Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Freedom 100/Lucas Oil Raceway preview

Leave a comment

All three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires visit their first ovals of the 2018 season, though they’ll be at different venues to do so.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires heads to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for their annual Freedom 100 (5/25 at 12:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) while the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda head to Lucas Oil Raceway for the Freedom 90 (Pro Mazda) and Freedom 75 (USF2000).

But, for all three, each event represents the first oval race of the year, a unique challenge after a string of road and street courses.

Ovals proved to catch a couple MRTI drivers out last year, and they’ll all look to capitalize on the first left-turn-only event of the year.

Talking points for all three series are below.

Indy Lights

  • A ridiculously close title fight sees Pato O’Ward, Colton Herta, and Santi Urrutia separated by only six points entering the Freedom 100. All three have won races in 2018, but all three have also had off races as well. The Freedom 100 will be a new challenge for O’Ward, who has never run an Indy Lights race on an oval before, while Herta will look to make up for last year’s Lap 1 crash. Urrutia had a quiet drive to fifth that day, but he’ll look for much better this year.
  • Aaron Telitz had a well-documented tough start to 2018, but he has finishes of fourth, third, and second in the last three races. He finished second in this race last year, and finishing one spot better on the podium could put him back in title contention. Telitz is also pulling double-duty this weekend and will race at Lucas Oil Raceway, piloting an extra entry with USF2000 team Arms Up Motorsports as a teammate to Keith Donegan.
  • Of note: Team Pelfrey returns to the Indy Lights grid with Davey Hamilton Jr. Also, Chris Windom was set for his own Indy Lights debut with Belardi Auto Racing, but a crash in testing did too much damage to the No. 33 Dallara IL-15 he was set to drive, so he won’t be competing this weekend.
  • Dalton Kellett will start the race on the pole. The starting grid is below.

Pro Mazda

  • This marks the oval debut for the Tatuus PM-18. It’s been a hit so far on the road and street courses, shattering previous Pro Mazda track records in the process, and there’s no reason to think it won’t be a success on ovals either.
  • Parker Thompson leads Rinus VeeKay in the championship by 22 points entering the weekend. However, that is far from a comfortable margin, as a weekend that’s even remotely off-song will let VeeKay slash that points lead, or even take it back altogether. Neither driver has ever won on an oval, and both will look for such an accomplishment this weekend.
  • Carlos Cunha has quietly had a nice start to 2018, with three podiums helping to put him third in the championship. He sits 30 points behind Thompson, but Cunha seems to get better every week, and a victory this weekend would put him squarely in the title hunt.
  • Harrison Scott has a pair of wins and a second, but also three finishes of ninth or worse. The Briton has been blindingly fast in recent races, and he has all the potential to make a title run himself. However, he’ll need to conquer ovals along the way, along with leveling out the “feast or famine” results. Nonetheless, he will be a driver to watch on Friday night.
  • Oliver Askew appeared to regain his championship form on the IMS road course, with two poles and finishes of second and fourth on the weekend. He’ll look to build off that at Lucas Oil Raceway.

USF2000

  • Friday night’s outing at Lucas Oil Raceway will see many USF2000 drivers compete in their first ever oval races. Alex Baron has the most oval experience, given his prior Indy Lights experience. But, nearly the entire rest of the field, including championship leader Kyle Kirkwood, will contest an oval race for the first time. As such, Friday night’s event will be all about adapting to the brand new challenge.
  • Kirkwood and Baron have distanced themselves from the rest of the USF2000 field – Kirkwood leads with 106 points, with Baron second on 93 points, and they’re the only drivers to win so far in the 2018 USF2000 season. Jose Sierra is third, but another 29 points back of Baron.
  • However, the gap between third and sixth (Sierra, Igor Fraga, Julian Van Der Watt, and Darren Keane) is a narrow 13 points. And the likes of Calvin Ming, Kory Enders, and Lucas Kohl are also within striking distance, so the battle to fill out the podium could be quite intense. And if Kirkwood and Baron should falter, any one of those drivers could find themselves in Victory Lane.

The Freedom 100 rolls off at 12:30 p.m. on Friday on NBCSN. USF2000 kicks things off at Lucas Oil Raceway at 6:05 p.m. ET that night, followed by Pro Mazda at 7:05 p.m. ET.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

Dean Wilson’s life as a privateer reconnects the rider to his roots

Leave a comment

One of the added benefits of subscribing to NBC Sports Gold is the in-depth interviews from each Saturday’s action. Last week between the first and second rounds of qualification for the Glendale Supercross race, a relaxed and confident Dean Wilson joined Race Day Live’s Daniel Blair and Jim Holley to review his fourth-place finish in the season opener and his mindset moving forward.

Losing factory support from Rockstar / Husqvarna at the end of 2018 was not exactly what Wilson had in mind, but after getting off to a great start in the first two races this season, it may well have been a blessing in disguise.

The life of a privateer is not exactly relaxed, but it affords a rider the opportunity to call his own shots. For Wilson, it is also a way to reconnect with the grassroots feel that attracted him to Supercross in the first place.

“I think that’s what I like,” Wilson said on Race Day Live. “I think that’s the environment and atmosphere I like – it’s just more low key. At Anaheim I, you would think I was local racing at Glen Helen. I had a Sprinter and I had another trailer just to chill in, do my spins. It was so cold I had a little propane heater to warm me up. But I like that. That’s what works for me.”

MORE: Dean Wilson’s Cinderella story at Anaheim 

The program Wilson was able to put together during the offseason produced back-to back top 10s – a much better start to the 2019 season than he experienced last year.

In 2018, Wilson did not score a top 10 until his fourth feature at San Diego. His first top five would not come until late March in Indianapolis.

This year Wilson got the hole shot and led 14 laps at Anaheim in the opener before finishing fourth. Last week in Glendale, he finished eighth.

“What was going through my head was ‘it’s about time; it’s about five years too late to lead some laps here,’ ” Wilson described his emotion as he led at Anaheim. “It was nice because I did a lot of work in the off-season and my starts were really good. The thing is I haven’t over-analyzed my starts and practice.”

At Anaheim I, Wilson struggled with visibility as his goggles began to get fouled by mud. A once comfortable lead was eroded by Justin Barcia. With pressure from behind, Wilson made a minor mistake that was then compounded by lapped traffic.

“I was leading my laps; I was just trying to hit my marks. I was doing really well until I made a couple of mistakes. I couldn’t hit that middle double, double … the rut was getting real chewed out, but I was already on the right side where you couldn’t double the middle part so you had to go roll, roll, roll – and Barcia was already on me.”

Wilson’s pair of top 10s was enough to keep him fifth in the standings, three points behind Glendale’s winner Blake Baggett.

For more, watch the video above.

Next Race: Anaheim II Jan. 19, 11 p.m., NBCSN

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter