MRTI: Road America digest

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
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The weekend at Road America was always going to be an emotional one for the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The passing of former Juncos Racing driver Jeff Green, a competitor in last year’s Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, had a drastic impact on the entire Road to Indy community, and everyone was sure to be pay their respects during the weekend.

And while circumstances like this are always difficult, all the tributes were very appropriate, heartfelt, and beautifully done.

Of note: teams ran with special decals honoring Jeff, as Juncos and Team Pelfrey illustrated below:

And the pace lap ahead of Saturday’s Pro Mazda race was especially touching – former Juncos driver Peter Dempsey, who worked with 2017 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser last year, piloted Green’s No. 60 machine, while Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, was right alongside in his No. 23 Indy Lights IL-15.

Franzoni expressed a great deal of gratitude for the tributes to Green, who became a close friend of his last year. He also highlighted the impact Green had on his career.

“I would like to thank everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy for what they’re doing for Jeff, and for me and my team this weekend,” Franzoni expressed. “Jeff was an amazing guy and a huge friend. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in Pro Mazda last year and I wouldn’t be in Indy Lights now. I wouldn’t have any testing this year, I would just be racing. He helped me so much last year – he wanted to test, but in the end, I ended up driving even more than he did. He gave me his engine at Mid-Ohio when I had problems. He did everything for me to win and it’s so sad that we lost him.”

All three MRTI series were in action at Road America, completing their fourth (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and Pro Mazda) and third (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda) double headers of the year.

A look at storylines to emerge from all three series is below.

Indy Lights

Victor Franzoni and Juncos Racing celebrate winning Race 2 at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • While we’re not supposed to “cheer” for anyone, it’s hard not to feel good for VIctor Franzoni, who won Race 2 at Road America on Sunday. It’s been a very difficult week for Franzoni as he grappled with the passing of Jeff Green, and it was only fitting that, on a weekend when the entire MRTI community honored the late Green, Franzoni picked up his first Indy Lights win.
  • Colton Herta enjoyed a strong weekend, winning Race 1 on Saturday – it was also his fourth win in a row in 2018 – and finishing second in Race 2 on Sunday. It meant that he increased his points lead over Pato O’Ward to 17 points. It remains anything but comfortable, but Herta continues a very strong and consistent season that has him in great position to challenge for a title.
  • Santi Urrutia, meanwhile, had a difficult weekend, finishing fourth in Race 1 and falling to seventh in Race 2 after a late dive for the lead inside O’Ward resulted in contact and damage to the front wing and suspension of Urrutia’s car. It leaves him 44 points out of the lead in third, but he is now entering the part of the season when he typically picks up steam. Five of Urrutia’s seven wins in his Indy Lights career have come in the second half of the season, so he could go on a charge in the coming races. And he’ll need one to get back into title contention.
  • Aaron Telitz enjoyed a strong Race 2, finishing third at his home track. The 2018 season has been a struggle for Telitz, who sits fifth in the standings, 85 points behind Herta. A title seems out of reach at this point, but a podium in his home race could give him some much needed momentum going forward.

Pro Mazda

David Malukas celebrates winning Race 2 and completing a weekend sweep at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • David Malukas has been knocking on the door all year long. A pole winner in USF2000 last year, he has had two podiums in 2018 (second in St. Petersburg Race 2, and third in race 1 at Barber Motorsports park), but has demonstrated much more speed than his results have shown, as he has been up with the leaders in nearly every race this year. A clean sweep of the weekend – he won both poles and both races – is a huge confidence builder for the 16-year-old from Chicago. At 58 points back of leader Parker Thompson, he may be too far back to make a title run, but he could be a big factor in the second half of the year.
  • Speaking of Thompson, the saying goes that you win championships on your bad weekends. Well, in comparison to previous ones, this was a “bad” weekend for Thompson – he fell back to sixth in Race 1 after starting second, and was as far back as 12th in Race 2 after contact with Raul Guzman, in his Pro Mazda debut with RP Motorsport Racing. Yet, in both races, he charged all the way back to finish fourth in each one. In the end, it means he actually extended his championship lead to 46 points over Rinus VeeKay, who jumped ahead of his Juncos Racing teammate Carlos Cunha. Thompson remains the man to beat in Pro Mazda.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood swept the USF2000 weekend at Road America. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Kyle Kirkwood has gone from the man to beat in USF2000 to, barring unforeseen circumstances, its likely champion at this point. After sweeping both races, bringing his win total to five in 2018, Kirkwood leads Alex Baron by an astounding 94 points. Anything can happen in the second half of the year, but it would take something truly monumental for anyone to catch Kirkwood at this point.
  • Meanwhile, Baron’s hold on second place is now in jeopardy, as Kaylen Frederick has three straight second place finishes and is within 11 points of Baron. And Igor Fraga and Jose Sierra sit fourth and fifth, 17 and 20 points behind Baron. They may not catch Kirkwood, but their battle for second could get intense in the second half of the year.

