VeeKay Claims Forceful Maiden Indy Lights Win on the St. Pete Streets
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay scored a dramatic first Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires victory this morning for Juncos Racing. VeeKay, who won last year’s Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, earning a scholarship to graduate to the top rung on the Road to Indy ladder system in 2019, made an aggressive pass on polesitter Oliver Askew on the first green-flag lap and never looked back.
Yesterday’s winner, Zachary Claman, from Montreal, Que., Canada, strengthened his early championship points lead with a second-place finish in the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires. Englishman Toby Sowery once again played a starring role aboard the distinctive yellow BN Racing/Team Pelfrey Dallara-AER IL-15 as he finished on the podium for the second straight day.
VeeKay’s victory makes him the eighth driver to win on all three levels of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, joining an exclusive club that comprises Matthew Brabham, Victor Franzoni, Jay Howard, Nico Jamin, Sage Karam, Spencer Pigot and Aaron Telitz. The 18-year-old from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, also extended his impressive record on the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg, where he is now six-for-six in terms of top-five finishes.
Fellow rookie Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., had been looking to continue his own fine record on his home circuit, having earned the pole position yesterday for Andretti Autosport to add to his race win en route to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship title in 2017 and another pole position last year in Indy Pro 2000. Sadly, after the initial attempt at a start had been waved off, a clash of wheels between Askew and VeeKay at Turn Two resulted in the polesitter’s car making heavy contact with the outside retaining wall. Askew, who finished a solid third yesterday, was unhurt but his championship aspirations took a severe hit.
VeeKay immediately set about extending his lead following a lengthy cleanup, romping clear of Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., who had qualified third for Andretti Autosport, to the tune of three seconds inside the first four laps of green-flag racing.
Megennis, Claman, Sowery and his BN Racing teammate David Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., plus Frenchman Julien Falchero (Belardi Auto Racing) and Ryan Norman (Andretti Autosport), from Aurora, Ohio, ran in tight formation during the opening stages until Claman finally prized open the defenses of 2017 USF2000 race winner Megennis. Claman made a bold move around the outside in Turn One, then inched ahead for good as the pair accelerated toward Turn Two. Unfortunately for Megennis, the loss of momentum caused him to fall all the way from second to fifth, with Malukas also managing to find a way past Sowery for third.
Over the course of the next 10 laps, all of the top six drivers took turns at posting a new fastest lap of the race thus far. The remarkable parity among the leading contenders meant that VeeKay’s lead was never under serious threat.
Behind, though, after hounding Malukas relentlessly, Sowery took the bit between his teeth on Lap 25. Taking advantage of his AER turbo engine’s 50 additional horsepower from the push-to-pass system, Sowery dived to the inside of his teammate in Turn One to take over third place.
Sowery then rapidly closed down a 3.2-second deficit to Claman, but just as he sized up an opportunity to make another pass in Turn One, the yellow flags flew after Megennis’ strong run ended against the wall in Turn 10.
The final four-lap run to the finish was largely uneventful. VeeKay drove conservatively to take the victory by 0.6328 of a second over Claman, while Sowery narrowly held off Malukas for third. Impressively, BN Racing has taken the early lead in the Indy Lights Team Championship, and has finished on the podium in its very first season of competition on all three levels of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.
A charging Falchero took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award after climbing from eighth on the grid to fifth.
Claman’s pair of top-two finishes assures him of a nine-point edge over VeeKay, 57-48, with Sowery just one more point adrift as the Indy Lights series heads next to its first-ever races at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas, in two weeks’ time.
Rinus VeeKay (#21 Mazda/Jumbo Supermarkets/La Place Restaurants/KNAF Talent First-Juncos Racing Dallara-AER IL-15): “To take a win in our first weekend gives me a lot of confidence. I’ve struggled a bit getting comfortable with all the torque behind me among the walls, but the team has worked hard to figure everything out. I knew I could go way deeper going into Turn One at the start because I was in the clean line, so I went super-deep and was next to Oliver but we both ran out of road. I didn’t want to take too much curb in Turn Two because I knew I could bounce off and that could end up bad for both of us, and I thought we had enough space. I feel sorry for Oliver but I was happy to come out with the lead. The last few laps were quite tough, lots of looking in my mirrors because I knew Zach had full push-to-pass. But this is a great way to start the season for myself and my supporters, including Mazda Motorsports.”
Zachary Claman (#13 Zoological Wildlife Foundation/Abe & Mary’s/Paysafe/UPS-Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-AER IL-15): “The goal was to win both races and leave here with the points lead, so I’m happy to have the latter, but disappointed to not get the win today. I was like a kid in a candy shop near the end, because I had plenty of push-to-pass left and I was going to use them to get by Rinus, but he did a good job to keep me back there. I had a few big moments through Turn Four and almost lost it, but I gave it everything I had. I haven’t raced since Toronto (in 2018) and haven’t done much testing, so as the season goes on, I’ll get better and I’ll learn how to manage the tires better.”
Toby Sowery (#2 Gap Guard/Rich Energy-BN Racing/Team Pelfrey Dallara-AER IL-15): “It was a fun battle with my teammate. I honestly didn’t see him when we both went around Robert, so was surprised to see it was David alongside me going into Turn Four. It was a fantastic move on his part, especially on a street circuit. I left him enough space because I might not be here for the entire championship and he is, so I’m not going to affect that. I’m proud of the team’s performance this weekend. The other teams have been here before in this car and we haven’t, so it was a learning curve for all of us. For us to get two podiums, and to have David fighting for a podium as well, it’s great for the team. They’ve done a fantastic job, it’s been a pretty nice weekend.”
About the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires: The Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is one of the most successful driver development programs in the world. Comprised of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the ladder system provides a unique, scholarship-funded path to the NTT IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500. The NTT IndyCar Series grid is comprised of numerous drivers who have come through the Road to Indy. In 2018, 25 of the 33 starters in the Indianapolis 500 were graduates including the past five Indy Lights champions. The mission of the Road to Indy is to develop and advance, and that includes not only drivers but teams and personnel as well. More information can be found at www.roadtoindy.info, www.indylights.com, www.indypro2000.com, www.usf2000.com, www.roadtoindy.tv and www.indycar.com.
About Cooper Tire & Rubber Company: Cooper Tire & Rubber Company is the parent company of a global family of companies that specializes in the design, manufacture, marketing and sale of innovative, great-performing tires that you can count on to last for thousands of miles, getting you where you need to go, and back again. Cooper is proud to be the spec tire for all three levels of the Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, a development program within the NTT IndyCar Series. Cooper tires can also be seen on the track in rally, rallycross and short course off-road racing. Headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, Cooper, with its subsidiaries, has manufacturing, sales, distribution, technical and design operations in more than one dozen countries around the world. Connect with Cooper on Twitter and Instagram by following @TeamCooperTire or visit our website at www.coopertire.com.