MRTI: Freedom 100/Lucas Oil Raceway digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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A banner weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Lucas Oil Raceway saw all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires contest their first oval races of the 2018 season.

The Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires’ Freedom 100 was its usual thrill show. It featured a race-record 20 lead changes and a seemingly endless string of three-wide racing amongst the Indy Lights field, and Colton Herta barely edged Pato O’Ward at the line to the take win.

Over at Lucas Oil Raceway, the Cooper Tires Freedom 90 and the Cooper Tires Freedom 75 – contested by the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – a pair of dominant performances were turned in by Parker Thompson and Kyle Kirkwood, both taking their first oval wins. Kirkwood’s also came in his oval debut.

Talking points to emerge from all three MRTI series:

Colton Herta Completes Indy Sweep

Colton Herta celebrates his Freedom 100 victory. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta had, by most accounts, a perfect month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He swept the pair of races on the IMS Road Course and then outdueled the aforementioned O’Ward, along with Dalton Kellett and Santi Urrutia, to claim his first oval victory in Indy Lights competition.

And doing so at the series’ biggest race, and on the weekend of the Indianapolis 500, left Herta beside himself.

“It’s so cool. I didn’t really realize how cool it was until I got to kiss the bricks. Both my dad’s IndyCar wins, I held off here because I didn’t deserve it. Now I finally deserved it. Damn, that’s so cool,” said an elated Herta.

Team co-owner George Michael Steinbrenner IV was equally as elated.

“I’m not sure what to say really. Just look at this place. It’s amazing,” said Steinbrenner. “It’s the goal of anyone involved in IndyCar or Indy Lights racing to win here. To be able to do it, it’s almost otherworldly. To be sitting here with the trophy right next to us, it’s something really special. I’m not sure I’ll know for a while how I truly feel about it.”

The month also proved pivotal for Herta’s 2018 championship hopes, as he now leads O’Ward by four points, with Urrutia 16 out of the lead.

Herta’s second year in Indy Lights has seen him mature with every race. While he has still made some mistakes this year (e.g. Race 2 in St. Petersburg, and contact with Aaron Telitz in Race 2 on the IMS Road Course), his driving has certainly improved, and he is very much a championship contender.

Such a possibility does lead one to wonder if the Andretti Steinbrenner team would move up to the Verizon IndyCar Series with him. Steinbrenner did his best to elaborate on that but did not offer a set timeline about his plans for his team.

“That’s the goal we’re setting for ourselves,” he said of the team’s possible IndyCar prospects. “We really want to make sure all the pieces if it together from an operational and financial standpoint. We want to do it the right way so we can be competitive as soon as possible. There are no guarantees of when it will happen, it’s just as soon as possible.”

Herta, however, chimed in and offered his own thoughts. “He’s too nice. If we win the championship, we’re going IndyCar racing next year,” he declared.

Regardless, Herta is very much an Indy Lights title contender now.

Pro Mazda: Thompson Continues His Roll

Parker Thompson celebrates winning the Cooper Tires Freedom 90. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson is quickly starting to distance himself in the Pro Mazda championship.

With three wins this season and a worst finish of fifth, Thompson is demonstrating the right balance of winning and consistency that are required to make a championship run.

And it’s magnified by the stumbles of some of his potential title rivals. Carlos Cunha has been consistent this year (with a worst finish of tenth) but has yet to win. Rinus VeeKay has a pair of wins (sweeping the weekend in St. Petersburg), but he struggled somewhat at Barber Motorsports Park (though he rebounded to finish fourth and fifth there). He also crashed out on Lap 1 of Race 2 on the IMS Road Course.

Like VeeKay, Harrison Scott has a pair of wins but also has three finishes of 12th or worse. And USF2000 champ Oliver Askew has struggled for pace most of the year, leaving him a distant fifth in the championship.

Still, championship thoughts are not quite on Thompson’s mind yet. He was plenty happy to simply revel in Friday night’s victory.

“This is a special race to win, not just because of the extra points but because we’re here in Indianapolis and this is the month of May. And this is my first oval win! Now I have that monkey off my back,” Thompson revealed afterward.

Thompson now leads Cunha by 39 points.

Misc.

  • Carlos Cunha does not have a win yet, but the key word there is “yet.” With back-to-back second-place finishes (along with a pair of third-place finishes as well), Cunha is knocking on the door of victory. “When I came to the United States last year, it was really my first year in proper race cars. I’m learning more and more, and we are getting so much closer to my first win,” he said following the Freedom 90.
  • With three finishes of 14th or worse, Robert Megennis has had a rough go of it in his first Pro Mazda season. However, he drove a very solid race on Friday night to round out the podium in third, his first podium since Race 1 in St. Petersburg. A race winner in USF2000 last year, Megennis has the potential to surprise a few people in the second half of the season.

USF2000: Kirkwood Takes Control of USF2000 Title Chase in Winning Oval Debut

Kyle Kirkwood celebrates his victory in the Cooper Tires Freedom 75. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Prior to Friday night, Cape Motorsports’ Kyle Kirkwood had never raced on an oval. However, you would have never known it watching him that night.

He rocketed to the pole and led every lap without facing anything resembling a challenge from a competitor.

Kirkwood even revealed afterward that he wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about ovals beforehand, but that his thoughts are now completely different.

