Never short on excitement, each rung on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder provided fireworks during the series’ opening weekend.
With Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000 taking to the streets of St. Petersburg, Florida over the course of three days, there were some incredible storylines to follow as we keep an eye on the IndyCar stars of tomorrow.
Rinus VeeKay would put on the most impressive display of driving while winning both Pro Mazda races this weekend, while Santiago Urrutia was quite good himself with a win and a runner-up finish in Indy Lights. Pato O’Ward (Indy Lights), Kyle Kirkwood (USF2000) and Alex Baron (USF2000) would all join them as race winners during the season’s first tripleheader Mazda Road to Indy weekend.
Check out our ladder series weekend in review below for race recaps, PDF race results and championship standings from Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and USF2000.
Indy Lights racing was definitely a tale of two days in St. Petersburg this weekend.
For race one, Belardi Auto Racing driver Aaron Telitz won the pole with a blistering-quick track record lap of 1:05.1279 (99.497 mph) and was off to an equal start to his season-opener in 2017. The Wisconsin native’s luck would change for the worse while qualifying for the second Indy Lights race of the weekend (both qualification sessions preceded the first race of the weekend) when he binned his Belardi Dallara terminally.
Telitz would not make the start of the race while his race team scrambled for assistance from other teams in the paddock.
With only eight drivers starting race one, it seemed to be anyone’s shootout to win. That was before Andretti Autosport driver Pato O’Ward put on a driving clinic, leaving the rest of the field in the dust while winning the race by a 6.601 second margin over Telitz’s teammate, Santiago Urrutia.
“I’m so happy for everyone who has helped me, who have believed me and helped me get here,” O’Ward said graciously after the race. “I want people to see that if you have the right factors in the right moment, you can do it. The Andretti guys and girls gave me an awesome car, my CDX Mazda was great. I just kept it on the black stuff, didn’t tag any walls. It’s never boring around here.
“This track is always on the limit, on the verge of being either super quick or being in the wall and that line is barely anything.”
For Urrutia, he was pleased to carry the flag for Belardi while rebounding from early weekend issues (including a crash of his own) for a runner-up finish. “It was a good race,” he said. “It hasn’t been a strong weekend for us so far, with a problem in practice when I crashed and then qualifying wasn’t that good. But we found more speed today.
“I have had trouble here in the past because my driving style, which is aggressive, doesn’t work so well on a track like this where you don’t have a lot of grip. So finishing second is good for us and good for the points. It’s a good way to start the championship.”
Battling back from an early-race run-in with Victor Franzoni, Andretti Steinbrenner Racing driver Colton Herta kicked off his sophomore campaign with a 3rd-place finish in the season opener.
“I thought that starting on the outside, which was the cleaner line, would enable me to put the throttle down quicker, but it didn’t. I had a ton of wheel spin,” Herta explained. “Santi got to the inside of me under braking then Victor got next to me. I thought I left him enough room but apparently, he wanted more room so he knocked me out of the way.
“That knocked the wheel out of my hand and by the time I got going, I was way back and I had to battle back. But that was fun, and getting fastest race lap and finishing third is good. My goal is to get podium in every race: that’s what you have to do to win the championship, especially in such a competitive field.”
Race two was far from the runaway contest that O’Ward won on Saturday.
Urrutia would continue to show improvement on the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg by winning an action-packed race that saw the race turn on its head multiple times.
The start of the race would be a foreshadowing of things to come. Belardi Auto Racing would make headlines by piecing together a ride (with help from former MRTI participant Carlin Racing) that got Aaron Telitz back on the grid for race two following his grueling qualifying crash. The happy tone would end there, unfortunately, as Telitz would be consumed in the race’s first lap in a run-in with Victor Franzoni.
Telitz would end up in the wall in another hard crash, meaning the Wisconsin native would not complete one race lap over the course of the weekend after winning the pole to start the fun on Friday.
In the Franzoni-Telitz run-in, Colton Herta had taken advantage to slide into the race lead before the full course caution came out for Telitz’s car clean-up. On the ensuing restart, Pato O’Ward would continue his torrid pace from race one and snatch the lead from Herta. Herta was just settling into the race before he made a critical error in turn eight on the 1.8-mile road course, leaving his Andretti-Steinbrenner machine in the wall and out of the race.
Seemingly well on his way to a second successive victory to start the season, O’Ward would make a mistake and overshoot his entry to turn four which required a trip to the run-off space. While attempting to re-join the track, O’Ward stalled his Andretti Autosport IR-15 and dropped like a rock to 7th place.
