04.26.17 – One of the aspects that I truly enjoy about the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tire is that there are no holes in the schedule. There aren’t any races that prompt so-so reactions. St. Petersburg and Toronto are truly incredible street races, supported by rabid racing fans. The natural terrain road courses of Barber Motorsports Park, Road America, Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen are four of my favorites and are truly iconic venues. The oval race at Iowa is such a challenge for the drivers and Indianapolis is, well, Indianapolis. I think the road course at IMS became much stronger with the track layout adjustment for IndyCar, and again, we’re in the shadow of the Pagoda, so all is right with the world. And to cap, I truly expect this year’s new venue – Gateway Motorsports Park – to be a high-quality event as it has the necessary and passionate support from the facility and the community.
This plays right into my thoughts on Barber Motorsports Park. Before I roll out my Insider picks for the Star of the Races in USF2000 and Indy Lights, I want to take the opportunity to echo the comments of the motorsports community when I state that I love going to Birmingham. The venue is tremendous, the sightlines are so unique, the track is extremely challenging and I’m always happy to knock out a ‘three-meat platter’ at any of the quality local BBQ joints. I sampled a few local IPAs as well, which rounded the trip out nicely. I always look forward to Barber.
OK, onto my picks of the drivers who caught my eye in Alabama.
The racing in the USF2000 series was truly impressive this past weekend. I was part of several conversations discussing the fact that this year’s grid is likely the deepest in the eight-year history of the series. The field of 24 USF-17s was striking, and having seven different teams represented in the top-10 through the weekend shows the level of competition and equality in the paddock.
As I’ve written before, it’s often too easy to pick the winner as the Star of the Race. Obviously, Cape Motorsports’ Oliver Askew could quickly be tabbed with the honor for both Race 1 and Race 2 thanks to his pair of wins. But there were other tremendous performances in the first race and I want to shine the spotlight on rookie Devin Wojcik. The Syracuse, NY driver had qualified his ArmsUp Motorsports #7 USF-17 in 20th for the opening race and was 1.7 seconds off Askew’s lead pace. Devin’s on a steep learning curve this year and he found almost a full second for Race 1 and then drove extremely well to avoid trouble and advance eight positions to 12th at the checker. He was involved in some great battles on track as well. It was another impressive run up through the field, similar to his drive in Race 2 in St. Petersburg. If he can improve his qualifying, I think we’ll see regular top-10s for this freshman in 2017.
In Race 2, BENIK’s Toby Sowery earns the USF2000 Star of the Race with a stunning fifth place finish after qualifying 10th. Sowery was certainly thrown in the deep end of the pool this past weekend, arriving at Barber with zero test time in the USF-17 and having never turned a lap on the challenging track. BENIK is a brand new team as well, and they continued to evolve their set-up, leveraging Sowery’s talents. In Race 2, his performance was stellar, finishing ahead of 2016 USF2000 Rookie of the Year and St. Petersburg race winner Robert Megennis. I’m hoping that we see Toby back for more races in 2017, as his primary focus is to contest the entire BRDC British Formula 3 Championship.
The opening Indy Lights race of the doubleheader got off to an ugly start with the green flag being waived off, which hurt the end results of Santiago Urrutia, Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward. Now as stated, I don’t normally select the winning driver as the Star of the Race, but Nico Jamin was just spectacular on Saturday to claim his first Indy Lights race win and he’s my pick. The Andretti Autosport freshman was eighth in Practice 1, advanced up the grid to qualify third and took full advantage of the chaos around him to dominate the remainder of the 30-lap event. Nico set the fast lap of the race in the process and immediately added his name to the list of drivers who have shown the pace needed to challenge for this year’s championship.
For Race 2, I’ll begin by offering props to Andretti Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta. Armed with momentum and confidence from St. Petersburg, Colton started on the pole thanks to the rained out qualifying and just flat walked away to the win after the early yellow. It was impressive. That said, I’ll focus my Star of the Race honor on Juncos Racing’s Nico Dapero. The 19-year-old Argentinian’s career has been on fast forward for the last two years, completing just one season of Pro Mazda racing in 2016 before jumping feet first into Indy Lights this year. In 2016, he had just one DNF, which was a mechanical issue in Toronto, and capped the season with a win at Mazda Raceway. He just doesn’t make mistakes and stays out of trouble. I’m hoping this trend will continue. I’ve been impressed with Nico’s steady focus on development, and his consistency is amazing. So far this year, Dapero has advanced in every race, moving up a total of 16 positions in the four events. In the second race at Barber, Nico started 10th and made up four spots on the opening lap, passing two cars before inheriting two additional positions when Pato O’Ward and Zachary Claman DeMelo got together in Turn 2. Dapero held station for the rest of the race, recording his best finish of the year.
It’s a busy week here for the Insider, and now I’m off to record a couple of podcasts. I’m working with IndyCar Radio to produce a Mazda Road to Indy Report for their website following each MRTI event, and I’ll be launching my own podcast – The Breakdown – this week as well. I hope you enjoy the content that I’m cranking out. Please feel free to comment below with any feedback, input or requests.