This afternoon’s Mazda St. Louis Indy Lights Oval Challenge Presented by Cooper Tires at Gateway Motorsports Park might have attracted only seven starters, but it provided a thrilling 75-lap race as Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Norman came from behind to claim a magnificent first-ever Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory over Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing stablemate Colton Herta.
Championship leader Patricio O’Ward was unable to quite match his two teammates, but his disappointment was tempered by the fact that his sixth consecutive podium finish meant he will travel to next weekend’s double-header season finale at Portland International Raceway with a 25-point edge over Herta as they battle for a scholarship valued at $1M to guarantee entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500, in 2019.
“Colton put up a great fight, props to him, that was such a fun race,” Norman said. “It’s a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I knew I had to do it with only two weekends left. I’ve had podiums this season, but some of those were given and I wanted to show everyone that I am capable of really racing for wins. But this whole field is amazing: I believe that if there were 15 cars, it would still be these top seven cars. It’s such a cool series to be a part of and I’m glad I’m here.
“Thirty laps in, I didn’t think I had what it took to get around Colton. I tried the move on the outside, even though I wasn’t sure there was grip out there, and I made it work. But I had no option other than trying it. I had a great time racing him. I know we didn’t touch but it was super-close. Watching these guys dominate this season was frustrating since I have the same equipment, but I stuck with my game and gained experience. They’ve been a great support team and I’m thrilled to pull this off.”
Each of the title protagonists led the timing charts in one of the two practice sessions on the tricky, egg-shaped 1.25-mile oval. Herta was fastest following a lengthy rain delay on Friday, while O’Ward bounced to the top during a brief 15-minute session this morning which was held in significantly warmer conditions and was followed less than a half-hour later by qualifying.
This time it was Herta back on top with a two-lap average at 159.075 mph as Norman split the pair by securing his second front-row start in the last three races.
Herta took off into the lead at the green flag but the man on the move was Santi Urrutia, who clearly was miffed after qualifying seventh and last for Belardi Auto Racing. He didn’t stay there for long. The Uruguayan leapt past two cars in Turns One and Two, then swept around the outside of two more cars in Turns Three and Four to emerge in a startling third place at the completion of the opening lap.
O’Ward lost a couple of positions during the opening exchanges but by Lap Eight was back into third place. By then the two leaders were already two seconds up the road, and try as he did, O’Ward was unable to reduce the deficit.
As the championship leader settled into an increasingly lonely third place, all eyes instead were focused on the battle for the lead – with Herta unable to shake off the attention of Norman – and an even more intense tussle over fourth between Belardi teammates Urrutia and Aaron Telitz, plus the Juncos Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15 of Victor Franzoni.
Urrutia and Telitz swapped positions back and forth several times shortly after the mid-point of the 75-lap race before Urrutia once again regained the upper hand and held on to finish fourth. He also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Just as that intra-team tussle settled down a little, with a dozen or so laps remaining, the one for the lead reached fever pitch. Herta posted his fastest lap of the race at an average speed of 157.625mph on Lap 62, but still, Norman, from Aurora, Ohio, remained seemingly glued to his rear wing. Three laps later, Norman upped the ante to 157.883mph.
Norman pulled up alongside Herta as they sped into Turn One for the 69th time, but Herta stood his ground and maintained his advantage. Two laps later, however, Norman was able to get a run on Herta, swooping to the inside as they raced wheel-to-wheel toward Turn Three.
This time he had enough momentum to make the pass, and while Herta tried every which way to redress the balance, Norman held on to win by a scant 0.2055 of a second.
Herta, who congratulated his teammate on a hard drive, knows the pressure is on to perform in Portland if he wants to keep a shot at the Indy Lights title.
“I was a little loose but I think it would have been hard to hold off Ryan even with a good car. He was really strong where he needed to be and that’s what made the difference,” said Herta after the race. “I’m happy with the result though I wish the race had ended 10 laps sooner. Kudos to Ryan, he did a great job and he made it exciting.
“The championship is never a thought: I need to win. Basically, it was beat Pato this weekend or be out of the championship. That’s why I was driving so hard, because a win would get me that much closer. We’re still there [with a shot], so we have to win both races in Portland.”
Content and images courtesy of Mazda Road to Indy.