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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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Rahal determined to regain winning touch in 2019 IndyCar season

Photo by Shawn Gritzmacher, INDYCAR
INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Graham Rahal entered the room with a smile on his face and a chip on his shoulder.

It was IndyCar “Media Day” and Rahal wasn’t happy with the way last season went at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. He was less happy with the fact some aren’t considering him a serious threat in 2019. He playfully chided with one media outlet for failing to mention his team as one to watch in 2019.

“We use that as motivation to show everybody how we are viewed,” Rahal said. “We are here to win.”

Rahal just turned 30 in January but is entering his 13thseason in big-time Indy car racing. He entered the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he was just 17. He missed his high school prom because he was racing at Houston.

“That was the luckiest day of my life,” Rahal said. “I didn’t have to go to the prom. It doesn’t get any better than that.

“Plus, I got my second career podium that weekend.”

Rahal drove to victory in his very first race in the combined IndyCar Series in the 2008 Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He was hailed as the “Poster Boy of Unification” and a future star. What followed was a seven-year drought before he captured his second-career win in a thrilling race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

He won two races in 2015, one in 2016 and two in 2017. He was expected to contend for victories and possibly the championship last year but struggled through a disappointing season and finished eighth in the standings.

“I’m looking forward for chance this year,” Rahal said. “Last year was a tough one for me and for the team. I’m looking forward to what my new engineer, Allen McDonald, has done so far. He is an accomplished engineer and brings a different mindset to our program this year from what we had last year. He and (fellow engineer) Eddie Jones are very close friends and that will help us from the standpoint they are on the same page.

“We needed a bit of life brought back to the team.”

Rahal believes his challenges are to get everything in order before the season starts. The team has defined the areas where it was lacking in 2019. The team needed to improve in research and development after starting behind last season.

“I’m excited for what I see, and I know in the end it will all pay off,” Rahal said. “It’s just a matter of when.

“There is a lot to be excited about for us. We are in a great position as a team. We have great sponsorship and that will allow us to push forward and do the things we need to do.”

Rahal believes at 30, he has a long time ahead of him to win races and championships and maybe even the Indianapolis 500. In order to reach those goals, however, Rahal’s team needs to regain the competitive level he displayed prior to last year.

“We’ve been fortunate to win six times,” Rahal said. “A lot of people come into this sport and never win. I fully recognize there is no reason we can’t win a lot. I don’t care what anybody writes, what anybody thinks – I really feel that when it comes to race day, we perform better than 99 percent of the other people out there.

“As a team and for myself, we have to qualify better. If we can qualify better, we’ll be a thorn in everybody’s side. We know the rear of our cars just aren’t good enough. When we need to find that extra tenth or two, it’s just not there but absolutely, we want to win.

“I don’t come here year after year to just drive around. Our sponsors don’t invest in us year after year to not see us win. We feel that. But our cars aren’t good enough and we know that.”

Rahal believes the team has identified the problems with the setup of its car. It has a deep engineering staff but hasn’t had a chance to develop the damper program and other important areas that provide a competition setup.

Takuma Sato, the winner of the 101stIndianapolis 500 when he was with Andretti Autosport, scored the team’s only victory in 2018 with a win in the Portland Grand Prix. The two are back this year and have built a respect for each other.

“He’s a good guy,” Rahal said of Sato. “Other than Helio Castroneves, Takuma is probably the happiest man on the planet. He’s a great guy and fits in well with our organization. We pride ourselves on being a family and he fits in extremely well to that.

“We need to do a better job for him as a team. He won a race last year, but we can both do better to win with both cars.

“The Andretti cars are the best right now and the Penske cars will be good. We have a lot of space to close up on those two teams but hopefully, we can do it.”