MRTI: IMS road course weekend recap

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend not only serves to help kick things off for the Month of May for the Verizon IndyCar Series, but it has also quickly become a showcase for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda have all seen double headers in each of the five Grand Prix weekends – Pro Mazda even had a triple header in 2015 – and the ability to race at perhaps the most famous racing facility on the planet has proven to be an invaluable asset to all three series.

And for the second year in a row, Royal Purple Synthetic Oil partnered with the Lupus Foundation of America to again raise awareness of the disease and funds for research and treatment, with all MRTI races contested under the banner of the Royal Purple Synthetic Motor Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis supporting the Lupus Foundation of America.

Both Friday and Saturday were full days for all three series, and they more than lived up to the billing. Whether it was Colton Herta carving through the Indy Lights field on both days to sweep the weekend, Harrison Scott and Parker Thompson emerging as race winners after a thrilling pair of Pro Mazda races, or Kyle Kirkwood and Alex Baron putting on driving clinics in USF2000, the MRTI did itself very proud on the IMS Road Course.

A recap of major stories to emerge from all three series is below.

Indy Lights

Colton Herta celebrates his Race 2 victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Colton Herta has always been fast, but he lacked a consistency and maturity needed to be a genuine championship contender in 2017. The 2018 version of the young Herta, however, looks to be championship material. He is still a little rough around the edges – his pass and contact with Aaron Telitz early in Race 2 is evidence of that – but he is certainly a long way ahead of where he was in 2017. While his battle with Santi Urrutia for the win in Race 2 was intense, Herta did nothing wrong and the contact was on Urrutia for trying to push him wide exiting Turn 1. But, Herta was fully alongside and held his ground, as was his right. If Herta can can keep his maturity and pace in check, he will most certainly battle for an Indy Lights crown this year.
  • Urrutia, meanwhile, did not do himself any favors in Race 2, and he frankly made an error in fighting Herta as hard as he did. Herta was very clearly faster than Urrutia in the final laps, and it seemed inevitable that Herta would find his way passed. In trying to push Herta wide exiting Turn 2, and ultimately spinning himself out, Urrutia cost himself two spots – he was in line to finish no worse than second, but ended up in fourth. Given the small Indy Lights field, those few points he lost in Race 2 could loom large later in the year.
  • Despite taking the pole in both races, Pato O’Ward had somewhat of an off weekend, though it was not entirely his fault. Race 1 saw him get bumped by Victor Franzoni as the field jetted into Turn 1 off the start. That pushed him back to fourth, and stayed there the rest of the race. In Race 2, he was in line for a podium before a cut tire forced him into the pits, and he finished seventh. He did stay in the championship lead, but only by one point over Herta. He’ll look for a big rebound at the Freedom 100.
  • Aaron Telitz’s luck may finally be turning around, as he has finishes of fourth, third, and second in the last three races. He finished second in the Freedom 100 last year, and a victory would put him solidly back in title contention for 2018.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson celebrates a Race 2 victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Other drivers have been more dominant in their early-season races, but Parker Thompson is doing the most important thing a championship contender can do: he isn’t making mistakes. His Race 2 victory was his second of the year, and he has two second-place finishes and two fifth-place finishes to his name in 2018 as well. In other words, his worst finish is fifth, and it all sees Thompson in the championship lead after six races. It’s still very early, but Thompson is possibly emerging as the man to beat in Pro Mazda.
  • Rinus VeeKay had a second tough weekend in a row. After finishing second in Race 1 to Harrison Scott, VeeKay dropped out on Lap 1 of Race 2 in a bizarre incident that involved himself, Harrison Scott, and David Malukas – Scott and Malukas bumped wheels trying to tuck in-line, which collect VeeKay and briefly sent him airborne before his car before it came to a rest on the front straightaway. Combined with his struggles at Barber Motorsports Park, it leaves VeeKay 22 points behind Thompson. But, he has plenty of speed in hand, and he is more than capable of getting back ahead of Thompson.
  • Oliver Askew finally looked like the Oliver Askew of last year. The pole sitter in both races, Askew looked properly quick for the first time all year. He finished second and fourth in the races, and Race 2 was quite impressive as he came back from a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. At 48 points behind Thompson, Askew is a long way back, but if he can maintain this pace, he could claw himself back into championship contention.
  • Harrison Scott may be the fastest driver in the series right now, but he’s developing a habit of “feast or famine” results. He has two wins and a second this year, but also has a pair of 12th place finishes. He has all the potential to be a title contender, so long as he can avoid the poor finishes.
  • David Malukas and Carlos Cunha were quick all weekend, and though neither of them got wins, victories may come sooner than later for both.

USF2000

Alex Baron (left) and Kyle Kirkwood (center) were the drivers to watch in USF2000. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With two race wins and a worst finish of fifth, Kyle Kirkwood has helped put Cape Motorsports once again in position for a USF2000 crown – they have six driver’s championships in a row. The former Team USA Scholarship recipient has gelled nicely with the team, and is having a very nice start to his MRTI career.
  • Despite leading the championship, Kirkwood may actually be overshadowed by Alex Baron. After finished 22nd in Race 1 at St. Petersburg, Baron has finishes of first, first, and second. And his drive in Race 2 may have been the most impressive of the weekend, as he overcame Lap 1 contact with Jamie Caroline that relegated him to the very back of the field to finish in second. Long-time MRTI fans may not be surprised by Baron’s prowess – he was a race winner with Belardi Auto Racing in the 2014 Indy Lights season – and Baron most certainly possesses the speed to be a USF2000 title contender. Expect him and Kirkwood to duel more as the year goes on.
  • While Kirkwood and Baron have distanced themselves from the USF2000 field – Baron is 29 points up on third place – the battle for the third in the championship is quite close. Jose Sierra, Igor Fraga, and Julian van der Watt are 10 points apart in that battle, and sixth place Darren Keane is only 13 points out of third. And if Kirkwood and/or Baron stumble at all, any one of those four could be in position to capitalize.

All three series will next be in action on May 25, with Indy Lights’ taking to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the Freedom 100, while Pro Mazda and USF2000 will take to Lucas Oil Raceway Park.

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Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”