PALMETTO, Fla. – With a history dating back over 100 years, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway ranks right at the top of the list of venues for all open-wheel racers. This weekend around 50 young Indianapolis 500 aspirants, representing all three levels of the highly acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires development ladder, will be chasing victory on the Brickyard’s 2.439-mile Grand Prix road course in a total of six races which will comprise the Royal Purple Synthetic Oil Grand Prix of Indianapolis supporting the Lupus Foundation of America.
It will be the first time since the season began in March on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., that competitors from Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will share the spotlight in support of the exciting, new-look Verizon IndyCar Series cars.
For the second straight year, Royal Purple Synthetic Oil – the Official Oil of the Mazda Road to Indy – will support Lupus Awareness Month to help spread the word on this mysterious disease and raise funds for lupus research and education. Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can damage any part of the body. It is estimated that 1.5 million Americans – and at least five million people worldwide – suffer from a form of lupus. All MRTI cars will display a special decal in support of the Lupus Foundation of America, and the hashtag #RaceToEndLupus will be utilized throughout the event. Fans, drivers and teams can show their support by donating via a special page on the national Lupus Foundation of America website – www.lupus.org/racing.
O’Ward Seeks to Extend Championship Lead
Patricio “Pato” O’Ward has taken the Indy Lights series by storm for Andretti Autosport. After dipping a toe in the water by contesting four races last year, O’Ward, from Monterrey, Mexico, who finished a close second in the 2016 Pro Mazda Championship, has won three of the four races held so far this campaign – and could have swept all four if not for a mistake in the closing stages of Round Two in St. Petersburg which gifted the win to Belardi Auto Racing’s Santiago “Santi” Urrutia. Undaunted, O’Ward bounced back to dominate both races last month at Barber Motorsports Park. The teenager, who won both Pro Mazda races at Indy in 2016, now holds a 16-point margin, 110-94, over Urrutia.
“Coming into Indy as the championship leader obviously is not a negative,” notes O’Ward, “but there is a long way to go, so I will approach this weekend the same way as I’ve been doing. If I know I have a winning machine, I will go for the win, but if I’m struggling for pace, which I hope I won’t be, then I’ll be smart and settle for as many points as I can get.
“I know the Andretti team will give me a rocket ship, as they have been the past couple race weekends, so I’m definitely going to try and continue this good winning streak. I know it won’t be easy but it can definitely be done. I will be on my A game.”
Aside from Urrutia, who has finished second in the Indy Lights title-chase in each of the past two years – and is desperate to win the championship and a Mazda Scholarship, valued at $1 million which will ensure entry into a minimum of three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500 – O’Ward can also expect a stern challenge from Andretti teammates Colton Herta, Ryan Norman and Dalton Kellett. Herta, who races under the Andretti Steinbrenner banner, claimed a fastest race lap in USF2000 at Indianapolis as a 15-year-old rookie in 2015.
Aaron Telitz, aboard a second Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15, will be looking to continue his bounce-back after failing to complete so much as one lap in each of the first three races. Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., already is a proven winner and has no intention of giving up on his title aspirations.
Juncos Racing, which guided Kyle Kaiser to last year’s championship crown, will field a pair of cars for 2017 Pro Mazda champion Victor Franzoni, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Mexican Alfonso Celis, who is moving back to North America this year after several years of learning his trade in Europe. Celis’ experience even included a spell as Formula 1 test driver for Sahara Force India.
After a pair of 50-minute test sessions on Thursday, May 10, the Indy Lights competitors will have one additional official practice session at 5:15 p.m., followed on Friday by qualifying (at 10:20 a.m.) and then Race One at 1:30 p.m. A second qualifying session at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday will set the grid for Race Two, which is slated to start at 1:15 p.m., immediately prior to the INDYCAR Grand Prix.
Thompson and Exclusive Autosport Blaze a Pro Mazda Trail
Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, and his Canadian-based Exclusive Autosport team are new to Pro Mazda this year, having stepped up from USF2000 after finishing a strong third during the team’s initial campaign in 2017. The graduation has been equally impressive. Thompson, 20, led most of his debut Pro Mazda race at St. Petersburg, Fla., before finishing second, and since then has added a win and another runner-up finish at Barber Motorsports Park to take an early championship lead.
“In complete honesty, leading the championship right now at this stage doesn’t mean much to me or the team,” says Thompson. “We’re focused on racing for wins, and the points will come secondary. What satisfies me the most is that a team on the Mazda Road to Indy gave me a shot in Pro Mazda, and I returned the favor with a solid performance in Barber. That’s a special feeling when someone puts their faith in your abilities, and you go out and prove that they made the right decision. I’ll be looking to carry that confidence through the rest of the season.
“I can’t wait to step foot on the ground of the greatest spectacle in racing,” he continues. “Indy has treated me well in the past, with a win in USF2000. On top of that we had a very successful Chris Griffis test here last October, so I think we’re looking pretty good for the weekend.”
Oliver Askew, who beat Thompson to the USF2000 crown last year, has another compelling reason to look forward to this weekend’s pair of races after sweeping both USF2000 wins on his Indianapolis debut in 2017.
