Mazda Road to Indy season concludes at Portland

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Courtesy of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires

PALMETTO, Fla. – The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires season will conclude this weekend in the Pacific Northwest when all three feeder categories for the Verizon IndyCar Series – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – return to Portland International Raceway after a lengthy hiatus. Two races for each series will be held on the 1.967-mile, 12-turn road course situated just a few miles from downtown Portland, Ore.

A total of more than $2.5M in scholarships and awards will be presented at the Mazda Road to Indy Championship Celebration in Portland on Monday evening, when drivers and teams of the world-renowned open-wheel development ladder, representing at least a dozen nations and 14 different States, will be honored.

Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., has already clinched the USF2000 title following a stellar rookie season with Cape Motorsports. He will claim a $325,000 scholarship to advance to Pro Mazda in 2019. The outcome of the other two series is still to be determined, although Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing) has a substantial lead over Canadian Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport) in the quest for a Mazda Scholarship worth almost $800,000 to step up to Indy Lights in 2019, and Mexico’s Patricio O’Ward (Andretti Autosport) holds a 25-point edge over California’s Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner) in Indy Lights. At stake is a scholarship valued at $1M to guarantee entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.

Herta Seeks to Keep the Pressure on O’Ward

Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta will decide the Indy Lights championship in Portland. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

An impressive blend of speed and consistency has been the key to O’Ward’s current position atop the points table. The 19-year-old from Monterrey, Mexico, has won the most races this year (seven out of 15) and has started eight times from the pole position, tying the existing record for most poles in a season. He has completed all but one of the season’s 585 laps and led an impressive 55.21 percent of the time (323 laps). O’Ward also has recorded a series-high 11 podiums, including a streak of six in a row.

Herta, 18, from Valencia, Calif., has four wins to his name and three poles, and has led a total of 116 laps. The second-generation racer (his father Bryan claimed the Indy Lights Championship in 1993) came agonizingly close to adding a fifth victory last Saturday at the Gateway Motorsports Park oval in Madison, Ill., only to be edged out by yet another Andretti team car, driven by Ryan Norman, following a titanic battle with just a handful of laps remaining.

The point permutations are plentiful heading into the final weekend of the 17-race season, although Herta knows that, realistically, only a pair of wins – as well as sweeping all the bonus points for pole and leading most laps – will give him a decent shot at pipping O’Ward to the crown. If he is able to achieve that goal, O’Ward will require at least a third- and a fourth-place finish (or any combination totaling 40 points) to keep the title out of Herta’s grasp.

Uruguayan charger Santiago “Santi” Urrutia’s hopes of winning the championship for Belardi Auto Racing after two straight years of finishing second in the points table have unfortunately expired, although the 2015 Pro Mazda champion retains high hopes of finishing his season on a high note. Ditto teammate and 2016 Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., with whom he enjoyed a thrilling tussle for fourth place at Gateway last weekend.

Norman, too, will be a challenger for the wins. The 20-year-old from Aurora, Ohio, has enjoyed a strong sophomore season, highlighted by a pair of front row starts in the last three races and, of course, his exquisitely judged maiden victory last weekend.

Brazilian Victor Franzoni, last year’s Pro Mazda champion, already has one win to his name this year, and Canadian Dalton Kellett (Andretti Autosport) has twice finished on the podium, while Korea’s Heamin Choi will make a welcome return to the series aboard a second Juncos Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15.

The Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland Powered by Mazda will commence with a 40-minute practice session at 9:50 a.m. on Friday, August 31, followed by qualifying for Race One at 1:50 p.m. Saturday will comprise another qualifying session (to set the grid for Race Two) at 9:50 a.m., with the green flag for Race One slated for 2:05 p.m. Race Two will start at 9:55 a.m. on Sunday, September 2. All times are PDT.

VeeKay on the Brink in Pro Mazda

Rinus VeeKay is poised to take the Pro Mazda championship. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

A recent sequence of misfortunes for mid-season championship leader Parker Thompson has left Rinus VeeKay needing merely to take the green flag for one of the two races which will comprise this weekend’s Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Portland Presented by Cooper Tires in order to clinch his maiden Mazda Road to Indy crown.

