doing the same, only suffering a broken wing. Cabrera, however, was not as fortunate and suffered too much damage to continue.

When racing resumed, Kirkwood took off and immediately began increasing the gap to Sierra, who had his hands full with BN Racing’s Jamie Caroline in an intense battle for second. Caroline ended up passing Sierra for second, but quickly found himself in the pits after wall contact damaged the right-rear of his No. 28 entry, and he was forced to retire.

Several other drivers also struggled in Race 1. Pabst Racing teammates Kaylen Frederick and Lucas Kohl, Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron, and DEForce Racing’s Kory Enders all incurred drive-through penalties early in the race, with all four finishing outside of the top ten.

Up front, Kirkwood cruised home for the victory ahead of Sierra. Darren Keane finished third for Newman Wachs, followed by Pabst’s Calvin Ming and Team Pelfrey’s Julian Van der Watt.

“The plan I had worked out perfectly, which was to get a good jump at the start,” Kirkwood said in Victory Lane. “On the first green, I didn’t expect to fall back to the inside lane, but it worked when Kaylen fell back and created a gap. Jose got a good jump so I really needed that gap. I out-braked them going into Turn One but the yellow came out before I could get a run. On the restart, I went as soon as I was allowed, and Jose didn’t expect it so I got a good run on him going into Turn One so no one could draft up on me.”

Results are below. Race 2 begins at 5:25 p.m. on Sunday, with Alex Baron leading the field to the green.

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Zach Veach splits with Andretti Autosport for rest of IndyCar season

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Zach Veach will be leaving his Andretti Autosport ride with three races remaining in the season, choosing to explore options after the decision was made he wouldn’t return for 2021.

In a Wednesday release, Andretti Autosport said a replacement driver for the No. 26 Dallara-Honda would be named in the coming days. The NTT IndyCar Series will race Oct. 2-3 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and then conclude the season Oct. 25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida.

Veach was ranked 11th in the points standings through 11 races of his third season with Andretti. Since a fourth in the June 6 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway, he hadn’t finished higher than 14th.

“The decision was made that I will not be returning in 2021 with Andretti Autosport in the No. 26 Gainbridge car,” Veach said in the Andretti release. “This, along with knowing that limited testing exists for teams due to COVID, have led me to the decision to step out of the car for the remainder of the 2020 IndyCar season. I am doing this to allow the team to have time with other drivers as they prepare for 2021, and so that I can also explore my own 2021 options.

“This is the hardest decision I have ever made, but to me, racing is about family, and it is my belief that you take care of your family. Andretti Autosport is my family and I feel this is what is best to help us all reach the next step. I will forever be grateful to Michael and the team for all of their support over the years. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for a relationship that started many years ago with Road to Indy. I will also be forever grateful to Dan Towriss for his friendship and for the opportunity he and Gainbridge have given me.

“My love for this sport and the people involved is unmeasurable, and I look forward to continuing to be amongst the racing world and fans in 2021.”

Said team owner Michael Andretti: “We first welcomed Zach to the Andretti team back in his USF2000 days and have enjoyed watching him grow and evolve as a racer, and a person. His decision to allow us to use the last few races to explore our 2021 options shows the measure of his character.

“Zach has always placed team and family first, and we’re very happy to have had him as part of ours for so many years. We wish him the best in whatever 2021 may bring and will always consider him a friend.”

Andretti fields five full-time cars for Veach, Alexander Rossi, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Colton Herta.

It also has fielded James Hinchcliffe in three races this season.