MRTI: IMS road course preview

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course not only plays host to the Verizon IndyCar Series this weekend, but also to all three series in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will all enjoy a packed weekend, beginning with all-day testing and practices on Thursday before all three series take on the 2.439-mile road course for races on Friday and Saturday.

Indianapolis also represents the third race weekend for Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, while USF2000 returns for its second event of the year following a two-month break after opening the season on the streets of St. Petersburg.

A look at big stories across all three series is below.

Indy Lights

Pato O’Wars (center) swept the weekend at Barber Motorsports and has won three of four races to start 2018. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Pato O’Ward has dominated the start of the Indy Lights season, winning three of the first four races, and leads Santi Urrutia by 16 points entering the IMS Road Course. But, he is by no means counting his chickens before they hatch in regards to the championship fight.

“Coming into Indy as the championship leader obviously is not a negative, but there is a long way to go, so I will approach this weekend the same way as I’ve been doing,” O’Ward detailed. “If I know I have a winning machine, I will go for the win, but if I’m struggling for pace, which I hope I won’t be, then I’ll be smart and settle for as many points as I can get.”

Indeed, although he has been the strongest Indy Lights driver to start the year, O’Ward will have plenty of competition looking to upend his early-season form.

Santi Urrutia, the only other driver to win in 2018 so far, has had the best start he has ever had to an Indy Lights season, and is well-positioned to mount a challenge for an Indy Lights title.

Colton Herta, third in the standings, has three podium finishes in the first four races and is beginning to show the needed consistency that can complement the immense speed he possesses.

Victor Franzoni is getting his hands around the IL-15 and gets better with every race. He had three straight finishes of fourth to start the year and got his first podium in Race 2 at Barber when he finished second. A race win could be beckoning for last year’s Pro Mazda champion.

Aaron Telitz, also a race winner from last year, is motivated to right the ship after getting his first finish of the season (fourth in Race 2 at Barber) after a DNS and two DNFs to start his season.

Add in Dalton Kellett, Ryan Norman, and Alfonso Celis Jr., and the Indy Lights field, while small, is packed with hungry drivers, all looking to end the run of dominance from O’Ward.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson and Exclusive Autosport lead the way in Pro Mazda entering IMS. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The self-proclaimed “Eh Team,” referring to Parker Thompson and Exclusive Autosport (driver and team are based in Canada) leads the way in Pro Mazda on the strength of two second-place finishes and a victory in Race 1 at Barber.

However, despite leading the standings, Thompson’s thoughts are nowhere near a championship this early in the season.

“In complete honesty, leading the championship right now at this stage doesn’t mean much to me or the team,” he asserted. “We’re focused on racing for wins, and the points will come secondary. What satisfies me the most is that a team on the Mazda Road to Indy gave me a shot in Pro Mazda, and I returned the favor with a solid performance in Barber. That’s a special feeling when someone puts their faith in your abilities, and you go out and prove that they made the right decision. I’ll be looking to carry that confidence through the rest of the season.”

Indeed, it is likely too early to go into championship preservation mode in a Pro Mazda field that is stacked with talent, and a number of drivers are positioned to challenge Thompson for the points lead.

Rinus VeeKay swept the races at St. Petersburg, but struggled somewhat at Barber, finishing fifth and fourth in the two races. The 17-year-old Dutchman trails Thompson by four points, but he certainly has the pace to find his way back to Victory Lane this weekend.

David Malukas has put together a solid opening four races, with a pair of podium finishes (second in St. Pete Race 2 and third in Barber Race 1) the highlights of his opening four races. A first-career Pro Mazda victory would vault him into title contention, and Malukas is not a driver to be overlooked.

Harrison Scott is coming off his first career win in Race 2 at Barber, and will be motivated to prove he can be just as strong in the dry as he is in the wet. And Carlos Cunha, fifth in the championship with a pair of third-place finishes to his name, will look to break out of the shadow of his Juncos Racing teammate VeeKay.

One driver who will be highly motivated entering IMS is Oliver Askew. The Cape Motorsports driver, and defending USF2000 champion, has not finished on the podium in 2018 and struggled mightily at Barber, finishing seventh and 12th in the two races.

Askew’s title hopes are quickly dwindling, and he and Cape will be desperate to get back to their winning ways.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood leads the USF2000 championship heading into IMSA. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The USF2000 championship is back in action this weekend, and despite struggling in Pro Mazda, Cape Motorsports is once again atop the USF2000 standings, this time with newcomer Kyle Kirkwood.

Kirkwood, a 19-year-old native of Florida and former Team USA Scholarship recipient, won Race 1 in St. Petersburg and finished fifth in Race 2 to give himself a seven point lead over DEForce Racing’s Jose Sierra, and leading the championship after his debut weekend is something Kirkwood holds in high regard.

“To be the championship leader after my debut weekend, to me, is quite an amazing feeling,” revealed Kirkwood. “We’re very strong at the moment so it’s definitely a relief knowing that Cape Motorsports and I are carrying over our momentum from last year.”

Still, the USF2000 title remains up for grabs. Sierra, as previously described, is seven points back in second, while Exclusive Autosport’s Igor Fraga sits third, only 10 points behind Kirkwood.

Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron, Race 2 winner from St. Pete, sits fourth, 13 markers behind Kirkwood, while Pabst Racing Services’ Calvin Ming rounds out the Top 5, 16 points behind.

Two drivers looking to rebound from tough outings in St. Petersburg are Pabst’s Kaylen Frederick, who finished 11th and ninth and currently sits ninth in the championship, and Arms Up Motorsports’ Keith Donegan, the Mazda $200K Shootout Scholarship recipient, who struggled all weekend in St. Pete and recorded finishes of 14th and 13th to rank 15th in the championship.

A full weekend schedule can be viewed here.

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The road to the 2023 Daytona 500 is not paved for Travis Pastrana, he’ll attempt the DIRTcar Nationals

Pastrana DIRTcar Nationals
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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Travis Pastrana will attempt to make his first NASCAR Cup series race on February 19 with the grandaddy of them all, the Daytona 500, but his road to get there will not be paved and his car will have only two fenders as he tackles Florida Speedweeks and the DIRTcar Nationals.

In mid-January, it was announced Pastrana will attempt to qualify a third car from 23XI Racing that fields fulltime entries for Bubba Wallace and Tyler Reddick. Sponsorship will come from Black Rifle Coffee, who approached him during the offseason to ask what kind of “really cool stuff” he would like to do. Pastrana replied, “the Daytona 500” with a characteristic laugh in his voice.

“It’s good,” Pastrana said in a press release. “We’re going to go down, we’re going to go hangout with [NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion] Matt Crafton, one of [Black Rifle’s] drivers, we’ll go to Modified races and watch all the Late Models. We’ll watch the racing, and we’ll bring [United States military] veterans down and hangout with [Steve] Arpin.”

But there is a saying among dirt track fans that goes, ‘asphalt is for getting to the track; dirt is for racing’ – and Pastrana is taking that to heart.

After racing on the snow in Nitro Rallycross February 4-5 in Calgary, Alberta, the original plan was to head to Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville, Florida to watch the modified and late model races. Until Crafton called him out for not racing.

Pastrana relayed the conversation: “I told Crafton [I was coming to watch] and he goes, ‘Ah, too much of a sissy to drive?’ I called Arpin, and said, ‘So, Longhorn, I heard you guys have vehicles that can kick the crap out of Crafton’s vehicle.’ [Arpin] said, ‘Yeah, if you don’t suck, you can beat him.’ I said, ‘Alright, I’m in.’”

The DIRTcar Nationals run from February 6-18. The first week features six UMP Modified Mains each night they run, on Monday (Feb. 6), Friday (Feb. 10), and then the prestigious Gator Championship race on Saturday (Feb. 11). Pastrana hopes to run every night in one of Arpin’s cars, also with sponsorship from Black Riffle Coffee.

And this is not just for bragging rights; there is money on the line. Pastrana and Crafton have a $1 bet on who has the best finish.

While Pastrana is accustomed pitching his car sideways on a combination of left and right turns in a rally car – he won the Nitro Rallycross race at ERX Motorsports Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota last October and became the first two-time winner in the 2022/23 season at Wild Horse Pass in Phoenix, Arizona in November – the DIRTcar Nationals will be an entirely different proposition.

It took a day for Pastrana to get comfortable in the modified. And it took a little coaching from Arpin, who has experience in both dirt modifieds and rally cars to make him fast.

“[Arpin] showed up the second day after hearing how bad the first day was,” Pastrana said, which is confirmed in the Instagram post embedded above. “But he just told me, until you commit, it’s not going to work. Once I committed, it started making a lot of sense. But coming in, if you’re lifting off the gas while trying to turn, it just doesn’t turn and all your natural instincts say, ‘Don’t get on the gas.’ So, yeah, I feel like it should suit my driving style because I’m more of an aggressive sideways type of driver, but it was very difficult. Turning and sliding, I’m fine. Getting it there is not the easiest.”

Pastrana has one previous start in a dirt late model that came in the 2010 Prelude to the Dream. He finished 23rd in the 27-car field and was three laps off the pace. He wasn’t the only driver having difficulty getting a feel for the car that night; Jeff Gordon finished on the same lap, only one position ahead of him.

Travis Pastrana will race one of Steve Arpin’s dirt modifieds during Florida Speedweeks as he prepares for the 2023 Daytona 500. – Jacy Norgaard, World Racing Group

The price of the weekend could well exceed the dollar he may lose to Crafton.

“It’s going to be an expensive weekend,” Pastrana said. “Not everything is covered. If I crash anything, it is going to be all on me. This is one of those things where I want to come down and have fun. I want to hang out with the crowd, I want to sign autographs and give high fives. Especially for the Modified crew, that’s the grassroots racing that I love and some of my friends are involved with. We’ll be camping down there with Arpin and all the Longhorn guys, just hanging out. I feel like that’s a great opportunity for us to bring a lot of [US] veterans and bring people that are into racing and aren’t into racing, friends and family, and just have an awesome time.”

And it’s not out of the question that Pastrana could add another top-10 to his record book in the DIRTcar Nationals. After the rocky first day, Pastrana gained speed. Enough so that Arpin’s confidence was raised.

“We’re pretty confident Crafton is going to have to run hard to keep his dollar,” Arpin said.