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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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After thrilling ‘Evel Live,’ Travis Pastrana back in action this weekend

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It’s been 2 ½ months since Travis Pastrana channeled his inner Evel Knievel in “Evel Live” in Las Vegas on July 8.

The legendary motorcycle stunt rider and rallycross driver successfully replicated three of Knievel’s most infamous career motorcycle jumps, capped off by jumping – some would call it flying – over the fountain at Caesar’s Palace.

All without a scratch or any type of malfunction.

“It was awesome,” Pastrana told NBC Sports’ MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “Obviously, to do something live, a live stunt which hasn’t been done, is cool.

“And just the nostalgia, to live a day in Evel Knievel’s boots, literally, was awesome. To have the whole Knievel family out there, his three kids, and my mom and dad all out there, it was just a real awesome day.

“And to have the chance to jump the Caeser’s (Palace) fountain, probably the most infamous and iconic stunt location in the world. All that added up to be a really, really great event and I think it came off really well.”

MORE: Travis Pastrana successfully completes all three of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps

MORE: Travis Pastrana’s goal to replicate 3 of Evel Knievel’s most famous jumps: ‘Try not to die’

LAS VEGAS, NV – JULY 08: Travis Pastrana peforms during HISTORY’s Live Event “Evel Live” on July 8, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for HISTORY)

Pastrana spoke at length about the logistics of setting up the three jumps in two different venues, getting from Point A in one part of Las Vegas to Point B (Caesar’s), and dealing with potential weather concerns.

“That’s the greatest part about Nitro Circus (Pastrana’s company) is having an amazing team so that when an idea like this comes up, we can make it turn into fruition and a possibility,” Pastrana said. “The idea came up less than a year before it was pulled off.

“I couldn’t have been more proud of my team and all the guys there. When we called Caesar’s, we thought for sure they were going to say no. Then they said yes.

“Then we talked to the Knievel family and they said, ‘this is going to be great. Go ahead.’ It was like, be careful for what you ask for because it just happened. And then we had a bike just like Evel’s, although a more modern day (version).”

While Pastrana and his team pulled off everything seamlessly, there was a lot of worry and concern, especially on Pastrana’s part, since he was the focal point of the stunt, which was televised live.

“I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” he said. “And then everything just worked out. It’s what you hope for, for sure. But with every race, every event, everything, there’s always something like a $5 part break in a half-million dollar vehicle. Something always goes wrong.

“The fact that everything went as well as it could – I mean, they were calling for 80 percent chance of rain with wind gusts up to 60 mph (on the day of the event).

“And the storm kind of went 20 miles south, it didn’t get that windy, and you have to think to yourself, ‘Man, that was a live event, and representing Evel Knievel, the stunt man of Vegas, you’ve gotta go for it.’”

Pastrana vowed to perform the stunts rain or shine. But if it had rained, he had his doubts that he’d be able to pull it off.

“Successfully, probably not,” the 34-year-old Pastrana said with a laugh. “That was the thing, what I had said coming up to it.

“When Evel got to Wembley Stadium (to do his infamous 13-bus jump in 1975), he said, ‘Look, the busses are bigger than they are in the U.S., I miscalculated the distance, this bike is not going to go as fast as I thought it would go. I’m not going to make it, but I told you guys I was going to put on a show, and I’m going to deliver.’

“That’s why I wanted to be the guy on this particular stunt. I can’t tell someone else when there are bad conditions or the bike is overheating or something else is going wrong to go, but with Nitro Circus and our history, and his family there, it just has to go, no matter what happens. We were just real fortunate and lucky that it all worked out.”

Pastrana jumped the fountain at Caesars Palace to wrap up a night of replicating three of Evel Knievels most infamous career jumps. Photo: Getty Images.

While he certainly enjoyed doing them, the Annapolis, Maryland native said it’s unlikely he’ll have any more Evel-like jumps in his career.

“This was a perfect storm,” he said. “Everything was just lined up on this one. For me, that was not my last hurrah, if you will, but as far as doing a big stunt, I did my biggest stunt I’ve ever done last year with the double back-flip 360 and kind of realized, you know what, I’ve been lucky long enough, let me just focus on my family.

“But then this came up, and I was like, ‘Put me in, coach.’”

Pastrana returns to the track this Saturday and Sunday for the third annual Nitro World Games at the Utah Motorsports Campus (formerly known as Miller Motorsports Park) near Salt Lake City.

Saturday will feature Nitro Rallycross (NRX) Qualifiers and Heat Races, including some of the biggest names in the sport including Pastrana and rival Ken Block having some “unfinished business,” as well as Scott Speed, Tanner Foust, Patrik Sandell, Steve Arpin, Mattias Ekstrom, Chris Atkinson and Timmy Hansen.

Pastrana and Ken Block have some ‘unfinished business’ in this weekend’s Nitro World Games near Salt Lake City. Photo: Nitro Circus.

On Sunday, the action includes the FMX Best Trick Finals, NRX Semi-Finals and Finals and FMX Quarterpipe Finals.

Among FMX Quarterpipe competitors are Colby Raha, Jarryd McNeil, Axell Hodges, Elijah Aldoff, Corey Creed and Kohl Denney.

And among riders and drivers taking part in the Best Trick Finals are defending champ Harry Bink, along with Pat Bowden, Christian Meyer, Josh Sheehan, William Van den Putte, Blake Williams, and Davi Johnson.

“Having the opportunity to kind of reinvent the sport for the American audience and for the drivers – I mean, we have Talladega-sized berms – right and left turns, dirt and pavement, huge jumps, there’s a triple-crossover,” Pastrana said. “World Games is basically the bigger of international sports. We take the most exciting sports, the biggest air, the least technical … and try to make it even bigger.

“I couldn’t be more excited. I think it’s going to be real exciting for the drivers, lots of options. It’s not a track that’s just built for a one-off event, it’s going to be a permanent place here so people can come out here and practice and keep getting better like European tracks do. So it should be good.”

Pastrana said Nitro Circus does over 70 live shows around the world per year, but he’s also excited about preparing for a lengthy residency in Las Vegas beginning next March.

Given all the things he’s accomplished over his career, Pastrana was asked if there’s anything remaining on his bucket list that he still hopes to do.

“I love racing, I love competing and I feel like I’ve competed in almost everything all over the world,” he said. “But the Daytona 500 is something … and I’ve never done a drag race. So those two would be pretty cool, wouldn’t they?”

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