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Recent Indy Lights graduates shine in Indy 500 qualifying

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Among the stars of qualifying for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 were a number of graduates of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

And not just graduates, but recent ones at that – drivers who did not join the Verizon IndyCar Series until 2016.

Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights champion, made the Fast Nine Pole Shootout and qualified a very strong sixth, bettering his previous best starting position (23rd in 2016) by an astonishing 17 spots.

With a best finish of 14th so far in 2018, Pigot was certainly in need of a big result. And such a strong qualifying run gives him an enormous boost of confidence ahead of Sunday’s race.

Spencer Pigot celebrates with his Ed Carpenter Racing team after a strong qualifying run for the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

“It feels great to be in an awesome qualifying run here. I have massively improved from every other time I’ve run in this race, so I’m definitely excited about that and the potential for us here next Sunday,” Pigot said after qualifying. “ECR (Ed Carpenter Racing) has done a great job this year and our team is doing really well. I feel like Ed (Carpenter) has a really good shot for this race, especially after last night, but then again, I think all three of the ECR drivers do. It’s really great to be a part of this team, and I’m excited for what is in store this year in Indy.”

However, while Pigot will start the best of the recent MRTI grads, his was far from the only noteworthy performance from a recent Indy Lights alumnus, with a pair of rookies turning heads during qualifying as well.

A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist turned in a mightily impressive 227.571 mph for his four-lap average, good enough for 11th on the grid and nearly outqualifying teammate Tony Kanaan, who averaged 227.664 mph.

Matheus Leist during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

Like Pigot, Leist’s performance comes as a big confidence boost, especially in a rookie season that has been a little troublesome – Leist’s best finish is 12th at Barber Motorsports Park.

But, he and the entire A.J. Foyt Racing team have been fast since practice opened last week, and they could be in for a big day on Sunday.

“Since our first day here, the car has been quick. We knew that we could have a fast car (in qualifying). I’m so happy for the team and for Tony (Kanaan),” said an elated Leist after qualifying. “Both crews did an awesome job preparing us for qualifying. We were just fast. I think that if qualifying was (Saturday) and we had this car, we would probably be in the Fast Nine. I’m just so happy for this team. Everyone deserves it. I’m looking forward to the race now.”

And Zachary Claman De Melo pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the day in reeling off a highly impressive run at 226.999 mph to qualify 13th, this after not being confirmed in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda until last Monday as a relief driver for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi.

The run also proved to be a vital shot in the arm for De Melo, as some had suggested Schmidt Peterson Motorsports work a deal with Dale Coyne Racing to put James Hinchcliffe in De Melo’s car for race day.

However, such a performance indicated that De Melo had absolutely no intentions of ceding that seat to anyone.

Zachary Claman De Melo had a strong Indy 500 qualifying effort and will start 13th. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m really excited for the race in the No. 19 Paysafe car. I struggled a little bit with the no-tow speed and we really picked it up (on Sunday) and made some big improvements,” Claman De Melo said after qualifying. “It’s great to see how well we’re working together. It’s extremely encouraging as a rookie to do what we’ve done (in qualifying). Especially with our struggles earlier this week and yesterday in the first day of qualifying. It shows what a relentless team we are.”

Other recent Indy Lights graduates who will start the 102nd Running of the Indy 500 include Max Chilton (starting 20th), Gabby Chaves (starting 22nd), Zach Veach (starting 25th), Ed Jones (starting 29th), and Jack Harvey (starting 31st).

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NHRA: Steve Torrence’s 2nd Top Fuel title was emotional roller coaster day

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There’s no question Steve Torrence is a proud Texan. When he’s not strapping on his racing helmet, the Kilgore, Texas resident proudly wears a black cowboy hat and shiny boots practically everywhere he goes.

It’s just part of who one of the Lone Star State’s favorite sons is.

Torrence also has a great deal to be proud of after winning his second consecutive Top Fuel championship in Sunday’s NHRA season-ending national event at Pomona, California.

In doing so, he joins seven of the biggest names in drag racing history to win back-to-back titles: Don Garlits, Joe Amato, the late Scott Kalitta, Gary Scelzi, Tony Schumacher, Larry Dixon and Antron Brown.

