07.03.2017 – I’ll be hitting the road for the San Diego International Airport early on Thursday morning, and I’m currently wrapping up my next ‘Breakdown’ podcast looking at Road America, so here’s my pre-race MRTI update ahead of a crucial stop at the challenging 7/8th mile Iowa Speedway. It’s a two-series weekend as the Indy Lights teams will be joined by the USF2000 squads, which will be running their one and only oval race of the year. It should be an intriguing outing for the first tier of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, which is stacked with talented rookie drivers. Iowa is bad-fast and physical, so we’ll see who handles the challenge and drives to the forefront. After years running at Lucas Oil Raceway, this a new event for everyone.
As for Indy Lights, Santiago Urrutia is the only driver in the 2017 paddock who finished in last year’s top-five at Iowa. Santi finished fifth, running with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, while current point leader Kyle Kaiser was sixth. If you look back at last year’s weekend, all six teams found themselves in the top-five on the time sheets at least once during the practice sessions and the race, although qualifying was rained out and the grid was set by points. At race time, Belardi Auto Racing and Carlin Racing were the leaders on-track, as Belardi’s Zach Veach was very close to following-up his win at Road America with victory in Iowa. It was not in the cards, however, as Felix Serralles was on the man on the move in the late going, chasing Veach down and then narrowly splitting the leader and the lapped car of Neil Alberico to win the race and the Royal Purple Slickest Pass of the Year.
Back to the current landscape, Carlin was very strong at Indianapolis, winning with Matheus Leist, and they followed that triumph with a sweep of the races at Road America with Leist and Zachary Claman Demelo. It’s hard to argue with momentum and Carlin has it right now. Add in their success from Iowa, having won the last two races there with Serralles and Max Chilton (2015), and you must give the Carlin drivers in the slight edge heading into the weekend.
That said, all but one of the teams have found recent oval success, which keeps the door open. In 2016, Juncos Racing won with Kaiser at Phoenix, while Andretti Autosport took the Freedom 100 with Dean Stoneman. Carlin has won with Serralles and Chilton at Iowa, as already noted, and Belardi was quick in Newton as well, and they’ve won at both Indy and Milwaukee during the last three years. Team Pelfrey is the only squad without an oval win, but Juan Piedrahita is very at home on the ovals, and he’s due for a breakout victory.
The Indy Lights grid will see one notable addition, as Belardi Auto Racing is adding a car for USAC Sprint and Midget Rookie of the Year Chad Boat. The reigning Bellville Midget Nationals champion tested with the team at Iowa last week and logged over 200 laps to prep himself for his series debut. Boat is scheduled to run both Iowa and Gateway, which is scheduled for late August.
We’ll see a shorter USF2000 field this weekend, as there are a handful of drivers who have elected to skip Iowa during their rookie seasons. John Cummiskey Racing’s Colin Kaminsky will not make the trip, but will instead look forward to the following race on the streets of Toronto. The same goes for both Newman Wachs Racing and Team BENIK, who are both expected to be back for Toronto.
Cape Motorsports, Pabst Racing, and DE Force will bring their full driver-ups, while Team Pelfrey has confirmed that Robert Megennis and Kaylen Frederick are good to go for Iowa. The team is still working to finalize the driver of their third trademark yellow and black Tatuus USF-17. Exclusive Autosport will also return with Parker Thompson and Dev Gore, while Jayson Clunie will re-unite with the squad in Toronto and will run the remaining three race weekends.
Team Pelfrey got their drivers some test time last weekend, spending a day on the ¾-mile Memphis International Raceway. Arms Up Motorsports shared the test day with Team Pelfrey, running their rookie Devin Wojcik. The team also ran former USF2000 and Indy Lights race winner Alex Baron, who has not raced in the MRTI since winning the Indy Lights race in Toronto in 2014. The French driver would be an exciting addition to the grid, as I rate him very highly. Baron could be the darkhorse for the win at Iowa, as he is teamed with engineer John Walko, who has enjoyed his share of oval success with different drivers over the years.