One year ago, rookies Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) and Colton Herta (Andretti Steinbrenner Racing) burst onto the scene in Indy Lights by sharing the victory spoils at the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires.
Now with a season of racing at this level under their belts, the pair will be chasing victory again in the hope of following in the footsteps of the last four series champions, Gabby Chaves, Spencer Pigot, Ed Jones and, most recently, Kyle Kaiser, who will all be competing in this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series.
“I have so many good memories of St. Pete,” said Telitz, from Birchwood, Wis., who also won the final race of last season at Watkins Glen and showed strong pace at the final pre-season test recently at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida. “I’ve been on the podium here every year, except for my rookie year in USF2000 when I crashed out of both races – as rookies do!
“I know it’s not important to win the first race of the year in regards to the championship, but for me, I feel as though it’s important to come out of the box strong. You want to win, but there are concrete walls everywhere so if you make a mistake, you’re out. I learned a lot by crashing out my first year and I’ve applied those lessons every year since. I know what to do and I know what not to do.”
Herta, too, is in a confident frame of mind heading into the new season alongside returning teammates “Flyin’ Ryan” Norman, from Cleveland, Ohio, who impressed at Spring Training, and Indianapolis-based Canadian Dalton Kellett, plus promising young Mexican Patricio “Pato” O’Ward.
“The entire Andretti Autosport team had a good test at Homestead so it should be a good race for us at St. Pete,” said Herta. “I love St. Pete – I love the track and I love the town! Everybody loves street courses and especially St. Pete, because it’s not as bumpy as some other street courses, especially after the repaving. It’s one of my favorite circuits on the calendar.”
Telitz and Herta aren’t the only contenders to have tasted success previously in St. Petersburg. O’Ward shared the Pro Mazda wins with Telitz in 2016 and last year finished third in one of his four Indy Lights starts, while popular Uruguayan Santiago “Santi” Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) finished second in Pro Mazda in 2015 and second again last year in Indy Lights before going on to take the runner-up position in the championship for the second straight season.
“I feel good going into the season,” said Urrutia. “It’s my third year in the series, so I have to win the championship so I can be in IndyCar next year. We have to keep it calm and stay focused. This is a good field, so it’s going to be tough, but if we can stay out of trouble and win races, I feel confident. I’ve been training the entire offseason and I’m ready to get started at St. Pete!”
Also from South America, Brazilian rookie Victor Franzoni has similarly high expectations after stepping up with the same team, Juncos Racing, with which he won the Pro Mazda title and which guided Kyle Kaiser to top honors in Indy Lights.
“My expectation for this season is to win the championship,” said Franzoni, who won at St. Petersburg on his North American debut in USF2000 in 2014. “I’m starting the season the same way I started 2017, really confident and knowing that I have to use the opportunity I have. I’m super excited and happy to be on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires again.”
Team Pelfrey was not present at Spring Training but has been working hard behind the scenes and has now finalized plans to field its pair of distinctive yellow Dallara-Mazda IL-15s for returning veterans Neil Alberico and Shelby Blackstock. Both Americans have finished on the podium at St. Petersburg as they worked their way up the Mazda Road to Indy via USF2000 and Pro Mazda. One year ago they placed third (Alberico) and fourth (Blackstock) in the corresponding Indy Lights season-opener.
The weekend’s activities will commence on Friday morning, March 9, with a 45-minute practice session starting at 8:50 a.m. EST. Separate 30-minute qualifying sessions will take place at 1:40 p.m. on Friday and 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, followed by Race One at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday and Race Two immediately before the IndyCar main event on Sunday at 10:45 a.m. The race will air on NBCSN on Monday, March 19, at 6:00 pm EST.
Additional coverage of the Mazda Road to Indy can be found on a series of platforms including Road to Indy TV, the Road to Indy TV App and dedicated broadcast channels on demand via Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku and, most recently, the Xbox One Official App as well as live streaming and live timing on the series’ respective websites and indycar.com. Indy Lights is also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.
Image courtesy of Motorsport.com; Content courtesy of the Mazda Road to Indy.