Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: IMS road course weekend recap

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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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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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