Indy Lights is next in action at Iowa Speedway (July 7-8), while Pro Mazda and USF2000 are off until Toronto (July 13-15).

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IndyCar drivers say Thermal Club could host race after successful opening day to test

IndyCar Thermal race
Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images
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THERMAL, Calif. – The “motorsports country club” passed the first test (figuratively and literally) with NTT IndyCar Series drivers pleased enough to proclaim The Thermal Club as race-eligible after its debut.

Though there were a few minor incidents on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile permanent road course east of Palm Springs in Southern California’s Coachella Valley, there was no significant damage for the 27 full-time cars that turned 1,119 laps Thursday.

Perhaps more importantly, drivers seemed to enjoy the ride around the track, which is unlike anything on the current circuit.

“I would love to race here,” said Chip Ganassi Racing rookie Marcus Armstrong, who posted the 10th-quickest time (1 minute, 39.9077 seconds) in the No. 11 Dallara-Honda that he will race on street and road courses after coming from the F2 Series. “I think it’s awesome. Would have to do a lot of neck training prior to the race because it’s much like a European circuit, quite demanding on the neck, towards the end of the lap anyway.

PRACTICE SPEEDS: First session l Second session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“I think it’s cool. Very flowing, banked corners, banked high-speed corners. In terms of racing, it could be potentially not a lot of overtaking. You’d have to commit hard (in) maybe Turn 1. It wouldn’t be the easiest place to overtake. As a whole facility and circuit, it’s very enjoyable.”

Juncos Hollinger Racing No. 77 Chevrolet driver Callum Ilott, another F2 veteran who is entering his second year in IndyCar, was seventh fastest. Ilott said Thermal would “set a standard really of what we want to be doing with this series.

“It’s really, really high level, high tech,” said Ilott, whose rookie teammate Agustin Canapino went off course twice but incurred no major trouble. “As a circuit, yeah, it’s got a little bit different corners. I think the overtaking — we’ll find a way, we’re IndyCar — someone always sends it down the inside. I think if we can extend the straight and get some overtaking between Turn 6 and 7. It’s definitely a great circuit to drive and good fun and a bit different to the normal winter training we get in Florida. So I like the circuit.

“I think if we could, it would be good to race here once.”

Andretti Autosport’s Colton Herta, who turned the fastest lap (1:39.3721) in his No. 26, also was optimistic despite the passing challenges.

“I think it really comes down to tire deg, what people are showing with that,” Herta said. “It will be tough to pass, right? A lot of the good braking zones, you’re coming off of high-speed corners, so it will be hard to follow.

“But you never know. I would say some of the tracks we go to would be terrible for racing, and IndyCar still puts on a great show. You never know until it’s tested and proven right or wrong.”

The possibility of adding an IndyCar race at The Thermal Club has been floated, but there would be some challenges. It likely would be a made-for-TV event given it’s a private club (and filled with multimillion-dollar homes filled with vintage cars). The test is closed to the public and open only to members and VIPs.

There also are some areas that would need to be improved, namely the galvanized steel Armco barriers that ring the track and generally are considered antiquated in motorsports.

“I think the Armco might propose a little bit of an issue,” Ilott said. “Again, it depends on what angle you’re hitting them obviously. It’s a pretty straightforward process to make it a bit safer and a bit more cushiony. I’m not in charge of that stuff. I just drive and try not to hit those things.

“I think it’s a straightforward process. To be fair, everyone has had a little moment today, spun and carried on. That’s a good start. Obviously there are anomalies, these things happen. So far, so good.”

Said Herta: For sure. It probably needs a little bit of work. They’ve already done a lot for us to come here already. It seems like if they do want to have a race here, they’re willing to put the work in and money in to upgrade the facility to make it a little bit safer for us.”

Christian Lundgaard of Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing was second fastest (1:39.3767), followed by Alex Palou (1:39.3970) and Romain Grosjean (1:39.4826). Will Power was the top Chevrolet driver in fifth (1:39.5690).

Though Andretti had two of the top four times, Herta downplayed the significance other than getting reacclimated to his team.

“Just a lot of knocking the rust off,” he said. “It’s quite a long offseason without being in the car. I don’t know how much we’re really going to learn from running here. It’s really good to get the team back into it, get all the boys working again. Yeah, just get everybody back into the flow of it.

“It could be a huge shake-up when we go to St. Pete and who’s up front and who’s at the back. It is too early to tell. It’s nice just to be back in the car and get lap times down, get everybody working again.

“The track surface is very strange, very different to anything I’ve really felt in IndyCar. It’s seven first-gear corners. We don’t really have that many anywhere we go on a street course. It is quite a bit slower than our natural terrain courses. But I don’t want to be in here and dig it the whole time. It’s a fun track to drive, especially the back section. It keeps you on your toes. It doesn’t really replicate anything else that we go (race).”

The test will continue with another six-hour session Friday.