By Amy Konrath
Today’s IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights headlines:
1. Wheldon showcases Mazda Road to Indy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway
2. Second suits Servia at Baltimore
3. Newgarden puts in championship performance in Baltimore:
4. Inside the numbers – Baltimore:
1. Wheldon showcases Mazda Road to Indy at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Dan Wheldon bounced and beamed like a child waiting to open their Christmas presents.
“Can I go out now? Are you guys ready? Can I go now?” he asked everyone in sight.
Though at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Wheldon wasn’t getting ready to race in the Indianapolis 500. He wasn’t even hopping into his own car, instead sliding into Spencer Pigot’s Cooper Tires presents the USF2000 National Championship powered by Mazda car and speeding down the road course.
He told the Andretti Autosport crew he was only going to run two laps to warm up the car. After 10 laps, it was clear the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion was having a good time.
Wheldon came out to the track to give media a taste of the cars of the Mazda Road to Indy, the developmental talent program of the IZOD IndyCar Series. The three-rung program consists of the Cooper Tires presents the USF2000 National Championship powered by Mazda, the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear and Firestone Indy Lights.
The program grew in exposure this past weekend, when all four series raced at the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix. As in the IZOD IndyCar Series, each step of the ladder has a championship that is awarded to the driver who accumulates the most points throughout the season. Whoever wins the championship gets a scholarship, sponsored by Mazda, to move up to the next series.
“For a couple of years there, there were so many different ladder systems,” Wheldon said. “What I think is great now is that they are embracing the ladder series system. It’s very definitive and you can bounce your way through the different levels.”
Wheldon climbed up his own form of a ladder system back in his development days, competing in the F2000 Series and Indy Lights before moving up to the big cars in 2002.
Pigot’s 2-liter car was most similar to what Wheldon drove in F2000, and he took it around the track at 1 minute, 31:49 seconds.
Team Pelfrey’s No. 11 car, which will be driven by current Star Mazda Championship contender Connor De Phillippi in his upcoming race, took to the track next. He bested the less powerful USF2000 car with a time of 1:29:19.
As the drivers move up the ladder, the cars increase in weight, power and size, giving the drivers an increasingly realistic experience the closer they get to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Wheldon noted that each rung adds something vital to the driver’s development.
“It would be no good to go from the USF2000 car straight to the Indy Lights car,” Wheldon said. “The Star Mazda car gives you the grounding of being able to adjust the traction control and settings, so it’s a great middle ground between the other two.”
Wheldon next hopped in the Firestone Indy Lights car of Belardi Auto Racing’s Anders Krohn. After posting a 1:25:38 lap time, Wheldon looked up and commented, “I liked that. I liked that a lot.”
“In the Indy Lights car, you start to feel the weight like the IndyCar,” he said. “That’s the most relevant feel that you get. It’s that big, kind of heavy car. Those other two, they’re training grounds and they’re stepping stones, but you can see why the Indy Lights car is that last rung before the big times.”
A full-fledged developmental system bodes well for the future of open-wheel racing in North America.
“From a team owner’s standpoint, it’s very clear who is very good and who isn’t because there’s not tons of different ladder systems nearest to the top,” Wheldon said. “For a driver, it’s good, too. My personal opinion is when I have great teammates that brings the best out in me. When you have a ladder system, the best of the best are in the same series, and you know if you compete well and you win you’re going to move up.
“I think for all intents and purposes, it’s what needs to be done. I hope that they will stick with this ladder series system for a long time because it works.”
2. Second suits Servia at Baltimore: This time, Oriol Servia was content with a runner-up finish.
Servia, who started 14th in the inaugural Baltimore Grand Prix, slipped to second place in the No. 2 Telemundo Newman/Haas Racing car on Lap 61 as the last of the lead pack cars peeled off for their final service stops.
Servia and third-place finisher Tony Kanaan pitted on Lap 43 during a full-course caution (Servia was 10th and Kanaan 11th in the running order) and stretched their 22 gallons of ethanol and Firestone Firehawk tires 32 laps on the 2.04-mile, 12-turn street circuit.
That contributed to neither being able to challenge eventual winner Will Power, but victories come in all sizes.
“Before (Power) came out of the pits (Lap 59), I knew I had to push because it was going to be close,” Servia said. “But I was looking at my fuel mileage, and that lap that I pushed him I used more fuel than I should have. The worst thing would be if I tried to push and then I come up short and lose fuel, so I was hoping for another yellow at the end to maybe get him. If not, I knew it was his race.”
It was Servia’s second runner-up finish of the season and fifth top five. Three weeks earlier at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, he was credited with second place following a protest regarding a late-race restart that went awry because of a rain-slicked racing surface. Of course, the result didn’t sit well with the racer who has 162 Indy car starts.
