07.25.17 – It’s crunch time for the drivers in this year’s Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, with less than a handful of races remaining to garner points towards the lucrative championship and their accompanying Mazda scholarships. The Indy Lights schedule includes a doubleheader at Mid-Ohio this weekend, a single race in late August at Gateway Motorsport Park and then the season finale at Watkins Glen International on Labor Day weekend. Pro Mazda will run a tripleheader at Mid-Ohio and will then follow Indy Lights to Gateway for their only oval event of the year before heading to the Glen, while USF2000 will cap their season with four races at the two previously-mentioned iconic American road courses.
For Mid-Ohio, the Indy Lights field will remain static, as it was in Toronto, with no expected additions or subtractions. Looking forward, the grid will expand by one at Gateway, when Chad Boat will finally make his series debut with Belardi Auto Racing after being sidelined by IndyCar Medical in Iowa due to lingering effects following a USAC Midget crash.
If you look at the current standings, I think it’s safe to say that seven drivers truly remain in the mathematical championship battle, but the realistic number is more likely five. In addition, there is a scenario by which Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser could actually clinch the title with a pair of wins and trouble for his competition. Juncos has not had tremendous success in the past Indy Lights races at Mid-Ohio, so that feels more like a long shot at this point. As always, it will be a fluid situation throughout the event and every point counts, so watch for the top dogs doing everything they can to score the pole in qualifying. This will put the pressure on the likes of Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz and Santiago Urrutia (who sit fifth and sixth in the points) to put in perfect performances, all while hoping that bad luck finds their competition.
This weekend’s potential storyline is filled with intrigue. Point leader Kaiser has the momentum from his sweep in Toronto, and even a couple of podium finishes would position him to take the title at Watkins Glen. Urrutia needs a pair of victories to force his way back into the hunt, and Mid-Ohio is a track at which he’s excelled, winning both Indy Lights races last year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. After winning four races in 2016 and finishing as the series’ runner-up, Santi has yet taste victory in 2017, which will no doubt provide even more motivation. The Uruguayan is hungry to get back on the top of the podium. Telitz also needs a massively successful outing, and will arrive this weekend with a certain level of confidence. He’s coming off a pair of top-five finishes in Toronto and he has five straight top-five results at Mid-Ohio over the past two years in USF2000 (2015) and Pro Mazda (2016).
Zachary Claman DeMelo is very much in the title hunt, and his double-podium performance in Toronto could set up for another win on a permanent natural terrain road course. The Road America winner finished seventh in both Indy Lights race sat Mid-Ohio last year, but like Juncos, the track has not been the best venue for Carlin Racing.
In contrast, Andretti Autosport’s Nico Jamin has enjoyed much success at Mid-Ohio, so it will be no surprise to me if he’s at the top of the charts, challenging for wins. Nico dominated the action at Mid-Ohio in USF2000 in 2015, winning all three races, and he swept the Pro Mazda doubleheader last year. I’ve referred to him as ‘Mr. Mid-Ohio’ on the PA and on IndyCar Radio numerous times, and if he can find that magic again this weekend, he’ll cement that moniker.
It will be the first race at Mid-Ohio for Carlin’s Matheus Leist, but that little fact didn’t stop him from winning at Indianapolis, Road America or Iowa, so we can’t use it here either. Like Leist, who is coming off a disappointing and championship-damaging weekend in Toronto, Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s Colton Herta is also badly in need of turn-around of fortunes. Herta raced at Mid-Ohio in USF2000 in 2014, and his second win of this year came at Barber Motorsports Park; a track that is similar to Mid-O in its undulating and flowing nature.
The Mid-Ohio IndyCar weekend is a big draw for race fans, and I expect that it will pull a good group of Pro Mazda National class drivers as well, which will expand the field nicely. Championship contenders Victor Franzoni, Anthony Martin and TJ Fischer are all ready to head into battle after their good finishes in Elkhart Lake. The series drew 15 cars at Road America, and I expect that we’ll see solid numbers at Mid-Ohio as well. Team Pelfrey’s Carlos Cuhna and Nikita Lastochkin are back with Fischer, and Juncos Racing will again have Jeff Green alongside Franzoni. Green had a very impressive run at Road America, and will look to build of those strong results. Martin’s solo effort will continue with Cape Motorsports in his Soul Red Mazda.
World Speed Motorsports will again field cars for impressive rookie Sting Ray Robb and third-year driver Bobby Eberle, and we’ll see the return of Max Hanratty with Arms Up Motorsports and Kris Wright with JDC MotorSports. Matt Machiko will remain on the sidelines, but he is still considering a return at Watkins Glen.
In the National class for drivers 20 years of age and older, Fat Boy Racing will set up shop for Brendan Puderbach and Charles Finelli. I’m hearing that the Unfair Advantage Motorsports duo of David Zavelson and Kevin Bury will return, and I also expect to see Bob Kaminsky back in action.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda put 17 cars on the grid in Toronto, and I expect to see that number rise to 20 for Mid-Ohio. Two teams from Toronto will debut new drivers, we’ll see the return of one competitor who skipped Iowa and Toronto, and one who will make his return to the series after beginning the season in Pro Mazda.
After bringing impressive Mexican pilot Jose Sierra to Toronto, DE Force will turn the #12 over to fellow Mexican racer Andres Gutierrez for Mid-Ohio and Watkins Glen. Gutierrez is a race winner in the IMSA LMP3 category and scored two wins at the FIA F4 NACAM event at COTA last September. He also tested with John Cummiskey Racing at the 2015 Chris Griffis Memorial test at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, TX.
Newman Wachs Racing will add a second driver to their stable alongside impressive rookie Darren Keane, who is coming off a season-best fourth in the second race in Toronto. NWR will prep a car for 16-year-old American F4 driver Jacob Abel. The team tested Abel at Autobahn last weekend and was very pleased with his performance.
Colin Kaminsky is set to return to action with John Cummiskey Racing for the final two USF2000 races of the year, having skipped Iowa and Toronto.
Disappointingly, I’ve learned that Chandler Horton will not return with RJB Motorsports, as the team as halted their efforts for 2017. The well-spoken young man joined Michael Young and I in the PA booth in Toronto as our analyst alongside Anthony Martin, and I’m hoping that he gets another chance to race soon.
Alex Baron, who ran well at Iowa Speedway and led in Toronto with ArmsUp Motorsports, will be not be in action at Mid-Ohio but will return for the Watkins Glen season finale.
Team BENIK continues to work to make their return to the USF2000 paddock, and they remain focused on running drivers at Watkins Glen ahead of a full campaign in 2018.
All in all, we’re going to see an exciting weekend of MRTI racing at one of the best tracks in the country.