With six races to kick off the new Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires season, there was always going to be an overload of story lines that emerged from the streets of St. Petersburg.
And indeed, there was a heavy magnitude of incredible moments that played themselves out the last few days.
HERTAMANIA 2.0 IS FOR REAL
I’ll admit to having had only a casual following of Colton Herta during his stint in Europe the last couple seasons, not because I didn’t think he was good, but when you cover double digit series on a regular basis it’s hard to put EuroFormula Open and F4 with Carlin on your full-time radar. But knowing that he’d won races overseas against what is always a stacked field was always going to be an impressive feat, particularly when you consider the Californian moved overseas and raced there at 14 and 15 years old.
Testing, too, can always be a bit of a red herring coming into a new season because of different test plans, programs and the occasional fast lap “glory run” for promotional purposes. That Herta ended fastest from the only official day of preseason testing in his No. 98 Deltro Energy Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing Dallara IL-15 Mazda at Homestead-Miami Speedway was nice and great to see, especially considering he’s working with talented engineer Doug Zister. But would it translate onto the bumpy, if repaved, streets of St. Petersburg, a place as far away on setup from Homestead’s infield road course as the miles it takes to get between the two in this long state? That was always the question going in.
But good lord, if Bryan’s son - “HertaMania 2.0" - is this good, this early in his career, the sky is the limit for him. He’s 16 now and turns 17 later this month, but showed the combination of aggression, tenacity and poise well beyond his years, and was so cool as a cucumber outside the cockpit even as he ran the gamut of interviews during the weekend that could have easily distracted him.
Cool as it was to see Aaron Telitz, another fascinating and talented young American walk away with Indy Lights race one on Saturday, it was Herta’s passing demonstrations into Turn 1 that dazzled in arguably one of the best Indy Lights races since the introduction of the new car. Making several moves on Kyle Kaiser (Lap 5), Shelby Blackstock (Lap 20), and Neil Alberico (Lap 31, after nearly colliding on Lap 26), Herta was the passing star of the race.
“I guess push-to-pass worked!” Herta deadpanned with a wit you’d expect of a 26-year-old, not 16. “It was a bit of an unknown going from Homestead. It performed great.
“That one on Neil... oh that was close. It took my nose nipple off a little bit. It was close, but he left me room and saw me coming. We both kind of locked up and went a little wide, so we avoided big contact.”
Alberico, who drives for Carlin and is supported by Rising Star Racing, had to tip his cap on the move to the fellow Californian, on a day when SoCal just edged NorCal.
“He had a lot more pace at end of the race,” Alberico said. “Getting a podium after starting mid-pack would be a good result. The smartest guy will win this championship. Colton earned second place today.”
Herta’s win in race two (airs March 18 on NBCSN) allowed him to showcase his defending, rather than overtaking, level of race craft. He defended against the aggressive but determined Santiago Urrutia on multiple occasions, to complete the dream debut weekend, and lead the points in the process.
At 13 in 2013, Herta won the Pacific F1600 championship driving for PR1/BHA with Curb-Agajanian and won 10 of 15 races, so his win Sunday was his first win on North American soil since that time. It capped off a week where Herta tossed out the first pitch at a New York Yankees spring training game on Tuesday and then ended on top Sunday morning.
“We had the whole Steinbrenner family that all came out today. Hank’s even out here. It was great to have the team rooting for us,” he said.
George Michael Steinbrenner IV, Steinbrenner Racing principal added, “It really couldn’t have aligned any better. It’s very satisfying for me. Knowing Colton for so long, I’ve known how good he could be.”
SOUL RED SATURDAY IN ST. PETE
The running joke that permeated during the Mazda Road to Indy offseason was that the three Mazda scholarship drivers, Telitz, Anthony Martin and Oliver Askew, had to tactfully and carefully manage to note they were driving but couldn’t say with which team until Mazda formally confirmed it. At one point, Telitz - who’d been linked to Belardi Auto Racing since September - was listed as driving with “Team Real Big Secret” and the laughs followed.
Laughs turned to straight-up smiles and jubilation on Saturday when all three of the scholarship drivers, having been formally confirmed with Belardi (Telitz in Indy Lights) and Cape Motorsports (Martin in Pro Mazda, Askew in USF2000) won on the same day, at the same track, in their debuts in the respective series.
Martin won the first Pro Mazda race of the weekend, with Askew then winning the second USF2000 race of the weekend. Once Telitz started from pole and survived a four-wide passing attempt off the start into Turn 1 in the Indy Lights race, the stage was set for the “Soul Red Saturday” sweep.