He advanced seven positions to finish 11th in the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma at Infineon Raceway on Aug. 28, and this result in the final street course race of the season buoyed his confidence and altered his countenance.
“We’re fourth in points and fighting for the podium every race, and there’s more to come,” he said. “We never gave up. I crashed in qualifying but we never gave up. The car was great and the strategy was even better. Newman/Haas always works hard and we are bringing Telemundo to the podium, which is great. I knew if I didn’t make any mistakes the podium was ours.”
Power’s victory sliced 21 points off fourth-place finisher and championship front-runner Dario Franchitti’s lead with three races remaining (one road course and a pair of 1.5-mile ovals). In the 18 road/street course races over the past two seasons, the Verizon Team Penske drivers has amassed 10 victories and has missed a top-five finish only three times.
“I gave it absolutely everything I had,” said Power, who also captured his series-leading seventh pole of the season and tied Johnny Rutherford for 12th on the all-time list in the process. “That was an unbelievable result; one of my best races ever. That’s exactly what we needed. We’re closing in (on Franchitti).”
He also took over the Mario Andretti Road Trophy lead heading to the final road course of the season at Twin Ring Motegi on Sept. 17.
3. Newgarden puts in championship performance in Baltimore: Josef Newgarden didn’t clinch the Firestone Indy Lights championship at Baltimore, but he may look back on his performance on the 2.04-mile street course on Sept. 4 as the reason why he claimed the Firestone Firehawk Cup as series champion.
“This was probably the best moment of the year,” said Newgarden, who went from 14th to second in the 35-lap Baltimore 100. “Certainly I’m pleased after what happened (in qualifying). It was difficult on me. I made mistakes yesterday and put ourselves in a very bad position for today. ”
But Newgarden used a combination of patience, pace and guile to finish .4500 of a second behind winner Gustavo Yacaman. Races like these are what make champions and Newgarden now needs to just finish 13th or better in the next race in Kentucky to sew up the 2011 Firestone Indy Lights title.
“A great race by Gustavo, he showed no mercy and definitely made no mistakes,” Newgarden said. “We’re focused on the championship. I would like to have another win for us but that is a great way to rebound after having a very tough time on Saturday. I was really disappointed with how qualifying went. To finish off the weekend like this can hopefully help us at the end of the year.”
While Newgarden was making the most of the race, his teammate and closest championship rival Esteban Guerrieri saw a great race turn sour when his No. 7 Lucas Oil/SSM car made contact with the inside wall in Turn 3 on Lap 28 while holding a 5-second advantage over Anders Krohn. Guerrieri was unable to continue and was classified 12th causing his slim championship hopes to fade even further. Newgarden now holds a nearly insurmountable 90 point lead over teammate Guerrieri heading into the penultimate race of the season in Kentucky. Stefan Wilson (-116), Gustavo Yacaman (-137) and Jorge Goncalvez (-188) round out the top-5 in championship points.
“I’m disappointed for Esteban but a great day for us, so we’re going to roll into the last couple of rounds and seal this championship in Kentucky,” Newgarden said.
4. Inside the numbers – Baltimore: Some numbers to note from the Baltimore Grand Prix at Streets of Baltimore, the 14th event of the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season.
1 – Lap led by Simona De Silvestro. It was her first lap led since she led four in her first IZOD IndyCar Series race at Sao Paulo in 2010.
3 – Points still separating Sunoco Rookie of the Year leader JR Hildebrand (258) and James Hinchcliffe (255).
5 – Points separating IZOD IndyCar Series point leader Dario Franchitti (507) and Will Power (502)
6 – Victories this season by Will Power, tying the IZOD IndyCar Series record shared by Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti hold the Indy car record with 10 wins.
6 – Consecutive races led by Will Power.
7 – Top-10 finishes in a row for Ryan Hunter-Reay, who finished eighth at Baltimore.
12 – Points advantage for Will Power over Dario Franchitti in the Mario Andretti Road Trophy chase with one event left.
24 – Positions gained by Tony Kanaan, who finished third, most of any driver in the field.
48 – Consecutive races running at the finish for Danica Patrick, extending her series record.
101 – Top-five finishes for Kanaan
105 – Top-five finishes for Franchitti, which is 10th on the all-time list.
141 – Laps led (of 150) by Power in the last two races. He led 70 of the 75 laps at Baltimore.
146 – Consecutive starts for Tony Kanaan.
1,840 – Laps completed (1,848) by Oriol Servia, most of any driver this season.
The next IZOD IndyCar Series event is the Indy Japan: The Final on Sept. 18 at Twin Ring Motegi. The race will be televised live at 11:30 p.m. (ET), Sept. 17 by VERSUS and broadcast by the IMS Radio Network. The next Firestone Indy Lights race is Kentucky 100 on Oct. 2 at the Kentucky Speedway. The race will be televised by VERSUS.