Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: Toronto preview

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After only the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires was in action at Iowa Speedway, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda once again join Indy Lights to have all three series of the Mazda Road to Indy represented on the streets of Toronto.

Last year saw weekend sweeps in Indy Lights and USF2000 – Pro Mazda was not a part of the bill that weekend – as Kyle Kaiser put a stranglehold on the Indy Lights championship by winning both races that weekend, while Canada’s Parker Thompson thrilled the Canadian fans by winning both USF2000 races.

Indy Lights enters the weekend with the main title combatants separated by only eight points, while Pro Mazda sees 46 points between its top two drivers, and USF2000 has a whopping 94-point gap between first and second in their championship.

As such, Pro Mazda and USF2000 could see their championship leaders get closer to clinching before the season ends, while Indy Lights appears set to go down to the wire.

Talking points for all three series ahead of Toronto are below.

Indy Lights

  • Pato O’Ward’s pole and victory at Iowa Speedway, combined with leading the most laps, saw him cut Colton Herta’s lead to eight points. More importantly, it swung momentum back in his favor after Herta got on a hot streak – in the five races between May and June, Herta won four in a row (both races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, the Freedom 100, and Race 1 at Road America) and finished second in the other (Race 2 at Road America). O’Ward is now even on wins with Herta – they have four apiece – and have distanced themselves from the rest of the field. The Indy Lights champion will likely be one of these two, and they both could end up in the Verizon IndyCar Series next year. The Andretti Autosport stablemates (O’Ward competes under the Andretti Autosport umbrella, while Herta is with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) are the prohibitive favorites entering Toronto.
  • Belardi Auto Racing’s Santi Urrutia and Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni rank third and fourth in the championship. While Urrutia may have expected to battle for an Indy Lights crown in 2018, he instead finds himself 49 points out of the lead and trying to fight off Franzoni for third. Franzoni, despite struggling at Iowa Speedway, has gotten stronger as the year has progressed, which culminated in his first career Indy Lights win in Race 2 at Road America. And while Urrutia had a strong run at Iowa – he finished third after battling with Herta the entire way for second, a battle that Herta eventually won – he has struggled at times since his win in Race 2 at St. Petersburg. Urrutia typically kicks things into gear in the second half of the season, and he’ll need to do so if he is to remain in the top three.
  • Last year, Canadian Zachary Claman De Melo finished second and third in the Toronto races, putting a Canadian driver on the podium in each one. This year, Andretti Autosport’s Dalton Kellett, a native of Stoufville, Ontario and the lone Canadian driver on the grid, will look to replicate that feat. Kellett has a podium this year (third, in the Freedom 100), and a podium at his home race is certainly doable.
  • Note: Indy Lights Race 2 will air on Sunday at 6:00 p.m. ET.

Pro Mazda

Parker Thompson leads Rinus VeeKay by 46 points entering Toronto. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • Exclusive Autosport’s Parker Thompson enters Toronto with a sizeable 46-point lead over Juncos Racing’s Rinus VeeKay. And what’s even more daunting is that Thompson increased his margin during what was an “off” weekend at Road America at the end of June – Thompson dropped as low as sixth in Race 1, and was even outside the top 10 in Race 2 (he made contact on Lap 1 with RP Motorsport’s Raul Guzman). But, he rebounded to finish fourth in each race, even finishing ahead of VeeKay and his Juncos teammate Carlos Cunha in each race. Certainly, VeeKay and Cunha are not out of the running, but they must (emphasis on the word “must”) start gaining ground on Thompson at Toronto. Otherwise, this will become Thompson’s championship to lose.
  • David Malukas enjoyed a breakthrough weekend at Road America, sweeping the weekend to take his first two Pro Mazda victories. And, even though he might be a little too far back to mount a serious title challenge (he trails Thompson by 58 points and would need a mistake from Thompson to gain significant ground), he is only 12 points behind VeeKay for second. Malukas could well get on a hot streak that could see him vault all the way to the runnerup spot, and if Thompson were to have trouble, the door would be open for Malukas to mount a possible challenge.
  • There were four race winners in USF2000 last year, and they all moved up to Pro Mazda in 2018. Two of them are Thompson and VeeKay, and they have had strong seasons obviously. The other two, however, could use a trip to victory lane. Oliver Askew carries the soul red livery as last year’s USF2000 champion, but a second place in Race 1 on the IMS Road Course is his only podium. And Robert Megennis, who opened the 2017 season by winning Race 1 on the streets of St. Petersburg, has only two podiums to his name in 2018 (a pair of third place efforts in Race 1 at St. Pete and at Lucas Oil Raceway). Victories and/or podiums in Toronto would do a lot to help them right the ship.

