MRTI: St. Petersburg weekend digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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It was a packed weekend to begin the 2018 season for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with all three series completing two races apiece to kick off their respective seasons.

It’s also somewhat of a preview of the 2018 season as a whole, with Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires having seven double-header weekends each, while USF2000 has five double-headers as well as a triple-header at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And the tightly packed weekend had more than its fair share of dramatics, including first-time winners and and problems befalling expected championship contenders.

Indy Lights: Urrutia Shows Maturity As Season Opens

Santi Urrutia celebrates his win in Race 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Typically, 21-year-old Santi Urrutia has struggled in at least one race during the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg. In 2016, he finished fourth in Race 1, but 13th in Race 2. Last year, he was 13th in Race 1 before rebounding to finish second in Race 2.

This weekend, however, was a different story for the Uruguayan driver, who had finishes of 2-1 on the weekend and leads the Indy Lights championship leaving St. Petersburg.

What’s more, Urrutia was not the fastest driver and did not appear to have the fastest car at any point during the weekend, yet he manufactured both results through smart driving while those around him faltered.

His Belardi Auto Racing teammate Aaron Telitz took the pole in Race 1, but was unable to make the start after crashing during qualifying for Race 2. The team was able to borrow a chassis from Carlin so Telitz could start the second race, but contact with Victor Franzoni saw Telitz spin into the Turn 2 wall right after the start, meaning his two races consisted of only two corners combined.

Pato O’Ward looked set to sweep the weekend after winning Race 1, but overshot Turn 4 late in Race 2, going into the runoff area and then stalling after re-entering the track. He ended up finishing seventh.

Colton Herta again showed speed, finishing third in Race 1, but still showed the inconsistency that plagued him in 2017, crashing while trying to chase O’Ward for the lead early on in Race 2.

It all added up to a favorable outing for Urrutia, who also had problems of his own during the weekend, crashing during practice on Friday. But, as he emphasized, strong teamwork from the Belardi group enabled him to bounce back.

“I’m especially happy for the team, after the way the weekend has gone – I had a crash on Friday, and of course, Aaron crashed yesterday. The guys have been working all night long and I feel so sorry for them and for Aaron. But we have a very good team and everyone has worked so hard so we’ll keep working this way and hopefully, everything will be fine,” Urrutia said following Race 2.

He leaves St. Petersburg on 55 points, eight ahead of O’Ward to lead the championship.

Pro Mazda: VeeKay Rolls to Weekend Sweep

Rinus VeeKay won both Pro Mazda races to open the 2018 season. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

To bring back a phrase that was used very often in 2018, across all three Mazda Road to Indy Series, Rinus VeeKay had the broom out at St. Petersburg, winning both Pro Mazda races to seize early control of the championship.

And his victories came in different fashions. He had to outduel Parker Thompson for the Race 1 victory after the Exclusive Autosport driver led most of the way. Race 2 saw VeeKay start on the pole, but a starting error saw the green flag come out prematurely, and VeeKay dropped like a stone, falling back to ninth.

However, race control ultimately stopped the race, reorganized everyone back into their original starting positions, and tried again. VeeKay took advantage and rocketed away when the green flag waved, dominating Race 2, even surviving a late caution that allowed second-place David Malukas to close in, to complete the weekend sweep.

“This is amazing, just like last year when I won both races at Road America and was fighting with David (Maluka)! But both of us were confused at the start because the green came so early, so everyone passed us. I’m happy that the series saw the mistake and gave us a chance to recover. I had a comfortable gap through the race and when I saw the yellow flag I thought ‘oh, no!’ I knew the restart had to be very good and I did get enough of a jump to stay in front,” VeeKay said of the Race 2 battle.

With a whopping 62 points to his name, VeeKay leads Thompson, who had finishes of 2-5 for the weekend, by 19 points. Of note: USF2000 champion Oliver Askew had a quiet weekend, taking finishes of 5-6, and sits sixth in the championship standings.

USF2000: Kirkwood Shines on Debut Weekend As Others Falter

Kyle Kirkwood dominated USF2000 Race 1 in St. Petersburg to take the win in his first USF2000 start. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood did not dominate the weekend like VeeKay did in the Pro Mazda ranks, but Kirkwood’s USF2000 debut was still plenty impressive.

Last year’s champion of the Formula 4 United States Championship Powered by Honda, Kirkwood ran away with race 1 after starting on the pole, and drove a quiet but solid Race 2 to finish fifth.

Meanwhile, drivers expected to challenge for the 2018 USF2000 title struggled in at least one race over the weekend. Kaylen Frederick had finishes of 11th and ninth for the weekend, and was one of several drivers to receive a drive-through penalty in Race 2. Lucas Kohl scored a 13th and a third. Darren Keane was third and 12th. Jaime Caroline scored a 24th and a fourth. And Race 2 winner Alex Baron finished 22nd in Race 1.

All told, it gives Kirkwood the early championship lead on 48 points ahead of DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra, who sits on 41 points after finishes of second and sixth. Exclusive Autosport’s Igor Fraga sits in third, ten points behind Kirkwood.

“There’s a bit of relief! Our deal came together really late, but I know I’m in the right place at the right time,” said Kirkwood following his Race 1 triumph.

Indy Lights and Pro Mazda return to action at Barber Motorsports Park in April, while USF2000 takes a two-month break before returning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course in May.

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The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500