VeeKay, who is still a couple of weeks shy of his 18th birthday, finished a strong second to Oliver Askew in last year’s USF2000 title-chase. He stepped up to Pro Mazda this season and began with a flourish, sweeping both of the opening two races on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. VeeKay’s momentum was broken by a disappointing sequence of results, but he has rebounded in style by winning each of the five most recent races – on the streets of Toronto, at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and, last weekend, at the Gateway Motorsports Park oval – to take a virtually unassailable lead into the Oregon finale.

But spare a thought for the popular Thompson, 20, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, who has enjoyed an impressive rookie season with the Canadian-owned Exclusive Autosport team. Three wins represents an excellent haul, but he will forever rue an obscure electrical failure which prevented him from qualifying at Gateway last Saturday. Thompson started at the back of the field, then mounted a spirited comeback to finish sixth and keep his championship hopes flickering. Thompson also posted the fastest lap of the race and took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award. He will be pressing for much more this weekend.

The battle for third place in the final championship standings also is up for grabs, with young Americans Askew, David Malukas and Robert Megennis all separated by just 15 points after 14 races. Brazilian Carlos Cunha also is in the mix but is not on the entry list for Portland.

After winning the 2017 USF2000 championship, former karting star Askew, 21, from Jupiter, Fla., has unsurprisingly encountered some struggles during just his second full season of car racing but already has three pole positions and three podium finishes to his name for Cape Motorsports. He is the only driver to have completed every one of the 432 laps of competition this year.

Malukas, 16, from Chicago, Ill., also is taking part in just his second season of car racing for BN Racing. His speed isn’t in question – witness two wins and three poles – but he is still seeking some consistency. Fellow Pro Mazda rookie Megennis, meanwhile, has rebounded from a challenging middle portion of the season to strike a rich vein of form which has included podium finishes in each of his last four starts for Juncos Racing.

Mexico’s Moises de la Vara will be looking to build on a strong fourth-place finish at Gateway for DEForce Racing, while another teenager, Sting Ray Robb, also has high expectations for Team Pelfrey, especially since he is the only driver to have raced previously at PIR. Robb has four top-five finishes to his name and is hoping to benefit from a strong contingent of family and supporters numbering close to 200 who will make the journey to Portland from his home town of Payette, on the western edge of Idaho.

The remainder of the Pro Mazda contingent will have an opportunity to learn the track during two test sessions totaling 100 minutes on Thursday, August 30, followed by 25 minutes of official practice at 9:10 a.m. PDT on Friday. Two 20-minute qualifying sessions (at 1:15 p.m. on Friday and 10:35 a.m. on Saturday will set the grids for the pair of races which will start at 4:50 p.m. on Saturday and 2:15 p.m. on Sunday, immediately after the Verizon IndyCar Series headline event.

Who Can Challenge Kirkwood?

Kirk Kirkwood has won nine USF2000 races in a row. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Kyle Kirkwood has enjoyed a remarkable season for Cape Motorsports. The 19-year-old from Jupiter, Fla., already has the championship wrapped up, thanks to a record-breaking sequence of nine consecutive victories dating back to the Indianapolis Grand Prix circuit in May. With only two races remaining, he cannot quite reach the record tally of 13 USF2000 race wins, accumulated in 1992 and 1993 by Chris Simmons (who now serves as race engineer for Verizon IndyCar Series championship leader Scott Dixon), but he can match the single-season mark of 12 wins established by J.R. Hildebrand in 2006, which, coincidentally, was the last time USF2000 visited Portland International Raceway.

Kirkwood, though, will have no shortage of challengers. Prime among them will be the Pabst Racing pair of Rasmus Lindh, from Sweden, and Lucas Kohl, from Brazil, who, along with Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport), are all bracketed by just 13 points in the quest for second place in the championship standings. All have multiple top-six finishes to their credit.

