09.07.2017 – The Soul Red Finale of the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires at Watkins Glen certainly lived up to its billing, as two of the three series championships were decided through head-to-head battles. The Indy Lights crown had been all but locked up by Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser with his fourth-place finish at Gateway Motorsports Park the previous weekend, but the USF2000 and Pro Mazda titles were still most definitely up for grabs. Kaiser needed only to start the final race at the Glen, and he posted a seventh-place finish to earn the $1,000,000 scholarship to advance into the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018. It was obviously a crucial year for all three MRTI champions, as the Mazda scholarship for advancement is simply a godsend for any winner. Victor Franzoni (Pro Mazda) and Oliver Askew (USF2000) are certainly deserving champions.
Throughout the season, I’ve used this editorial component to point the spotlight on many of the performances that may have otherwise been in the shadow of the race winners. This time around, a couple of the victors have earned the nod, both for their straight-up on-track performances or their ability to rise to the occasion.
For the first time this season, the talented drivers of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires program were confronted with the challenge of rain. With the treaded Cooper rains on all the cars in the field, it was very interesting to see which drivers would step to the forefront on the slippery surface. Racing in the rain is an art form, and requires smooth throttle delivery, precise steering input and lightning-fast reaction times. As the race began, starting with the green flag and zero visibility from a rooster tail cloud of moisture, Belardi Auto Racing’s Aaron Telitz quickly asserted himself as the driver to beat. Telitz is my pick as the Star of the Race in Indy Lights, as not only did he manage the conditions to pull away to the win, but he also needed to defend the aggressive challenge of his teammate Santi Urrutia, who showed his skills in the wet. Aaron’s performance was truly impressive, and again illustrates his immense talents as a driver.
Pro Mazda ran a doubleheader weekend, putting in one race in the dry and one in the wet. The opening race was run on Saturday at high noon, and the weather was perfect. As the recent top-three runners – Victor Franzoni, Anthony Martin and Carlos Cunhu – settled into their rhythm up front, I watched my Star of the Race scrap it out to a solid sixth place finish. ArmsUp Motorsports’ Matt Machiko had missed the three mid-season Pro Mazda races due to budget restrictions, and he stormed back in the finale with a pair of good runs. His result on Saturday in Race 1 – advancing from 10th to sixth – was an impressive effort by the rookie.
In Race 2 on Sunday, Franzoni’s dominance in the rain put an exclamation point on a championship-winning season. With the title on the line, my Star of the Race took full control of the race in treacherous conditions, on a wet track that could have easily have proven disasterous in every braking zone, turn-in and exit. Victor did not put a wheel wrong, and under intense pressure, rose to the occasion to win the Pro Mazda title and a seat in the 2018 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. Honorable mention must be given to TJ Fischer, who drove with precision from the back of the grid (12th) to fifth over the 20 laps of the race.
USF2000 had its own championship battle going on, between Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay. Askew finished second in the race to win the series title and VeeKay scored his third win of the year in dominant fashion. However, the man of the move in the race was David Malukas, as the rookie from Chicago powered forward from his Row 7 starting position to cap his freshman season in style. David has an ignition issue in qualifying and was only able to log five laps. As my Star of the Race, Malukas was decisive with his overtakes and advanced to fifth by the checker, passing seven cars and getting two by attrition, all while turning the second fastest lap of the race behind VeeKay.
This wraps up my first season of the ‘Stars of the Race’ feature on the Insider. Look for more editorial through the off-season and into 2018, in addition to a more regular podcast program. I have lots on the drawing board for next season.