Torrence followed up last season’s 11 wins – including being the first driver to win all six Countdown to the Championship playoff races – with nine wins in 2019, giving him 36 career wins and 55 final round appearances in his career.

But as he was interviewed shortly after he clinched the championship — even though he lost in the semifinal round of eliminations — instead of being effusive and ecstatic, Torrence was also uncharacteristically somewhat solemn and melancholy at the same time.

After publicly thanking his team – “the best in the business,” as Torrence frequently says – he also quickly paid tribute to a young man from Texas by the name of Brandon Seegers, who was tragically killed in an ATV accident last week (the young man in glasses is pictured in the tweet below).

Torrence wanted the world to know who Brandon was, calling him one of Torrence Racing’s biggest fans. It wasn’t lip service. Brandon – a 15-year-old freshman football player at Carthage (Texas) High School – truly was one of Torrence’s biggest supporters. He’ll be buried Tuesday.

Torrence also paid tribute to Brandon’s parents. The young man’s father has worked 30 years for Capco Contractors Inc., an oil and gas company owned by Torrence’s family. In a sense, because of their close relationship, Brandon and his parents are extended members of the Torrence family.

“This is for the Seegers family, who lost their little boy the Wednesday of last week,” Torrence said. “He was the biggest Capco fan there was. We’re taking the championship trophy home to him. We’re going to give it to all the Capco guys and his family.”

Admit it, when was the last time you heard someone in sports win a championship and then dedicate that effort to a young fan who was tragically killed just a few days earlier in an accident.

But that’s the kind of guy Torrence is, one of the classiest individuals in motorsports. And if you don’t really know who he is, you should, because you might understand why Torrence is who he is.

At the age of 36, Torrence is not just a survivor of the 1,000-foot dragstrips wars from New Hampshire to Seattle to Phoenix to Gainesville and everywhere in-between.

He’s also a survivor of something much more important: Before he was Steve Torrence, two-time NHRA Top Fuel champ, he was Steve Torrence, cancer and heart attack survivor. That kind of thing gives someone a much different perspective than most other individuals.

Torrence knows how fortunate he is to not only be a two-time champion, but more importantly, to be alive to earn and enjoy both of those titles. He came close, really close, to not being here anymore. That’s why Brandon’s death hit Torrence so hard.

He even tried to keep from choking up when he told the crowd about who his young friend Brandon was.

Torrence spent much of the weekend at Pomona thinking about his young fan. It definitely affected Torrence’s mindset and demeanor, especially on Sunday, with the pressure packed championship on the line.

To illustrate how different Torrence acted, he was involved in an incident after the first round that was completely out of character. While he may be one of the most competitive drivers on the NHRA circuit, he’s also normally a very level-headed, calm and cool persona.

Torrence uncharacteristically slapped young opponent and part-time Top Fuel driver Cameron Ferre in the face at the end of the drag strip after they climbed from their race cars following their first round run and exchanged words.

Normally a fan favorite, Torrence was uncharacteristically criticized on social media and was met with a wave of fan boos after the race when he climbed on stage to accept his championship trophy and the big check that came with it. A contrite Torrence eventually issued a public apology to both Ferre and fans, admitting he was wrong. The NHRA is reviewing the incident and still could penalize Torrence.

“Tensions are high,” Torrence told NHRA.com. “There’s a lot of crap going on out there, but there’s still no excuse for me acting that way. I apologize to every fan, all my racing friends and racing rivals. It was a heat-of-the moment reaction on a day when emotions were high, especially in the Capco camp. I talked to Cameron and we’ll just put it behind us and move on.”

Given the championship pressure and what he was enduring emotionally, Sunday may not have been Torrence’s finest moment or best day professionally or personally. But at the same time, he further cemented why he’s on his way to becoming one of the best drivers in Top Fuel history, that he makes mistakes and was man enough to admit when he made one.

He also cares for others and what they go through perhaps more than most because he himself came so close to not being around to enjoy the success he has enjoyed to date – and all the additional success that he’s likely to continue to enjoy for many more years to come.

 

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