This left the door open for Urrutia, who calmly finished the race 11.740 seconds ahead of runner-up finisher Shelby Blackstock, who was driving for Team Pelfrey. Ryan Norman rounded out the podium in his Journey-sponsored Andretti entry.
Winning despite the team’s massive shortcomings this weekend, Urrutia was understandably emotional in victory lane after capping two great race runs.
“Super big emotions right now. I’m so proud of the team, second yesterday and a win today,” said Urrutia. “From the time I arrived in the United States and joined the Mazda Road to Indy, this is the best start I’ve had. To win the championship, you have to always be on the podium and in the points, so I think things are going the right way.
“I’m especially happy for the team, after the way the weekend has gone – I had a crash on Friday, and of course, Aaron crashed yesterday. The guys have been working all night long and I feel so sorry for them and for Aaron. But we have a very good team and everyone has worked so hard so we’ll keep working this way and hopefully, everything will be fine.”
For Blackstock, he picked up a second place finish just days after he signed with Team Pelfrey to drive at St. Petersburg. “The deal came together on Sunday and we were at the track on Wednesday, so it’s been pretty intense,” Blackstock said. “I just kept my head down today, kept it clean and brought it home. It’s great to get a podium in the first race, so we’ll see what happens from here.”
There is no way around it: Juncos Racing rookie driver Rinus VeeKay stole the show in Pro Mazda competition at the season-opening Pro Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by Allied Building Products.
Staring all the way back in 8th place for the first race of the weekend, VeeKay would benefit from chaos up front early one in race one. Last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew began the race on the pole for Cape Motorsports, but would not stay there long before he was challenged heavily by Parker Thompson with Exclusive Autosport, Harrison Scott of RP Motorsport Racing, Robert Megennis of Juncos Racing as well as VeeKay, who made up spots quickly at the start.
The field spread out and then bunched up a couple of times due to full course yellows, eliminating gaps created by Thompson which had reached nearly three seconds over the rest of the field.
On the final restart of the event, VeeKay took advantage when Thompson left the door open for a daring pass around the outside for the race lead. Earlier in the day, VeeKay had secured the pole position for Pro Mazda’s second race of the weekend, topping that feat only by winning the season-opening race that afternoon.
After being overtaken by VeeKay, Thompson held on for a runner-up finish while Juncos Racing rookie Robert Megennis grabbed a podium spot in 3rd.
Following the event, VeeKay revealed he did a bit of homework before hitting the track in his PM-18 machine to help move him forward from a lackluster qualifying position. “I watched the USF2000 race and I saw a lot of guys going straight in turn one because they were trying to go through the dust on the inside,” VeeKay explained.
“It happened to us as well, but I was prepared and took advantage to get up to fourth. I knew Parker was fast and that I could not pass him in dirty air, so I knew my only chance was on the restart under braking. I set it up well and he was in the dust on the inside, and he kept it safe and let me go. I don’t know what it is about St. Pete – I think the racing gods want me to have bad qualifying sessions so that I have less expectations and then do well in the races.”
Keeping with the competitive spirit, Thompson seems to be digging in for a season-long battle with the Dutchman. “Rinus may have won the battle, but there’s plenty of war left,” the Canadian remarked. “It’s been a difficult weekend for us but the entire Exclusive Autosport team has battled hard. They gave me such a great car today, I’m sorry not to bring it home for them. But we have tomorrow and we’ll focus on that. Points are the most important part so this is a good start – it can’t be that bad of a day when you’re angry about finishing second!”
For race two, VeeKay still faced challenges en route to victory even though he started from the pole.
A communication issue between race control and the teams resulted in a less-than-acceptable restart that saw the polesitter overcome by a swarm of drivers. Pro Mazda officials took a multi-lap yellow flag period to sort through the field to make things right, eventually restarting the race in single-file order which placed VeeKay back at the front.
Throughout the 25-lap sprint, VeeKay was tested mightily by BN Racing’s David Malukas. Much of the race was contested with Malukas less than a second behind the leader, and a late race caution bunched the group up one last time to give the two a showdown to the finish.
Absorbing the pressure like a veteran, VeeKay took the intense battle in stride and was able to fend off Malukas to sweep the Pro Mazda weekend in St. Petersburg. Brazilian driver Carlos Cunha would set the race’s fastest lap while finishing 3rd, picking up a bonus point in the championship.