USF2000

Kyle Kirkwood is running away with the USF2000 championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography
  • With a staggering 94-point lead over Alex Baron, the USF2000 championship is Kyle Kirkwood’s to lose. He has five wins in total, including four in a row entering Toronto, and his worst finish is fifth in Race 2 at St. Pete, and the 94-point lead equates to over three races worth of points – he could literally sit out the weekend in Toronto and the first race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and still be in the championship lead. The former Team USA Scholarship winner is well on his way to securing another scholarship as the USF2000 champ, a Mazda driver development scholarship that would move him up to the Pro Mazda ranks next year. Rest assured, it would take something genuinely bizarre for Kirkwood to fall out of the championship lead in the final six races at this point.
  • Behind Kirkwood, the battle for second features a close battle between Swan-RJB Motorsports’ Alex Baron and the fast-charging Kaylen Frederick, of Pabst Racing Services. Baron started out strong, winning two of the first three races of 2018, but has since cooled – his last three finishes are 21st, seventh, and seventh. Conversely, Frederick has three straight second place finishes and is showing the impressive form he displayed last year. Both might need Kirkwood to falter if they are to challenge for a win, but if that happens, either of them could emerge as victors in Toronto…and a win would be a nice boon for them as they battle for second.

A full weekend schedule can be viewed here. Practice and qualifying begin on Friday, and each series races on Saturday (Race 1 for all three) and Sunday (Race 2 for all three).

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Tony Kanaan’s “New Reality” in IndyCar

Photo by Stephen King, INDYCAR
Stephen King, INDYCAR
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AUSTIN, Texas – Tony Kanaan is one of the most popular drivers in the NTT IndyCar Series from the fans who love his aggressive racing style and his fearless attitude. His team owner is the most popular man in the history of Indianapolis 500 – the legendary AJ Foyt, the first driver to win the famed race four times in his career.

In 2019, this combination would rather win races than popularity contests.

Kanaan has won 17 races in his career but hasn’t been to Victory Lane since a win at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California when he was driving for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2014. He left Ganassi’s team following the 2017 and joined Foyt’s operation last season.

Foyt always admired Kanaan’s attitude and racing style because it reminded him of his own attitude behind the wheel of a race car. But in 2018, the combination struggled. Kanaan led just 20 laps for the season and finished 16thin the IndyCar Series points race.

“A lot of work has been done because obviously, we struggled quite a bit last year,” Kanaan admitted. “That was the challenge when I signed with AJ was to try to make this team better. It is not an easy task, especially with the competition nowadays.

“It’s a lot slower process than I thought it would be.”

Kanaan believes the biggest keys for him is to “keep digging and be patient.” But he’s also in a results-driven business.

The driver called it a long winter, but he has helped lure some of his racing friends to the team to help improve the two-car operation that also includes young Brazilian Matheus Leist.

At 84, Foyt still has control over the operation, but has turned the day-to-day duties over to his son, Larry. Just last week, the team hired Scott Harner as the team’s vice president of operations. Harner was in charge of Kanaan’s car when both were at Chip Ganassi Racing.

“The second year, we are trying to be better,” Kanaan said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the reality we have. There are a lot of new teams coming along so we have to step up. Otherwise, we aren’t fighting the Big 3 teams, we are fighting everybody.

“We are working on it. I like the way we are heading. AJ has been extremely open to my ideas.”

Kanaan has moved his family from Miami to Indianapolis to be near the race team’s shop. The team also has another race shop in Waller, Texas and that is where Leist’s car is prepared.

Although Kanaan doesn’t believe it’s ideal to have two different racing facilities, he believes being closer to his team will help build a more cohesive unit for this season.

At one time, Kanaan would show up at the track with a car that could win the race. No longer in that situation, he has had to readjust his goals.

“The biggest challenge is to accept that and understand your limits on equipment and on the people that you have,” Kanaan said. “Being on some of the teams that I’ve been on in the past, with four-car teams and engineers and all the resources you can get and the budget; then to come to a team with limited resources, I have to self-check all the time. With that, comes a lot of pressure as well and block out people’s opinions like, ‘Oh, he’s old or he’s washed up or the team is not good.’

“You need to shield that from your guys, because psychologically, that gets to you. You need people to work well, even if you have a car that is going to finish 15th.

“What is our reality? Racing can be lucky, but we try to make goals. We are greedy, we try to improve, but we are trying to be realistic. I have to re-set and understand this is my reality now, and I have to accept it.”

At 44, Kanaan is the oldest driver in the IndyCar. The 2004 IndyCar Series champion won the Indianapolis 500 in 2013 and if his career ended this year, it would be one of the greatest of his era.

But Kanaan isn’t ready to call it an “era.” He has more he wants to accomplish.

“The mistake I have made in my career is counting your days,” Kanaan said. “The best line I ever heard is when I signed with AJ, he told me he drove until he was 58, so why am I talking about getting old?

“In his mind, I still have 14 years to go.”

There remains one race, more than any other, that Kanaan’s boss wants to win. It’s the one that made Foyt famous.

“For my boss, winning the Indianapolis 500 is all he cares,” Kanaan said. “I could not finish a single race this year and if I win the Indy 500, that would be enough for him.

“We are not in a position to win a championship and I accept that. So, we focus on the Indianapolis 500. We had an awesome car last year and were the fastest on the second day.”

Foyt and Kanaan believe success at Indy may be in the numbers.

“AJ is all about numbers and his number was 14,” Kanaan said. “He found out Dallara was making chassis No. 14 at the end of the year. AJ bought that chassis and said that is the one we are going to race at the Indy 500. I’m not allowed to drive that car until Opening Day at the Indianapolis 500.

“That’s how big the boss is about the Indy 500.”