MRTI OBSERVATIONS: Freedom Friday
One of the long standing traditions for the Mazda Road to Indy has been Freedom Friday, and it’s such a great feeling to see it back in full force for 2018.
As they have, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers kicked it off with the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Certainly there are concerns in seeing only eight entries for the highest rung of the ladder system, but that didn’t stop them from putting on a show. The fact the event featured 22 lead changes in 40 laps says it all as the drivers traded positions every single lap around the famed track.
Colton Herta was one of those in the thick of the action from the start, and made the right moves at the end of the event to score the win, marking a perfect sweep of Indianapolis as he won both events on the road course a couple weeks ago. If you can have success like that, you’re going to catch the attention of the team owners in the Verizon IndyCar Series – and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Andretti Autosport move him up next season.
The second-generation racer spoke of those wishes pre-season with Popular Open Wheel, not shedding away from wanting to accomplish that one day. He actually made mention that being able to win the Indy Lights championship this year and get the scholarship, which is equal to four events including the Indianapolis 500, would take a lot of weight off of his shoulders.
“I think the Steinbrenners want to move up to IndyCar in the next few years, and this would be a huge boost because we get the million dollars,” he said. “It would make things a lot smoother and cheaper as well.”
His teammate Pato O’Ward didn’t make the victory easy by the longest stretch of the imagination, though, as he was right there with him through the second half of the Freedom 100. If not for washing out a little to start the final lap, and a couple other ill-timed moves, it may have been his time to shine instead.
With this event in the books, that normally has completed the day for Mazda Road to Indy action on Friday. However, this year marked the return of both the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Presented by Cooper Tires returning to Lucas Oil Raceway for their respective races. It was certainly a welcome return as both races delivered in action, and proved to be good learning experiences as these drivers look to race in IndyCar one day.
The USF2000 Freedom 75 was all Kyle Kirkwood as there was no catching him, even with a couple of restarts near the back half of the event. It’s a sight that we’ve grown used to in 2018 as he has been fast, winning three races in five series starts. It wouldn’t be the first time the driver who won the Mazda Shootout to enter the series won the championship that year, as Oliver Askew accomplished that feat last year.
Unfortunately, the race didn’t go as planned for some others, including Alex Baron who sustained significant contact with the turn three wall after contact with a lap car. It continues his bad luck this year as while he has two wins, he now has two DNFs to his name in five events.
Meanwhile, the Pro Mazda Freedom 90 saw a closer finish between the top-two. Parker Thompson took the early lead, and set his sights on dominating the event as he left the pack behind. However, stuck in lap traffic, it allowed Carlos Cunha to close the gap and at least keep him honest by making a move on the final lap of the event.
For being Exclusive Autosport’s first year of Pro Mazda competition, they seem to have it down to a science with three victories to date. This shouldn’t surprise, though, based on Thompson’s track record in USF2000 over the past three years. It also doesn’t hurt that they have good chemistry there, either.
“I think the chemistry has been fantastic,” Thompson said. “The chemistry was there last year. I love the team that I race for. The crew is built around me by Mike Duncalfe and his family. Mike and Kimberly are a fantastic family in itself and they’ve brought a family atmosphere to the race team. We’re not the largest race team on the Mazda Road to Indy, but we’re definitely the tightest.”
The Mazda Road to Indy drivers will get a break as their next race is not for another month – which only brings sad faces to fans as so far this year, the junior ladders of open-wheel have been entertaining and it’ll be fun to see these drivers move up the ranks.
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