“When I heard that the Lupus Foundation of America was associating with the MRTI for the first time last year, I was ecstatic, not just for the association but also for my mom who has lived with lupus for most of her life. Not many people know about the illness, so for me to help spread awareness while competing at the racing capital of the world is pretty special for me and my family. I’d like to help make a bigger impression this year. I could tell my mom enjoyed the event so much last year, it was really cool to have her present my trophy on the podium; we’ll both remember that forever.”
Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., carries the distinctive Soul Red livery as a Mazda Scholarship winner on his Cape Motorsports Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 for the second straight year after securing his introduction to USF2000 in 2017 by claiming the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout the previous fall. After beginning his graduation to Pro Mazda by qualifying fastest for the opening race in St. Petersburg, Askew does not yet have the results commensurate with his speed. But his confidence remains undimmed.
“It’s no secret that we haven’t had the same blinding start to this season as we did last year, but there is still no reason why we can’t make the comeback and sweep the IMS Grand Prix this year as we did last year in USF2000,” he says. “It is one of my favorite tracks in the world and my team, Cape Motorsports, and I know exactly what we need out of the car to compete at the front. All we can do is focus on ourselves and continue to work hard. I believe I have the best people working around me to be successful, so it’s just a matter of putting everything together.”
A resurgence of competitiveness in Pro Mazda this year has been triggered by the exciting new Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 chassis-engine combination and an influx of talented young racers. Among them is Dutchman Rinus VeeKay, who finished second in last year’s very competitive USF2000 title-chase and swept both wins on his Pro Mazda debut in Florida with Juncos Racing, which guided Victor Franzoni to the crown in 2017. Other front-runners will include Englishman Harrison Scott (RP Motorsport Racing), who dominated last year’s EuroFormula Open Championship and scored his first North American victory at the most recent race in Alabama, and David Malukas, who has stepped up from USF2000 with another new team, BN Racing, and already has two podium finishes to his name.
A busy week for the Pro Mazda drivers will commence with two 50-minute test sessions on Thursday, May 10, followed by 30 minutes of official practice starting at 4:30 p.m. Two separate qualifying sessions, to be held on Friday at 8:40 a.m. and 11:50 a.m., will set the grids for each of the two races. The first will start at 3:35 p.m. on Friday and the second at 10:10 a.m. on Saturday, May 12.
Kirkwood Leads the Way in USF2000
The first rung of the MRTI ladder, USF2000, has attracted a strong field of 26 cars and drivers representing 10 different nations from around the world for the third and fourth rounds of this year’s 14-race title-chase.
One of the favorites for top honors will surely be Kyle Kirkwood. The 19-year-old from Jupiter, Fla., has taken over the same Cape Motorsports Tatuus-Mazda USF-17 with which life-long friend and fellow karting star Oliver Askew won both races at Indy last year en route to the championship crown. Kirkwood also swept all three F4 US Championship races for the Capes last year at Indianapolis during a dominant campaign, and began his graduation to USF2000 in perfect style by winning the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, Fla.
“To be the championship leader after my debut weekend, to me, is quite an amazing feeling,” says Kirkwood. “We’re very strong at the moment so it’s definitely a relief knowing that Cape Motorsports and I are carrying over our momentum from last year.
“IMS is a special track to me,” he continues. “We obviously had great success there last year in the F4 US Championship and so did Oliver Askew and Cape. No doubt it is one of my favorite tracks we will race this year.”
A host of talented young rivals will be seeking to knock Kirkwood – and the Capes – off their perch. Prime among them should be Anglo-Frenchman Alex Baron, who claimed a rampant victory in Race Two at St. Petersburg for the new Swan-RJB Motorsports combination, and last year’s British Formula 4 champion Jamie Caroline, who shone at St. Petersburg for BN Racing despite having not even sat in a USF2000 car prior to the opening practice session.
Mexico’s Jose Sierra (DEForce Racing), who qualified on pole position and finished second in the opening race at St. Pete, and Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport), who finished second in Race Two, also impressed in Florida, as did Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), from Boca Raton, Fla., and Brazilian Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing), who each claimed a third-place finish to ensure that six drivers – and six different teams – were represented on the podium in the opening double-header.
Guyana’s Calvin Ming (Pabst Racing) and South African Julian Van der Watt (Team Pelfrey) also are looking to feature in an ultra-competitive field after securing top-finishes in Florida. Others to watch will include Pabst Racing pair Kaylen Frederick (Pabst Racing), from Potomac, Maryland, and young Swede Rasmus Lindh, plus Greenfield, Ind., native Zach Holden (DEForce Racing), plus a pair of fast ladies, Bruna Tomaselli (Team Pelfrey), from Caibi, Brazil, and Grand Junction, Colo., native Sabre Cook (Team Benik).
Max Peichel, from Edina, Minn., and Irishman James Roe, whose uncle, Michael, raced Can-Am cars in the 1980s, are due to make their USF2000 debuts with ArmsUp Motorsports and Swan-RJB Motorsports, respectively.
Two 50-minute test sessions on Thursday, May 10, will be followed by a lone 30-minute practice at 3:45 p.m. A pair of qualifying sessions on Friday at 8:05 a.m. and 11:10 a.m. will set the grids for each of the two races. The first is slated for a green flag at 2:45 p.m. on Friday, and the second at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, May 12.