SPEEDWAY, Ind. – What a month it has been for second-generation Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires racer Colton Herta.
The teenager from Valencia, Calif., driving for the team co-owned by George Michael Steinbrenner IV and former IndyCar star Michael Andretti, followed up his two-race sweep at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix circuit two weeks ago by holding off primary title rival Patricio O’Ward in a nail-biting finish to this afternoon’s 16th Annual Freedom 100 – the crown jewel in the Mazda Road to Indy season – on the famed 2.5-mile Brickyard oval.
The official margin of victory was just 0.0281 of a second.
Polesitter Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada, secured a one-two-three sweep for Andretti Autosport, followed by Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) and Aurora, Ohio’s Ryan Norman in yet another Andretti Autosport entry. The top five all flashed across the Yard of Bricks within less than a third of one second of each other after a captivating 40-lap, 100-mile race which was completed in just 31 minutes, 20.6650 seconds, at an average speed of 191.422 mph.
Kellett took off into the lead after securing his first-ever pole position, but it was clear from the outset that no one was going to run away with the spoils. The large and enthusiastic Carb Day crowd, watching under a cloudless sky and a temperature in the mid-80s, was treated to a thriller, with regular whoops and hollers emanating from the grandstands as the main protagonists jockeyed for position.
Brazilian Victor Franzoni (Juncos Racing), last year’s winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – the second step on the world-renowned Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, which offers scholarships for drivers to progress all the way from karting to the Indianapolis 500 – was one of the first to make a move toward the front, slicing around the outside of several rivals in Turn Three on the second lap to vault from fourth on the grid to the lead. But the remainder of the small but closely matched field were right with him.
Next time around, running at the back of the pack, second-generation oval specialist Davey Hamilton Jr., from Boise, Idaho, took advantage of the draft for Team Pelfrey by posting what would stand as the fastest lap of the race, at an average speed of 194.656 mph.
Sadly, it wasn’t long before Hamilton lost the draft and began to slip away from the rest of the field. The unfortunate Franzoni, meanwhile, picked up a puncture and dropped out of contention after 18 laps.
Up at the front, positions were changing almost constantly. The longest any one driver held the lead officially at the Start/Finish line was five laps, with Kellett running out front from laps 21 to 26.
Needless to say, it boiled down to the final few laps.
O’Ward, 18, from Monterrey, Mexico, had been content to run in mid-pack for much of the race. By lap 33 he was in the lead for the first time. But he was unable to shake off Kellett, who led the most laps in all, 17, earning himself another championship point, in addition to one for claiming the pole yesterday. Herta and Urrutia also were right in the mix.
It seemed as though the winner would come from this quartet, although Norman remained in the thick of the action and Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing), from Rice Lake, Wis., also within a second of the pack.
Heading into Turn Four for the penultimate time, Urrutia held the point from Herta, O’Ward and Kellett, but by the Start/Finish line Herta had his nose out in front again (for the ninth time thus far.) Kellett and Urrutia came within inches of collecting each other as they sped flat-out into Turn One, neither willing to give an inch, and their resulting slides enabled the front two to break away by just a few car lengths. Now it was down to Herta and O’Ward.
Herta held his nerve, and while O’Ward jockeyed around in his mirrors, then darted for the outside on the run to the finish line, it was Herta who held on to claim a spectacular victory. O’Ward had to be content with second, with Kellett finishing third in the Freedom 100 for the third year in a row.
The fifth Indy Lights victory for Herta, 18, was by far his most significant. It also vaulted him into the championship points lead, strengthening his quest to follow in the footsteps of his father, Bryan Herta, who won the Indy Lights crown in 1993. Up for grabs is a scholarship valued at $1M to ensure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Up next for Indy Lights are a pair of races on the famed Road America natural terrain course in Elkhart Lake, Wis., on June 23-24.
Colton Herta (#98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing Curb Mazda): “It’s so cool – I didn’t realize how cool it was until I got to kiss the bricks. I held off kissing the bricks for both of my dad’s Indy 500 wins because I felt I didn’t deserve it – and now, I finally deserved it! It was like a kart race: it was tough early on, because it was easy to follow, but I learned that it would be tough to pass if you were third or fourth.
“Getting into a good position at the end was tough – I didn’t even realize it was the white flag lap until I pulled out and saw the guy waving the flag. Because we run so much downforce in the race, it’s easy to run on your own but once you get into dirty air, it’s tough. We had to plot our strengths against the other drivers’ weaknesses, because we knew anyone could win today.
“This win is massive – I was psyched to get the Grand Prix wins but this is even better. It was an awesome race, I really can’t even put it in words.”
George Michael Steinbrenner IV: “This place is amazing. It’s the goal of anyone involved in IndyCar or Indy Lights racing, so to win is almost other-worldly. All the Andretti cars were good, so we knew we’d have a chance. It was all about being in the right place at the right time.”
Pato O’Ward (#27 Riverina CDMX Mexico City Mazda – Andretti Autosport):“I’m really disappointed to not win that last lap, but the Andretti crew did a great job, 1-2-3, so I couldn’t be happier for them. I tried to position myself the best I could for the last lap, but I just got washed out coming out of Turn Four – and my car was facing directly at the wall because of the dirty air.
“I had to lift, and with Dalton behind me, I tried to get Colton’s tow but I knew it wouldn’t be enough; we missed it by a wing. I’m proud of myself, I think I did a really smart race. This was my first race [here] in an Indy Lights car so there are things I need to learn, but for a first one, this was good. I was a bit nervous, because we’re going so fast and we really never ran with all eight cars in a pack, and the warm day makes the dirty air even worse.
“But it was really cool. I’ve never had so many people watch a race that I’m in – but I’m looking forward to being in the big race next year.”
Dalton Kellett (#28 K-Line Insulators USA, Inc. – Andretti Autosport): “There are two Daltons right now: the practical side is honored to get a pole and a podium at Indy, but at the same time, on the emotional side, I wanted that win badly. It’s heartbreaking for my guys but we got the pole and drove to the finish so I’m proud of the whole crew – even though, as I joked earlier, I’ve become the Carlos Munoz of the Freedom 100.
“We were racing hard from the start, with multiple lead changes. I didn’t think anyone would pull away, so I don’t think I made a tactical error trying to stay up front. Thirty minutes went by really quickly! This is one of the coolest days of the year for us, so thank you to all the fans.”
Images and content courtesy of Mazda Road to Indy PR.