The level of competition in this year’s Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is extremely high, especially in the USF2000 and Indy Lights series. The introduction of the new Tatuus USF-17 race car has leveled the playing field in USF2000, which has provided the freshmen class with increased experience equality with the veterans. We’ve seen five different rookies record podium finishes through the first six races, in fact, they’ve dominated all three steps in four of the celebrations. The rookies are stepping it up in Indy Lights as well, having won the first five races of the year at the hands of Aaron Telitz, Colton Herta and Nico Jamin. Kyle Kaiser’s win in Race on the IMS road course finally broke that streak, and you’d have to expect that Santi Urrutia and Neil Alberico are primed for race wins this year as well.
I thoroughly enjoyed the on-track battles through the six races on the IMS road course, and I’ll give props to Oliver Askew and Victor Franzoni for their dominant weekends, and to Nico and Kyle for their crucial wins in Indy Lights. With that said, let’s look deeper into the fields for my Stars of the Races.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA
There’s not much more that needs to be said about Oliver Askew right now. Everything is working, and he’s riding the same wave of confidence and momentum that powered him to being ranked as one of the best karters in North America. The Floridian scored two more wins in Indy and extended his point lead in the championship. There is still lots of racing to be done, but as I shine the spotlight on the unheralded ‘stars’ of the weekend, Askew gets an A++ on his Indy GP report card.
The opening USF2000 race of the weekend was the breakout event for rookie Ricky Donison; my Star of the Race. The Bangalore, India resident needed to battle the mid-pack chaos in St. Petersburg and at Barber, but he now is starting to feel more at home with his Cape Motorsports crew, and he showed his talent by qualifying third in Indy and running well throughout the race to cross the line in fourth. Then, a post-race technical DQ for another driver advanced Ricky onto the podium in third. Donison backed up this performance with a poised recovery run in Race 2 after being collected in the opening lap melee. Donison picked up the tail of the field for the restart and worked his way back to eighth.
My Star of the Race for the second USF2000 event is Kory Enders. The DE Force squad has been a positive addition to the USF2000 paddock, and Enders has shown very impressive speed through the first three races of the season with a brand new team. The 19-year-old qualified 13th and then used his quick reaction to avoid the multi-car crash on the first run through the turn one-turn complex to advance into the top-10. When the race went back to green, Enders ran ninth and they proceeded to work his way forward. I believe that this was Kory’s best performance of the year and should provide confidence and momentum moving forward.
PRO MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
Victor Franzoni is an extremely talented young driver and is believed by many, including myself, to be a top prospect as the next Brazilian star in the Verizon IndyCar Series. In February, the 21-year-old wasn’t sure if he would even be able to put together an MRTI program in 2017, but a USF2000 opportunity to rejoin Arms Up Motorsports was said to be on the table in the late going. Things all changed during the weekend prior to the series opener in St. Petersburg, when he was offered the chance to partner Pro Mazda rookie Jeff Green at Juncos Racing. Victor was able to put the program together and after sweeping the weekend in Indy with his first wins in Pro Mazda, he is now the point leader heading to Road America.
My Star of the Race for Race 1 is World Speed Motorsports’ Phillippe Denis. The 18-year-old Californian made the big jump from F1600 racing in the Pro Mazda Championship this year, and his first laps in the car came during practice at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Denis approached this initial challenge with the right mindset, and stayed out of trouble to card a pair of solid results, bringing the car home in one piece. This past weekend, Phillippe stepped up to challenge the powerhouse Team Pelfrey squad, dicing with Nikita Lastochkin in both races. In Race 1, he was able to get through to finish fifth, which was a big result that should set a new tone for the remainder of the year. Denis’ confidence is building and a podium finish is in the future.
When I step back and look at the weekend on the whole, I think the second best story behind Franzoni’s success was the continued development of TJ Fischer’s skills behind the wheel. Fischer led his team this weekend and scored a third in the opening race and a career-best second in Race 2. The Californian showed great speed, got a strong start to the second race and pulled away from his teammates to cruise to the checkered flag unchallenged. Fischer threw his name in the hat for the Pro Mazda title on Saturday morning, and should he continue his pace improvement, he’ll make the championship battle even more intriguing.
INDY LIGHTS PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
With weekend sweeps in both USF2000 and Pro Mazda, it’s the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires which is again adding up the total of different winners. Last year, the series celebrated seven winners in the first nine races, including five different winners to start the season. The equality is on display once again, as we now have four winners in six races with Aaron Telitz, Colton Herta, Nico Jamin and Kyle Kaiser having all stepped to the top of the podium in 2017. There are at least another 3-5 drivers who I could see winning this season.
My Star of the Race for the first Indy Lights event is Zachary Claman DeMelo. The young Canadian has been stepping up his game and pushed hard early on, getting into second position and then holding the spot for his first trip to the podium in Indy Lights.
In Race #2, it’s truly a toss-up between Belardi Auto Racing’s Santi Urrutia and Carlin’s Matheus Leist. Urrutia understands the gravity of his current situation and his dire need for wins and good finishes, and his aggressive move to the inside of Kaiser on the start certainly sums up the approach we’re going to see for the rest of the year. He made a strong move to the inside to insure that he’d exit in second, and then tried both the outside and the inside to get around Kyle for the win. This is a major comeback race for Santi, who’s now 52 points off the lead.
Leist was truly impressive throughout the weekend, turning in his best performance of the year. He posted the quickest lap in Race 1 and then was on the move at the start of Race 2, getting into third behind Urrutia. He was able to get past Santi in turn seven early in the race and actually closed on Kaiser, and despite the fact that Urrutia was able to get back by, Leist showed that he is ready to get racy up front. He’s my pick for the Star of the Race with his first podium finish.
It’s now time for the coolest Indy Lights race of the year…the Freedom 100.