“In my mind, it was all just turning left,” he said. “But my perspective on it has totally changed after this weekend, after I learned how much strategy was involved and how technically it actually was. Getting the car setup right is huge. I love it now. That was the most fun I’ve had with all the passing, both in practice and in the race.”

Further, Kirkwood now has a whopping 59-point lead over Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron, who crashed out working his way through lapped traffic.

It certainly is too early for Kirkwood to start playing “prevent,” but Kirkwood is nonetheless sitting pretty at the moment.

Misc.

  • Kaylen Frederick finally scored a podium, finishing second on Friday. It’s only his second finish inside the top 10 this year – ninth in Race 2 at St. Pete was the other – in what’s been a tough sophomore season for the 15-year-old. He’ll look to build on this at Road America in June.
  • Baron’s crash leaves Jose Sierra, who finished fifth, only five points behind him in the championship. Baron has two wins and a second-place finish, but finishes of 22nd (St. Pete Race 1) and 21st (Lucas Oil Raceway) have him in position to drop down in the championship standings. Baron has demonstrated a lot of speed, but he’ll need to rid himself of the “feast or famine” results.

All three rungs of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder return to action at Road America on June 23-24.

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Cadillac confirms WEC driver lineup with Chip Ganassi Racing that will race Le Mans in 2023

Cadillac Ganassi Le Mans
Cadillac Racing
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Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing announced their driver lineup for a 2023 entry in the FIA World Endurance Championship, the sports car series that includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Cadillac V-LMDh entry will be driven by Earl Bamber and Alex Lynn, who were teamed on the No. 02 Cadillac that competed in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship DPi class this season and won the Twelve Hours of Sebring. The third driver will be Richard Westbrook, who will return to Ganassi after helping the team to a GT class win at Le Mans in 2018.

The team also will compete in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in the rebranded Grand Touring Prototype premier category, which is designed for crossover between the top prototypes in IMSA and WEC. Ganassi will field a second entry at Daytona with its No. 01 Cadillac that will compete full time in IMSA with Sebastien Bourdais and Renger van der Zande.

A Ganassi spokesman said the team hopes to run its second entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans but only its WEC team is confirmed (an AOC invitation would be required for the IMSA team). The team also is exploring options but currently plans to have the WEC’s team base of operations in Indianapolis.

Ganassi is the first American-based prototype team to confirm its entry in the 2023 24 Hours of Le Mans. It’s expected that Team Penske, which raced this year’s Le Mans with a full-time WEC entry in LMP2, also will race Le Mans with Porsche’s new LMDh car that is set for IMSA, but the manufacturer has yet to confirm its driver and team lineup.

Next year will mark the return of Cadillac to Le Mans for the first time since 2002.

Before joining Ganassi last year, Lynn made 28 WEC starts since 2016, winning the LMGTE Pro class at Le Mans in 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to continue with Cadillac and Chip Ganassi Racing,” Lynn said in a release. “It’s a huge honor to drive for Chip in any capacity but certainly on a full factory sports car program, it’s seriously cool. Cadillac has so much heritage as a luxury North American sports car brand, so to be able to represent them is a huge privilege. I’ve had a lot of fun in my first year doing it and to continue that onto the World Endurance Championship stage is fantastic.

“For me, returning to WEC is sort of what I’ve always known and it’s a bit like going into my wheelhouse. This year in IMSA was a bit different with getting to know all-new circuits and a new style of racing so 2023 will be filled with a bit more of what I’m used to with more of a European focus. I think what’s significant about WEC is without a doubt Le Mans. As a sports car race, Le Mans is the crown jewel and everything that we want to win. To be able to take Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac back to Le Mans to fight for overall honors is a huge honor and that’s something that I’m going to work tirelessly to make sure we achieve.”

Bamber won the Le Mans overall in 2015 and ’17 with Porsche teams and also was a 2019 GTLM champion in IMSA.

“I am really happy to continue at Chip Ganassi Racing and Cadillac,” Bamber said in a release. “I’ve loved my first season in DPi and now to continue over into the LMDh era and WEC is super exciting. Looking forward to fighting for a world championship and another Le Mans victory.

“The World Endurance Championships gives us the opportunity to race at the world’s biggest race, which is Le Mans, the crown jewel of sports car racing. I’ve been lucky enough to win it before and it’s obviously a huge goal for Cadillac and everyone at Chip Ganassi Racing. To have that goal in sight is really exciting. It’s been great to have Alex as a teammate in 2022. We’ve been able to learn and grow together in the DPi, and we have a really good partnership going into WEC. We know each other really well and believe adding Richard will be a seamless transition.”

Said Westbrook: “After four really good years at Chip Ganassi Racing, I’ve got so many friends there and I’ve always dreamt to come back one day. It just worked so well between 2016 and 2019, and I’m delighted we found a route to come together again. I can’t wait, it’s an exciting era in sports car racing right now.

“I feel like I know Alex and Earl really well. I did Le Mans with Alex in 2020 and I’ve known him for years. It feels like I’m going back with an ex-teammate and exactly the same with Earl. Although I’ve never shared a car with Earl, we’ve always done the same sort of racing be it in WEC or in IMSA. We’ve had lots of battles, including this year in our dueling Cadillacs. We’ve always gotten along quite well, and I can say we’re going to have a great year together.”

The seven-race WEC season, which also includes a stop at Spa, will begin March 17 with the 1,000 Miles of Sebring at Sebring International Raceway in Florida.