“I mean honestly this feels a little bit unreal,” said Telitz, the Wisconsinite who at 25 is one of the older but savvier and funniest drivers in the Mazda Road to Indy. “I knew Belardi cars were fast. But to actually do it, qualify on pole, lead the most laps and win by 11 seconds or something, it is seriously awesome. I can’t explain exactly what this means. Huge thanks to Mazda for having the scholarship to move up!”
Askew’s win came after running second in the morning race, where he pressured Robert Megennis but didn’t force the issue against the talented teenager. “I keep telling myself, it’s all about points this weekend. So many guys come out of here with a huge deficit,” he said then. After the win, Askew was reflective and effusive with praise: “I thought if I could come out second, that would be great. But that caution came out and it threw the plan out the window. I reacted to whatever was happening and I was off from there.”
Martin, who’d traditionally struggled at St. Petersburg in USF2000, completed the only weekend sweep for the MRTI this weekend in Pro Mazda. The Australian, now back in a single-car effort after having two teammates last year, has the sole focus on him and impressed straightaway.
“Yeah I knew the pressure was on, with St. Pete as the first race of the year,” he said. “As a team we were really pushed to set a mark for everyone involved. We’ve shown what we’re gonna do. We’re not gonna play around. The Soul Red boys… man it proves what Mazda is doing, is working. It gives me the confidence when people believe in me. This weekend is the hardest I’ve ever pushed in my life.”
USF2000’s DAILY DOUBLE, TATUUS USF-17 DEBUT
If one was to grade the debut of the new Tatuus USF-17 for Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, a B to B-plus would be a fair assessment. The car raced very well, particularly in the first race of the day held Saturday morning when drivers raced smart and kept the 30-minute affair caution-free, and then continued to do well in race two on Saturday. The downgrade from a firm A comes with the number of accidents in practice that occurred, which while understandable given it’s inexperienced drivers and a street course, quickly added up to make a good weekend for the spare parts department.
It was interesting to talk to two of the drivers who raced the previous generation Van Diemen and continued this year, in Megennis who won race one and Parker Thompson, who had pole for race two in his Exclusive Autosport entry but made a mistake at Turn 1 that opened the door for Askew, ultimately ending third.
“As a new team we have brand new mechanics and a lot of new components,” explained Thompson, out of Red Deer, Alberta. “The team handled it really well. Exclusive gave me a car that could have won and I threw it away. But I have to hold my head high. Myself and team have worked to learn everything. Pabst and Cape have been to this track before. We haven’t. And we had a car, a new car, good to win first race… so I guarantee I’ll work harder than ever to repay them.”
Added Megennis, who drives for Team Pelfrey: “It’s different. I had the aero wash being behind people. Out front, it was a different experience! This car is a lot more comfortable to drive. It’s a lot more fun, it’s not easier, and you have to push it harder, it’s a lot more enjoyable and exciting.
“I tried to approach it exactly like last year. But now, you can show up at the weekends ahead. You know the track, you know the setup direction, and you know how the races work. Being a second-year driver makes a lot of difference.”
BACK FROM BREAK, AND BACK TO A NEW BREAK IN PRO MAZDA
With a reduced schedule, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series races only six weekends this season. The gap between St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course is the longest gap this season, a full two months.
So what do you do to stay sharp in that time? We asked the podium finishers this weekend what their game plan was.
“I think I’ll be in Indy for the break. It’s a bit of a break but we may be doing some testing,” said Martin.
“This break will be really good for us,” said Victor Franzoni, who concluded a late deal to race with Juncos Racing this season. “We already had a great result there in a test. And we tested together, so they know the setup for me. I think there, it will decide our championship! Here, was more to meet each other and start the work.”
“It is a big break,” added TJ Fischer, who delivered two-time defending champions Team Pelfrey both his and its first two podiums of 2017. “We don’t have Barber – which is somewhat unfortunate. But it makes every weekend more powerful, and means more in the championship. In the little break we have, we have one or two days of testing, so it’s about getting the rhythm down. From there you have to stay mentally in the game.”
NEWS AND NOTES
- In Indy Lights, keen-eyed observers will have spotted Urrutia’s No. 5 Belardi car with Arrow signage on the sidepods this weekend. Arrow Electronics is a sponsor of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ Verizon IndyCar Series program. The Uruguayan was gutted to have been taken out by Dalton Kellett in race one, but bounced back with second in race two.
