06.30.2017 – I know that I’m simply echoing the sentiments of virtually every open wheel formula car fan when I talk about how much I love coming to Road America. When it comes to thrilling competition and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing, the track never fails to serve up a home run ball right over the middle of the plate. The track’s layout allows drafting to really come into play and the added length of the straightaways that follow some of the more crucial corners truly penalize blockers who take the defensive line. The runs from T1 to T3, and from T5 up the hill to T6 are perfect examples. If a driver blocks to the inside, their exit speeds are compromised and there’s enough of a run into the next corner to allow the chasing driver, who ran the proper line, to complete an overtake. This is a design feature that is lacking in many tracks in North America, which instead feature shorter post-corner straights to protect blockers by not paying off the higher exit speed of the challenger. Road America is always racy, and there are also several high-commitment corners that truly reward a balanced set-up. With all this in mind, it’s not surprising that the Indy Lights drivers put on their best show of the year and the racing behind the dominant winners – Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman DeMelo – was thrilling.
Let’s jump into my Star of the Race selections, and again, here’s the disclaimer that I don’t normally pick the race winner, especially if they ran off and hid, as was the case this past weekend in five of the six MRTI races. I look for the incredible performance that were not highlighted based on pure results, and there were some impressive drives and first-time podium visitors who I believe were worth the note.
COOPER TIRES USF2000 CHAMPIONSHIP POWERED BY MAZDA
The opening USF2000 battle of the weekend was easily the best race of the year. There were countless overtaking maneuvers, pure one-on-one battles, three-wide runs down into turn one and turn five, and hard core racing through the field. In Race #1, my Star of the Race is Lucas Kohl from Pabst Racing. There’s no doubt that the Augie Pabst-led team has developed a tremendously quick set-up for the new Tatuus USF-17 at Road America, but Kohl showed me that he’s developed his racecraft and consistency. Lucas drove to his first USF2000 podium finish and stayed in the game when pressured. I’ll be looking for him to maintain this momentum moving into the second half of the year.
If you watched Race #2 online or listened to the PA trackside, you know that I had the opportunity to mention Colin Kaminsky several times during the broadcast, and he gets my Star of the Race for stepping up his game in a big way with John Cummiskey Racing. Colin drove from 14th to ninth in the first race and then went from 12th to eighth in Race #2, scoring his second top-10 of the weekend, and the year. Road America takes a great deal of commitment and corner entry speed to post quick times, and we saw drivers exceeding track limits on many occasions. The exits of T3 and T5 found many cars in the grass, and we watched as drivers pushed well past the apexes in Canada Corner and in turn 14 as well, many heading to the gravel trap or the grass. Kaminsky turned in an incredible consistent weekend, staying on-track and out of trouble, and his eighth in Race #2 came with a virtually identical fast lap as Lucas Kohl, who podiumed on Friday with the top team at Road America: Pabst Racing. As a one-car effort run by John Cummiskey, Colin is well-deserving of my Star of the Race selection.
PRO MAZDA CHAMPIONSHIP PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
The opening Pro Mazda race of the weekend featured a dominant run by Victor Franzoni up front, but the driver who really impressed me was Juncos Racing’s Jeff Green. The 61-year-old started 12th and finished a stellar sixth, turning the ninth fastest time of the race. He came home just five seconds behind Max Hanratty in fifth. It was a Star of the Race performance, without a doubt. Green was incredibly consistent throughout the weekend and has become a strong addition to the Pro Mazda grid. In Race 2, he dropped his fast lap by over two seconds and finished fifth.
My selection for Star of the Race in Race 2 is quite easy, as we were all on the edge of our seats to see what kind of performance we were going to get out of Victor Franzoni. The fourth-year MRTI driver and his team rolled the dice in qualifying, waiting until the second half of the 20-minute session to save their tires. A pair of untimely red flags thwarted the Brazilian’s efforts to post an official time, relegating him to the tail of the 14-car field for the start. I was part of several pre-race discussions regarding Franzoni’s lap-one goal, including one with the driver himself. Victor told me that he hoped for fifth by the end of the opening circuit, but the correct answer would be ninth. To his credit, Franzoni did not over-drive the first lap, showing patience in getting past the National class drivers and into a position to work past the cars of Bobby Eberle and Victor’s own teammate Jeff Green. From there, Victor took no prisoners and moved past Sting Ray Robb and then through the Team Pelfrey trio, emerging in second with a 5-second gap to the leader, Anthony Martin. A late-race full course yellow changed the entire complexion of the race and wrote the start of a new storyline. The clean-up took longer than expected, and the result was a single lap of green to decide the outcome. Martin was extremely aggressive in his defense of the lead, holding Franzoni at bay, but Victor was wise not to risk a low-percentage attempt and he holds the point lead as a result.
INDY LIGHTS PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES
During Indy Lights races, I patrol pit lane for IndyCar Radio, working to gain insight into what’s happening on-track. For Race 1 at Road America, I parked at the Belardi Auto Racing pit along with many others to watch the TV monitor on one of the IndyCar pit boxes. The start of the race had us all looking at each other in disbelief. The opening laps were thrilling, thanks to Santiago Urrutia, my Star of the Race. Santi got a great start, and pulled to the far left of the track as everyone crowded the inside heading into turn one, as they always do. Urrutia will never be questioned for his bravery, as he rolled the outside of the corner, kept the throttle pegged, and dodged Neil Alberico to advance from 10th to fourth. He then moved to the inside in T3 to take third from Kyle Kaiser. After Kaiser went back by in turn five, Urrutia settled in and made his big move just a lap later later in turn five, diving to the inside of Kaiser, who was holding the middle line as Ryan Norman was making a move to his outside. It was a three-wide pass for second that became an instant contender for the Royal Purple Slickest Pass Award at year-end.
My Star of the Race for the second Indy Lights event is Ryan Norman. After getting collected in the Herta-Kellett incident at the Freedom 100, Norman bounced back like a champ at Road America and was incredibly impressive all weekend. He finished fourth in Race 1 after starting third, but it was his drive forward from dead last in Race 2 to caught my eye. He ran an incredibly consistent race and advanced to seventh through the 20-lap race.
We’re just a week away from getting back at it, as both Indy Lights and USF2000 are on the docket for Iowa Speedway on July 8-9. I’ll be publishing a ‘Hard Card Access’ update piece early next week, and I’m current working on the new edition of my ‘Breakdown’ podcast that looks at the Road America weekend. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading and listening in. All feedback is accepted and encouraged.
You can check out all of my MRTI Insider podcasts here: http://roadtoindyinsider.podbean.com/