Mazda Road to Indy Offseason Update for December 2017

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Check out Open-Wheels’ recap of headlines for the first two months of the offseason, featuring Rinus VeeKay’s impressive showing at the Chris Griffis test as well as his signing with Juncos Racing, Pato O’Ward’s search for a ride for 2018 and Colton Herta’s continued development as one of the more complete drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy.

Rinus VeeKay signs with Juncos Racing for 2018 Pro Mazda Championship
Released to the press on November 28, championship-winning team Juncos Racing signed 2017 USF2000 runner-up Rinus VeeKay (also known as Rinus van Kalmthout) to compete in the 2018 Pro Mazda season.

VeeKay, 17, joins Juncos after a successful test at Mid-Ohio in October.  The Netherlands native captured three victories in the Mazda Road to Indy’s lower ladder as well as 12 podium finishes overall.  Formerly with Pabst Racing, VeeKay tested with Belardi Auto Racing in an Indy Lights machine at the Chris Griffis event and found seat time in Pabst’s PM-18 chassis, making him the only driver in the Mazda Road to Indy ladder that has driven each of the current cars.  Read more…

Additionally, VeeKay made waves when he jumped straight into an Indy Lights machine for Belardi Auto Racing at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test.  While he has driven in a Pro Mazda machine before taking laps in the Lights car, his jump to an Indy Lights test without race experience in a Pro Mazda was impressive in itself.  That was until the times began to roll in.

VeeKay was routinely found in the top five on the time sheets over the course of eight test sessions, leading the third and seventh practices by lap time.  The leap in horsepower was not overlooked by the Dutch driver, noting the Indy Lights machine was “much more powerful.  You really feel the turbo kick in and you can feel the downforce.  With this car, when you go quicker through a corner, you have more grip.”

VeeKay’s development has progressed almost as quickly as his lap times, so look for him to spend 2018 in the Pro Mazda championship with possible cameos in Indy Lights next year.

If fellow countryman Arie Luyendyk’s testimonial is any indication, Rinus is moving in the right direction: “I think he’s going to go very far…  It really is a lot of fun to watch him.”

Pato O’Ward continues search for 2018 Road to Indy ride
After spending much of 2017 in IMSA sportscars, Pato O’Ward is eager for a return to open-wheel racing.  A runner-up in the 2016 Pro Mazda championship (he won seven races), funding kept him at an arm’s length for the 2017 calendar year.

O’Ward competed in four early-season events for Team Pelfrey this past year with a podium at St. Petersburg, and Indy Lights is where he would prefer to be for 2018.  “I’d love to do Indy Lights.  That would be what I would’ve done if I had the funding behind me this year,” stated O’Ward, still 18 years of age.

While he has a working relationship with Team Pelfrey, that connection doesn’t carry the same weight in this era of funded motorsport.  Drivers, even attractive prospects like Pato, must scratch and claw their way to sponsorships while doing most of the legwork on their own.  On his outlook for 2018, the Monterrey, Mexico native is still optimistic in finding season-long funding.

“I’m still looking around.  I do not want to leave open-wheel because that is my passion.  At the end of the day, I really like racing it.  As of right now, my goal is to do the four IMSA endurance races in a Prototype car and Indy Lights (full-time), but I don’t have anything yet.”

Best of luck to Pato in his efforts to find a ride in 2018.

The curious case of Aaron Telitz
Another interesting story to come out of last month’s Chris Griffis Memorial Test was Aaron Telitz’s absence from Indy Lights participation.  He finished 6th in the 2017 championship which included wins at the season opener in St. Petersburg and the final race of the year at Watkins Glen.  While Telitz was somewhat inconsistent (he was unable to follow up any of his four podium finishes with another podium), his 2017 season was a fine Indy Lights rookie campaign.

Unfortunately, the ugly head of motorsports – money – has Telitz on the outside looking in for a sophomore campaign in 2018.  Without a ride secured, he jumped into the other two cars from the Mazda Road to Indy ladder – the USF2000 and the brand new Pro Mazda PM-18.  Looking for any seat time possible, Telitz turned laps in the USF-17 with RJB Motorsports and in the PM-18 with his 2016 Pro Mazda championship squad in Team Pelfrey.

Aiming for optimism, the 25-year-old was honest in his 2018 prospects.  “I’d like to find some more money… that’d be great.  Obviously that’s what everybody says – so that’s nothing new – but we’re working on some sponsorship deals that’ll hopefully allow us to get back into Indy Lights next year.”

We wish Aaron the best in his search for additional funding, and hope his development is not stunted as a result of sponsorship woes.  While the Mazda Road to Indy does a fine job at developing talent, maybe it is time that we take a look at how teams and their drivers can be supported so the careers of drivers such as Telitz can continue as they naturally should.

Colton Herta puts consistency, talent on display to close calendar year
Capping off a dazzling rookie season that saw him win twice and record seven pole awards, the son of “Hertamania” finished strong with a dominant driving display at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test.

Colton Herta was quickest in test sessions four, six and eight, and never placed lower than fourth over eight practices at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.

While it appears that his father, Brian, would like some more seasoning before his son gets a shot in the Verizon IndyCar Series, Colton has got to be on the radar for teams looking to fill a seat in May and would be an intriguing option.  Keep an eye on this development.

New Pro Mazda “Tatuus” chassis makes a splash at Chris Griffis test
The Verizon IndyCar Series isn’t the only open-wheel circuit getting a fresh look for the 2018 season.  The Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tires series unleashed the brand new “Tatuus” chassis at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last month, and to generally rave reviews.

The car features a beautiful, sleek profile that suits the middle ladder of the Mazda Road to Indy perfectly while providing new challenges.  Oliver Askew adapted to those challenges better than the rest, leading four separate test sessions while completing 126 laps over seven practices.

Carlos Cunha was also quick over the two days of testing, and his opinion of the new car echoed the sentiment found throughout the paddock.  “I think the car’s completely different.  The first time I drove it, I was like ‘OK, this is a real race car!’  It’s really technologically advanced, everything is really fast.”

It is important to note the improvements in technology with this new chassis as Pro Mazda looks to keep up with cars in similar development series.

Dan Andersen, the owner and operator of the Mazda Road to Indy, gave a great analysis of what the sanctioning body looked to accomplish with the new PM-18.  “It takes the drivers who learn mechanical grip and competition in USF2000 and teaches them aerodynamics and much higher speeds.  It is the perfect training ground to move them into Indy Lights.”

Not short on enthusiasm, it seems the powers that be are pleased with the results.  “This is a serious race car, this is a serious package.  It does exactly what I want it to do.”

Tanner Watkins

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