Pabst Racing also will field cars for Guyana’s Calvin Ming and Potomac, Md., native Kaylen Frederick, who hold fifth and sixth in the championship as the Oconomowoc, Wis.-based team aims to cling onto a slender seven-point advantage over Cape Motorsports in the Team Championship standings.

Additional likely contenders include last year’s South African F1600 champion Julian Van der Watt; Team Pelfrey teammate Kyle Dupell, who hails from nearby Salem, the capital city of Oregon; F4 U.S. Championship leader Dakota Dickerson (ArmsUp Motorsports), from San Diego; and the DEForce Racing trio Colin Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., Jose Sierra, from Mexico City, and Kory Enders, from Sugarland, Texas.

Much interest also will be centered on Canadian F1600 Super Series champion Kellen Ritter, from North Vancouver, B.C., and recent F1600 Championship Series race winner Braden Eves, from Columbus, Ohio, who will be making their USF2000 debuts respectively with Exclusive Autosport and Newman Wachs Racing.

The full field of drivers in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Portland Presented by Allied Building Products will gain their first taste of the 1.967-mile road course on Thursday, August 30, with 100 minutes of testing split into two sessions. Thirty minutes of official practice session will start at 11:45 a.m. PDT on Friday, followed by the first of two qualifying sessions at 4:15 p.m. The grid for Race Two will be set during a separate 20-minute session at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, while the pair of 40-minute races will take the green flag at 1:10 p.m. on Saturday and 3:20 p.m. on Sunday.


Will Power says IndyCar field toughest in world: ‘F1’s a joke as far as competition’


DETROIT – With the 2023 Formula One season turning into a Red Bull runaway, Will Power believes the NTT IndyCar Series deserves respect as the world’s most difficult single-seater racing series.

“It’s so tough, an amazing field, the toughest field in the world, and people need to know it, especially compared to Formula One,” the defending IndyCar champion told NBC Sports during a media luncheon a few days ahead of Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. “Formula One’s a joke as far as competition, but not as far as drivers. They have amazing drivers. And I feel sorry for them that they don’t get to experience the satisfaction we do with our racing because that is the top level of open-wheel motorsport.

“I think Formula One would be so much better if they had a formula like IndyCar. I love the technology and the manufacturer side of it. I think that’s awesome. But from a spectator watching, man, how cool would it be if everyone had a Red Bull (car)?”

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It probably would look a lot different than this season, which has been dominated by two-time defending F1 champion Max Verstappen.

The Dutchman won Sunday’s Spanish Grand Prix from the pole position by 24 seconds over seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton. It’s the fifth victory in seven races for Verstappen, whose 40 career wins are one shy of tying late three-time champion Aryton Senna.

Along with being a virtual lock to tie Senna’s mark for titles, Verstappen is poised to break his own record for single-season victories (15) that he set last year.

“You simply know Max is going to win every race if something doesn’t go wrong,” Power said. “Imagine being a guy coming out as a rookie, and you probably could win a race. It would be really cool to see. But you know that would never happen with the politics over there.”

Verstappen’s F1 dominance has been a stark contrast to IndyCar, where Josef Newgarden just became the first repeat winner through six races this season with his Indy 500 victory.

Team Penske (with Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin), Chip Ganassi Racing (with Palou and Marcus Ericsson) and Andretti Autosport (with Kyle Kirkwood) each have visited victory lane in 2023. Arrow McLaren (which has past winners Pato O’Ward, Alexander Rossi and Felix Rosenqvist) is certain to join them at some point.

Meanwhile, Verstappen and teammate Sergio Perez (two wins) have won every F1 race this season with the two Red Bull cars combining to lead more than 95% of the laps.

The primary differences are in the rulesets for each series.

While F1 teams virtually have complete autonomy to build their high-tech cars from scratch, IndyCar has what is known as a spec series in which the cars have a large degree of standardization.

IndyCar teams all use the Dallara DW12 chassis, which is in its 12th season. The development of the car largely has been maximized, helping put a greater emphasis on driver skill as a differentiator (as well as other human resources such as whip-smart strategists and engineers).

