WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – The battle to win a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1M to assist the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion in graduating to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2017 intensified this afternoon during a dramatic Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Watkins Glen Presented by Cooper Tires. Zach Veach, from Stockdale, Ohio, started fifth at the scenic and challenging 3.37-mile Watkins Glen International road course but quickly moved into the lead before romping to his second win of the season and the fifth for Belardi Auto Racing.
Dubai-based Englishman Ed Jones finished just over 3.6 seconds back in second place for the Carlin team, while Brazilian Andre Negrao maintained his recent run of form by claiming a fourth consecutive podium finish for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian.
Negrao’s teammate and series leader, Santiago “Santi” Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, padded his advantage to 17 points over Jones by virtue of posting the fastest lap during qualifying, but his hopes of extending that lead still further began to evaporate early.
Veach vaulted to second at the first corner, then grasped the lead from Urrutia just a few corners later at the Inner Loop. Urrutia stayed in touch for a few laps while holding off the attentions of Jones, Negrao and Kyle Kaiser (Juncos Racing).
Farther back, a first-lap incident between Felix Serralles (Carlin) and Zachary Claman De Melo (Juncos Racing) resulted in pit stops for both – Serralles to change a punctured left-rear tire and De Melo for a new front wing.
By the half-distance mark in the 25-lap race, Veach had extended his lead over Urrutia to over five seconds. Urrutia was clearly struggling, and several times telltale puffs of smoke emanated from his left-front tire as he locked up under braking.
On Lap 15, Jones finally found a way past Urrutia at the Inner Loop for second place. Within another couple of laps, Urrutia had fallen to fifth, but worse was to come when his left-front tire gave up the ghost on Lap 19 and he headed to pit lane for a replacement. He rejoined to finish a distant last.
Veach drove a beautifully measured race in the lead, extending his margin to more than seven seconds before easing his pace and taking the checkered flag 3.6268 seconds ahead of Jones.
Negrao remained hot on Jones’ heels in third, with Kaiser not too far back in fourth to keep his own championship aspirations alive.
Another title hopeful, Englishman Dean Stoneman (Andretti Autosport), ran sixth for much of the race before also requiring a tire change and falling to 10th.
Carlin’s Neil Alberico managed his tires impressively to move steadily up the order, rising from 12th on the grid to fifth ahead of Shelby Blackstock (Andretti Autosport) and Serralles, who was frequently the fastest man on track as he recovered to finish seventh.
Urrutia still holds the championship lead as the protagonists head west to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for next weekend’s double-header finale, but his advantage is now just a solitary point, 319-318 over Jones.
Stoneman, who set the fastest race lap following his tire change, remains third in the points chase, 23 adrift of Urrutia, while Veach has now vaulted to fourth on 288 ahead of Serralles on 281 and Kaiser on 279.
In the Team Championship, 11 points separate Carlin from Schmidt Peterson Motorsports w/ Curb-Agajanian, 365 to 354.
Zach Veach (#5 Belardi Auto Racing): “I saw an opportunity and I had to take it. I noticed that the inside lane was moving faster at the start so I knew I would be in a good position. When I found myself beside Negrao going into Turn One, I thought I had a chance. I had to get off the corner well and get into Santi’s draft and I did just that. We knew how fast Santi was and I wasn’t sure I had the car to match him, so my goal was to get around him and lead as many laps as I could. My pace stayed the same and I saw him dropping off and then disappear, so I had to work on keeping the gap and just keep going.
“It’s so emotional. This is one of my happiest wins. In all my previous wins, we’ve been fast all weekend and here, we had clutch problems in qualifying, then had a starter problem just before the race and we had to come from fifth to win. I pushed hard to build up a gap and I managed my Cooper tires to the end.”
Ed Jones (#11 Jebel Ali Resorts and Hotels – Carlin): “At the start I went to the outside, which didn’t quite work out, and I fell back a few places. I just sat behind Santi a little bit, because when I was using ‘push-to-pass,’ he was using it as well but eventually I got by. After about 10 laps, the degradation was really high on the tires already and I expected it to get much worse but after that, if anything, it got a little better.”
Santi Urrutia (#55 Mazda/SPM with Curb-Agajanian): “For sure, it is a little bit disappointing after taking the pole position. We started the race thinking we should win. The car was really fast, but we had a problem on the first lap with understeer. It was really strange. And then I was working with the tires and driving really slow, especially on the right-hand corners, but it is what it is. Today we lost but we are still leading the championship by one point. Everything is going to finish at Mazda Raceway next week so we are going to go with the same mindset that we came here and that is to win, so we are going to go for pole position and to win both races.”