After the race, VeeKay cherished the battle with Malukas while providing yet another rave review of the brand new Tatuus PM-18 chassis introduced to the series this year. “This is amazing, just like last year when I won both races at Road America and was fighting with David! But both of us were confused at the start because the green came so early, so everyone passed us. I’m happy that the series saw the mistake and gave us a chance to recover,” the Dutch driver explained.
“I had a comfortable gap through the race and when I saw the yellow flag I thought ‘oh, no!’ I knew the restart had to be very good and I did get enough of a jump to stay in front. The team gave me a great car, but I want to thank Elite Engines as well. I had trouble before the season started and they helped me get over it. It’s amazing how quick this car is, so thank you Tatuus and Mazda! It’s magic, driving it.”
Pro Mazda won’t return to competition until the April 20-22 weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, so VeeKay will carry a commanding 62-43 lead in the championship over Thompson, who finished race two in 5th place.
Kyle Kirkwood got Cape Motorsports off to a roaring start following their USF2000 championship last season with Oliver Askew by winning the first of the series’ two races during the weekend. Qualifying just behind Mexican driver Jose Sierra of DEForce Racing, Kirkwood would take advantage of a first-corner melee that ended up bringing out a full-course caution.
On the race’s restart, Kirkwood would lay down a bevy of hot laps that would eventually carry him to victory as Sierra could not take a cut into what ended up being a 5.494 second victory for Kirkwood. Joining the massive USF2000 grid late in the planning stages, the victory was a welcome reward for Kirkwood and the entire Cape Motorsports outfit.
“There’s a bit of relief! Our deal came together really late, but I know I’m in the right place at the right time,” said the 19-year-old Florida native. “The plan I had worked out perfectly, which was to get a good jump at the start. On the first green, I didn’t expect to fall back to the inside lane, but it worked when Kaylen fell back and created a gap.
“Jose got a good jump so I really needed that gap. I out-braked them going into Turn One but the yellow came out before I could get a run. On the restart, I went as soon as I was allowed, and Jose didn’t expect it so I got a good run on him going into Turn One so no one could draft up on me. I knew I could pull away so I just focused on my driving. When you’re out in front, you can just focus on yourself and on the car and come back even stronger in the second race. I’m really fortunate to be with Cape Motorsports.”
Kirkwood would be joined on the podium by Sierra, who maintained a fine pace after grabbing the pole position in qualifying while finishing runner-up. “It was a great race,” said Sierra. “We were so happy to get the pole position; the team gave me the best car. These are good points for the championship, and that’s what we are looking for most. We worked so hard to be here – even a month ago, I didn’t know I would be here so it’s unbelievable to get the team’s first podium. I’m so proud of them, the only Mexican team!”
Darren Keane wound up third, while Calvin Ming and Julian Van der Watt finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
In race two, 2013 Cooper Tires USF2000 race winner Alex Baron returned to the series with a vengeance by taking the victory from the series’ second stanza of competition. Baron, still just 23 years of age, captured the pole position for the race and was able to use that track position and an early strategy of urgent driving to push a gap.
“This is great. I haven’t had a victory in such a long time so to come back and be in victory lane is something special,” the France native said. “It was great, starting on pole and being able to pull out a gap. I didn’t overreact on the restarts and kept focused.”
Driving for Swan-RJB Motorsports, Baron and company were another late entry that pushed the field size to an astounding 25 cars for USF2000. “The team did a great job prepping the car in such a short amount of time,” Baron explained. “Only two weeks ago, I had no idea what I would be doing this season! We only got a couple of test days so to get in the car and pull this off is an achievement for everyone.”
Unique from the opening race of the season, everyone made it through turn one safely while the group of Baron, Kaylen Frederick, Lucas Kohl and Jamie Caroline set a blistering pace.
Baron would clear the pack and begin to extend a gap on his own while the rest of the competitors duked it out before a yellow was shown on lap 20. The race ended up finishing under yellow after another late-race incident halted the festivities.
By the end of the day, Baron had captured victory over Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport) and Kohl (Pabst Racing). Race one winner Kyle Kirkwood would finish 5th, and bring a points lead of 48-41 over Jose Sierra onto the next round of USF2000 competition to be held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.
Also of note, our Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout winner Keith Donegan was on-hand for his first career starts in USF2000. In race one, the Ireland native finished 14th after starting 17th, and in race two he capped the weekend with a 13th-place result from an 18th-place starting position.
Images courtesy of the Mazda Road to Indy.