Alex Palou, who will start from the pole position at Detroit, harbors F1 aspirations as a McLaren test driver, but the Spaniard prefers IndyCar for competitiveness because talent can be such a determinant in results.

“Racing-wise, that’s the best you can get,” Palou said a few days before winning the pole for the 107th Indy 500 last month. “That’s pure racing, having chances to win each weekend.”

Of course, F1 is the world’s most popular series, and the 2021 IndyCar champion believes its appeal doesn’t necessarily stem from being competitive.

Though the ’21 championship battle between Hamilton and Verstappen was epic, F1 has grown its audience in recent years with the help of the “Drive To Survive” docuseries on Netflix that has showcased their stars’ personalities along with the cutthroat decisions of its team principals (IndyCar started its own docuseries this year).

“I don’t think the beauty of F1 is the race itself,” Palou said. “I’d say the beauty is more the development that they have and everything around the races, and that they go different places. But when we talk about pure spectacle, you cannot get better than (IndyCar).

“You can feel it as a driver here when you first come and jump in a car. When I was in Dale Coyne (Racing), we got a podium my rookie year. It wasn’t the best team, but we were able to achieve one of the best cars at Road America (where he finished third in 2020). It’s not that I was driving a slow car. I was driving a really fast car. I think we can see that across all the teams and the drivers.”

Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, who will start second at Detroit, is in his third season of IndyCar after winning three championships in Supercars.

The New Zealander said recently that IndyCar has been “the most enjoyment I’ve ever had in my career. I had a lot of fun in Supercars, but there were still things like different uprights, engines, all that stuff. (IndyCar) is spec. Really the only things you can change are dampers and the engine differences between Honda and Chevy.

“I have a blast,” McLaughlin said. “Trying to extract pace and winning in this series is better than I’ve ever felt ever. I’m surprised by how satisfied it feels to win an IndyCar race. It’s better than how it ever has felt in my career. I’ve always liked winning, but it’s so satisfying to win here. That’s why it’s so cool. There are no bad drivers. You have to have a perfect day.”

Qualifying might be the best example of the series’ competitiveness tightness. The spread for the Fast Six final round of qualifying on Detroit’s new nine-turn, 1.645-mile downtown layout was nearly eight 10ths of a second – which qualifies as an eternity these days.

Last month, the GMR Grand Prix on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course produced a spread of 0.2971 seconds from first to sixth – the fourth-closest Fast Six in IndyCar history since the format was adopted in 2008. Three of the seven closest Fast Six fields have happened this season (with the Grand Prix of Long Beach ranking sixth and the Alabama Grand Prix in seventh).

While the technical ingenuity and innovation might be limited when compared to F1, there’s no arguing that more IndyCar drivers and teams have a chance to win.

“The parity’s great, and no one has an advantage, basically,” Power said. “The two engine manufacturers (Honda and Chevrolet) are always flipping back and forth as they develop, but we’re talking like tenths of a second over a lap. There’s not a bad driver in the field, and there are 20 people all capable of being in the Fast Six every week. Maybe more. It’s incredibly competitive. There isn’t a more competitive series in the world. I’m sure of that.

“If you want the ultimate driver’s series, this is it I’m from a big team that would benefit massively from opening the rules up, but I don’t think (IndyCar officials) should. I think this should always be about the team and driver getting the most out of a piece of equipment that everyone has a chance to do so. That’s the ultimate driver series. Who wants to win a championship when you’re just given the best car? It’s just ridiculous.”

Power believes the talented Verstappen still would be the F1 champion if the equipment were spec, but he also thinks there would be more challengers.

“There’s got to be a bunch of those guys that must just be frustrated,” Power said. “Think about Lewis Hamilton, George Russell, Lando Norris, (Fernando) Alonso. Those are some great drivers that don’t get a chance to even win. They’re just extracting the most out of the piece of equipment they have.

“All I can say is if everyone had a Red Bull car, there’s no way that Max would win every race. There are so many guys who would be winning races. It’d just be similar to (IndyCar) and different every week, which it should be that way for the top level of the sport.”