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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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MRTI: Road America Saturday notebook

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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Saturday at Road America saw all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy complete in action again, with the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires concluding its weekend with Race 2, while the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda completing their opening races of the weekend.

Indy Lights saw its two main title combatants duel for the win, while Pro Mazda saw its Race 1 winner complete a weekend sweep. And in USF2000, the points leader continued a run of dominance on the way to victory.

Reports on all three series are below.

Indy Lights: Herta Outlasts O’Ward, Franzoni for Race 1 Win

Colton Herta celebrates winning Race 1 at Road America.

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta took his fourth win in a row on Saturday at Road America, winning Race 1 after dueling with his Andretti Autosport stablemate Pato O’Ward and Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni.

Franzoni held the lead off the initial start, but Herta quickly worked his way up to second after starting third, and immediately mounted a challenge for the lead. After trying to pass Franzoni on the outside entering Turn 5 for two laps in a row, Herta finally was able to get around him on a third attempt, again taking the outside line on corner entry.

O’Ward then quickly moved into second after Franzoni dipped two wheels into the dirt in Turn 7, and O’Ward quickly charged toward Herta to battle for the lead. He, too, tried several times to pass Herta on the outside entering Turn 5, but was ultimately unable to do so and lost ground to Herta after he ran out of push-to-pass.

It left Herta alone up front to cruise to the win, his fourth in a row in 2018. O’Ward and Franzoni finished second and third, with the Belardi Auto Racing teammates Santi Urrutia and Aaron Telitz finishing fourth and fifth, with Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett rounding out the field for Andretti Autosport.

Results are below. Race 1 will roll off at 10:50 a.m. on Sunday morning and will air at 10:00 p.m. ET on Sunday night. Pato O’Ward will start on the pole.

Pro Mazda: Malukas Completes Road America Sweep

David Malukas was in perfect form again in Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

BN Racing’s David Malukas capped a perfect weekend at Road America by winning Race 2 from the pole.

Malukas did face a brief challenge from Juncos Racing’s Carlos Cunha off the start, with Cunha actually leading briefly into Turn 1. But, Malukas quickly retook the lead entering Turn 3, and was never headed from there.

Behind him, points leader Parker Thompson was involved in contact with Raul Guzman in Turn 5, with Guzman, making his Pro Mazda debut with RP Motorsport Racing, hitting the back of the Exclusive Autosport.

Guzman stalled on course, bringing out a full-course caution, while Thompson fell back as far as 12th when racing resumed on Lap 3. However, he quickly regrouped and put in maybe the best drive of the day, working his way up to fifth in the closing laps – including a pass on title rival Carlos Cunha – and putting him right behind a battle for third involving Rinus VeeKay, Thompson’s other title rival, and Harrison Scott.

Scott eventually passed VeeKay for third, which opened the door for Thompson, who got around VeeKay right after to take fourth.

Thompson was unable to get close enough to challenge Scott for third, but his charge to fourth remained mighty impressive.

Up front, though, no one had anything for Malukas, who led teammate Toby Sowery in a second straight 1-2 for BN Racing – Sowery made a slick three-wide pass to get around VeeKay and Cunha on the Lap 3 restart.

Scott was third, followed by Thompson and VeeKay in fourth and fifth, with Cunha finishing sixth.

Results are below. The race also featured a tribute to the late Jeff Green, a former Pro Mazda driver with Juncos. Peter Dempsey, part of the Juncos effort on the engineering side last year, drove Green’s No. 60 chassis from 2017, while Victory Franzoni piloted his No. 23 Dallara IL-15 alongside.

USF2000: Kirkwood Continues to Roll as He Dominates USF2000 Race 1

Kyle Kirkwood celebrates winning USF2000 Race 1 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood continued his dominant run in USF2000 by winning Race 1 on Saturday.

Starting on the outside of the front row, Kirkwood got around pole sitter Rasmus Lindh, from Pabst Racing Services, on the outside entering Turn 1 and never looked back, leading all 12 laps on his way to victory.

Lindh, meanwhile, was involved in a heated battle for second with his Pabst teammate Kaylen Frederick, along with ArmsUp Motorsports’ Keith Donegan and DEForce Racing’s Kory Enders. Lindh eventually fell back as far as fifth following a bobble, allowing all four to get by, though he did get back around Enders for fourth.

Ultimately, though, Frederick and Donegan emerged to finish second and third – it’s the second straight podium for Frederick, and the first for Donegan – with Lindh and Enders rounding out the top five.

The race was slowed twice for incidents involving Sabre Cook. Cook, running with Team Benik, spun into the gravel trap in the Carousel on Lap 3, but was able to rejoin. Later, on Lap 11, she ran wide exiting Turn 7 and spun back across the track as she entered Hurry Downs, making contact with the wall on the outside just before the entrance of Turn 8.

Cook climbed from the car under her own power, though her race did come to a premature end.

Results are below. Race 2 rolls off at 9:00 a.m. ET (8:00 a.m. local time), with Lindh again starting on the pole.

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