- Kyle Kaiser had a respectable but not sterling weekend for Juncos Racing with finishes of sixth and fourth. Juncos was the only team of the five in Indy Lights that didn’t score at least one podium this weekend.
- Pato O’Ward did make the podium on Sunday, and fifth and third finishes were great for him at Team Pelfrey. The teenaged Mexican driver will be in action next at this weekend’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring with Performance Tech Motorsports in the PC class, where he looks for his second win after also winning at the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Regarding his Indy Lights future? “I have to work on more, but I’m optimistic you might see me in Barber,” he said.
- Kellett and Juan Piedrahita were unlucky to not convert top-five starting positions into results this weekend, as both series veterans were further up the grid than they had been previously.
- Meanwhile, quietly good weekends occurred for two other returning drivers in Shelby Blackstock (fourth and sixth) and Zachary Claman De Melo (eighth and seventh) in their first weekends with new teams of Belardi and Carlin, respectively. Ryan Norman also did well to score a pair of top-10s in his first weekend with Andretti.
- Neil Alberico’s run to third on Saturday was aided by a pre-race engine change, as Alberico has continued to bear the brunt of mechanical issues. He didn’t get a chance to repeat on Sunday, collected in a first-lap accident with Nico Jamin.
- A loss of power also stunted a potential podium run for Alberico’s teammate Matheus Leist in Sunday’s race, the young Brazilian having done well to come to grips early on in his first weekend.
- Pro Mazda not only saw Martin sweep, but the same podium in order in both races. Carlos Cunha (race one) and Sting Ray Robb (race two) were fourth, with Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin fifth in both races.
- After completing a late deal to race Pro Mazda with ArmsUp Motorsports in an old Kaiser-driven, Juncos chassis, Max Hanratty did well to end eighth and sixth in the two races. He’d missed qualifying for race two with a gearbox issue. The Gregg and Brent Borland-led ArmsUp group also bagged a solid seventh place in USF2000 race two, with Devin Wojcik.
- USF2000’s star beyond the winners was Dutch driver Rinus Van Kalmthout, or VeeKay as he’s been listed in promotional material this year. The Pabst driver scored a double podium finish with third in race one, and second in race two. “I’ve never felt so good at a race weekend,” he said.
- Cape, Pabst, Pelfrey, ArmsUp, John Cummiskey Racing and RJB Motorsports continued into 2017 with the new car, while new teams rounded out the grid in the form of DE Force Racing, Exclusive Autosport, Kaminsky Racing and Newman/Wachs Racing. Benik was a no-show with Kyle Kirkwood, who along with Askew and Exclusive’s Luke Gabin were part of Spencer Pigot’s winning team in Wednesday night’s Kart 4 Kids Pro/Am, an unfortunately - and hopefully briefly - sidelined Team USA Scholarship winner.
- Newman/Wachs Racing scored five top-10 finishes out of six shots this weekend, Dakota Dickerson with two sixths, Cameron Das with an eighth and a ninth and Andre Castro with one 10th. But it was an expensive and character-building weekend otherwise as Castro sustained three accidents, one in the race, and Das one in a preliminary session. You never want to see a team incur such a weekend but if a team was well-prepared to handle it, it would be NWR, given its previous ladder experience in Atlantic, its crew experience, and the seemingly ever-present smile on veteran PR rep Anne Roy’s face. If the racing gods took away from NWR on the streets of St. Pete, they should make up for it later this year.
- DE Force was quietly impressive in its series debut. Both Moises de la Vara and Kory Enders were in the front half of the field and Enders banked a solid P8 in race two for the Mexican-influenced team that features former driver and veteran driver coach David Martinez as part of its ownership structure.
- Seven drivers scored top-10s in both races: Askew, Van Kalmthout, Thompson, Dickerson, Das, 14-year-old Kaylen Frederick of Team Pelfrey who was fourth and fifth,and Guyana driver Calvin Ming, another Pabst driver.
- Former John Cummiskey Racing drivers Lucas Kohl and Ayla Agren had tough weekends in their new teams. Kohl was 12th and 11th, while Agren had a frustrating weekend where again she was unable to show her potential. JCR pressed on with sports car driver and open-wheel novice Kris Wright, who kept the car in one piece with two top-15 finishes.
The next round for the Indy Lights and USF2000 series is at Barber Motorsports Park in about a month and a half in April, while as mentioned, the Pro Mazda series is off until mid-May in Indianapolis.