08.30.17 – The excitement for Saturday’s events at Gateway Motorsports Park was spiked early in the evening by a pair of thrilling races put on by drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. The fans started rolling into the facility early, and those who were wise enough to arrive in the late afternoon not only avoided the traffic congestion getting into the track, they were also treated to great racing in both Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. The autograph sessions for both series extremely well-attended by excited fans, and the drivers did not disappoint once it was their time to hit the track.
So onto my picks for the Stars of the Races.
The Pro Mazda Championship kicked things off, and in a 55-lapper won by Victor Franzoni, my Star of the Race is actually the Brazilian driver’s team at Juncos Racing – Jeff Green. Oval racing demands a unique skill set and is not for the faint at heart, so you have to give props to a 60-year-old driver who puts in a performance like the one that Green did at Gateway. In what you could call his ‘home race’, as Green lives just 160 miles north of the track in Peoria, IL, the avid racer challenged himself to learn the track and the discipline. The team had cranked all the downforce they could into his car during testing, as they do with any oval rookie, but they needed to dial it out for the race weekend for him to get the speed he needed. As they did, Green increased his pace steadily. A little ‘spin’ early in practice tested the limits, but Jeff was impressive all weekend, qualifying sixth with a two-lap average at over 135 mph. In the race, he settled in and was eventually able to catch and pass Nikita Lastochkin for fifth, posting a fastest lap time quicker than all three Team Pelfrey drivers.
In Indy Lights, my Star of the Race is Team Pelfrey and Juan Piedrahita. I don’t think that I speak or write enough about what Team Pelfrey’s Indy Lights crew accomplishes each weekend, running as a single car team, and I also don’t believe that Piedrahita gets enough credit for how he’s developed as a driver. At Gateway, Juan was in the top-five in the Friday practice sessions as the team dialed in their set-up with just a single stream of data. Andretti, Belardi and Carlin all have four bullets in their respective guns during the session, so they had the opportunity to test many different adjustments during the 45-minute open practice. The two-lap qualifying session was run in much different conditions from Friday’s cooler practice time slot, and a lot of pressure is put on the drivers to hit two perfect laps. After Santi Urrutia had posted a monster qualifying run to back-up his paddock-leading pace from practice, Piedrahita stepped up and responded, edging the Uruguayan by the slimmest of margins – just 0.001 mph. In the race, Juan and Santi faced off as Piedrahita led the first 42 laps before Urrutia found his way by. A late-race caution set up the opportunity for Juan to get the lead back on the restart, and he took that and ran with it, powering around the outside of the leader. The turning point of Juan’s race likely occurred when Nico Jamin spun during the restart lap, which brought out the yellow and gave Urrutia the same opportunity to leverage the draft at the restart. Urrutia would eventually get past Piedrahita for the win, but I have to wonder if Jamin hadn’t spun and the race has gone to the checker, if Juan would have bolted away to the victory. To add to Piedrahita’s ‘Star’ status for the race, he handled the defeat with class, holding his head high and thanking his team for all their hard work.
It’s now time to head to Watkins Glen to cap off the 2017 racing season. Three champions will be crowned, and then we’ll start talking about 2018. With the introduction of the Tatuus PM-18 for the Pro Mazda Championship, the series will complete its equipment upgrade, further cementing its status as the finest racing ladder in the sport.