This coming Friday, May 24, perhaps could provide a turning point in the careers of a talented field of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers as they chase glory in the 17th Annual Freedom 100 Presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Such was certainly the case one year ago when a thrilling victory for 18-year-old Colton Herta provided the springboard toward a full-time ride in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Round Seven of this year’s title-chase marks the first of two oval events on the 18-race calendar and a chance to impress both a live television audience on NBCSN as well as a large and enthusiastic crowd who will gather at the famed Brickyard for the traditional “Carb Day” festivities. The day also features one last opportunity for the 33 qualified drivers in Sunday’s 103rd Indianapolis 500 to fine-tune their cars prior to the race.
No fewer than 23 drivers in the Indy 500 field cut their teeth in Indy Lights – including nine former Indy Lights champions – and the stakes are high with the series champion earning a guaranteed entry in three IndyCar events in 2020, including the 104th Indy 500.
The championship chase is finely poised with a trio of rookies making the early running. The latest in a long line of Flying Dutchmen, 18-year-old Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, currently holds a slender one-point advantage over rising American star Oliver Askew (Andretti Autosport), from Jupiter, Fla., after six races, with Askew’s teammate, Robert Megennis, not far behind in third.
VeeKay, who is mentored by fellow countryman and two-time Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, is coming off an emphatic victory in the most recent race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course. Askew has finished on the podium in five of the six races, including a pair of wins at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. His only blemish came in Round 2 on the streets of St. Petersburg, where a clash of wheels while disputing the lead with VeeKay ended in a heavy impact with the wall.
Megennis Tops Testing
Megennis, 19, from New York, N.Y., secured his first two podium finishes in Texas, then claimed a fine maiden victory during the first of two races at Indianapolis. Megennis maintained his momentum today on the 2.5-mile oval by posting the fastest lap, 45.5202 seconds, an average speed of 197.714 mph, after a total of more than three hours of testing.
“It is just so much fun racing here,” said Megennis. “Today was everything I expected it to be, and more. Running flat out, going 200 mph, being two, three, four-wide: you don’t get that anywhere else. I ran a bunch in traffic to get used to it: There’s such a big draft here and it was a blast. Andretti Autosport gave me such a great car and we prepared so well in advance that we barely changed anything. It’s not the most important thing, to get P1 in testing, but it’s still a nice way to finish off before we come back on Thursday. I can’t thank all my partners enough for getting me out here!”
VeeKay continued his consistent form by placing second on the speed charts in each of today’s sessions. His best lap at 45.5949 was mere 0.0747 shy of Megennis’ benchmark.
“It was really fun, really cool, especially the first lap that you’re all the way flat,” said VeeKay. “Amazing. These are very high speeds and the racing is so close – the teams are so competitive, and it makes for fun racing. You really feel the speed here, but it’s never quick enough, you always want to go faster. The team gave me a great car to be able to push. I spent some time in traffic today and really learned how the car will be on Thursday, based on our qualifying sims, so I think we’re ready! It’s such a special track, so hopefully this will be a memorable week.”
Also impressive today was Jarett Andretti aboard a fourth Andretti Autosport Dallara-AER IL-15. Andretti, 26, from Indianapolis, Ind., was fifth fastest on his first public outing in an Indy Lights car. The third-generation racer, whose father John raced 12 times at Indianapolis, will be making his Indy Lights debut this week, 50 years on from great-uncle Mario Andretti’s lone Indy 500 triumph.
“It’s hard to put into words exactly what this means,” said Andretti. “You take a glance at the Pagoda and you start to take it in. The only other time a track has hit me like that was in the 24 Hours of Daytona, when I saw the Ferris wheel at 3 a.m.! You have to take in those moments and really appreciate them. But this is totally different than any track I’ve ever been on. It was good to get the experience of running in traffic; getting better in that area will be one of the most important things. Now we’ll continue prep work, watch a lot of video and prepare as much as I can.”
Others to watch this week include Canadian Dalton Kellett (Juncos Racing), who took the pole position last year and has three consecutive podium finishes to his name at the hallowed Speedway; and USAC open-wheel star Chris Windom, from Canton, Ill., who was ninth fastest in today’s test and is due to make his long-awaited Indy Lights debut with Belardi Auto Racing.
Windom’s incredibly busy schedule this week will include the 64th Annual “Hoosier Hundred” USAC Silver Crown race at the Indianapolis State Fairgrounds on Thursday night, while on Friday, after completing the Freedom 100, he will head directly to nearby Lucas Oil Raceway for the traditional Dave Steele Carb Night Classic USAC Silver Crown race.
The drivers will be back on track Thursday, May 23, for 45 minutes of practice at 10:00 a.m. EDT, followed by single-car qualifying at 1:30 p.m. The race will start at 1:00 p.m. on Friday.
The Freedom 100 Presented by Cooper Tires will air live on NBCSN and live and on demand on NBC Sports Gold. Outside the U.S., the race will be live streamed globally on RoadToIndy.TV, the Road To Indy TV App and indylights.com.
This year’s race will see an increased prize package with a total of $85,000 awarded to the top-three finishers, including $50,000 to the winner. In addition, TSOLadder.com Presented by Cooper Tires – which provides dedicated coverage of the Road to Indy – will be posting a new award to the race leader at the white flag – the #TSO1ToGo Award.