ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Matheus Leist is on a roll just now in Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the final rung on the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder. Coming off his maiden victory in the Freedom 100 last month at Indianapolis, the Brazilian rookie qualified on pole for this afternoon’s Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Allied Building Products, then led from flag to flag to win handsomely on his first visit to the high-speed 4.014-mile Road America circuit in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Fellow South American Santi Urrutia, from Miguelete, Uruguay, who won one of the two races last year at Road America, finished a distant second for Belardi Auto Racing, merely inches ahead of championship leader Kyle Kaiser, from Santa Clara, Calif., for Juncos Racing.
The closest anyone got to challenging Leist for the race win was at Turn One, when a flying start – plus the benefit of a big draft on the long, mainly uphill front straightaway – enabled Ryan Norman, who started a career-best third for Andretti Autosport, to tow past front row qualifier Neil Alberico and, momentarily, challenge Leist for the top spot. Leist managed to fend off the attack but Alberico wasn’t quite so fortunate. The front wing of Alberico’s Carlin Dallara-Mazda IL-15 made minor contact with the rear of Norman’s car, causing him to plummet to ninth by the completion of the opening lap.
While Leist took off into the lead and Norman slotted into second, Kaiser, who started fourth, was glued to Norman’s rear wing as the leaders sped past the pits for the first time. Right behind them, remarkably, was Urrutia, who had lined up only 10th on the grid after encountering some mechanical difficulties in qualifying.
Kaiser took advantage of the draft to draw alongside Norman on the downhill run to Turn Five... only for Urrutia to do the same, then leave his braking until absolutely the last moment as he dived inside BOTH of his rivals to claim second place. It was a brilliant maneuver that left the crowd on its feet!
The in-fighting played right into the hands of Leist, however, who set a fast, consistent pace at the front and soon began to stretch out an appreciable margin over his rivals. The gap grew to almost three seconds after five laps as he eased away to a well-controlled victory. Leist’s eventual winning margin was 6.1667 seconds.
Kaiser and Norman continued to battle over third place, exchanging positions a couple of times before a mistake on Lap Six saw Norman run wide onto the grass in Turn Three. The excursion cost him three positions and allowed Kaiser back up into third. The Californian then closed rapidly on Urrutia, setting the fastest lap of the race on Lap Eight at a new record 1:54.4115 (126.302 mph). It wasn’t long before the two cars were together again, but Urrutia defended staunchly and even though Kaiser carried a lot of speed out of the final corner on the final lap and drafted up underneath Urrutia’s rear wing as they sped up the hill, the Uruguayan remained narrowly ahead at the finish to claim his second runner-up finish from the last three races. Urrutia also claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Norman capped an impressive drive by fighting back from his earlier error and overtaking both Dalton Kellett, who later slipped back down the order, and the Canadian’s Andretti Autosport teammate Nico Jamin to claim a season-best fourth. Norman also earned the Staubli Award.
Colombian Juan Piedrahita, in his 50th Indy Lights start, also drove well for Team Pelfrey, turning some extremely fast laps as he chased Norman to the finish line. Jamin followed in sixth ahead of Alberico. Notably, every one of the 14 starters turned a lap within 0.75 seconds of Kaiser’s new benchmark fastest lap.
Matheus Leist (#26 TMA-Carlin): “Sometimes it’s difficult to be out in front like that, to keep your focus for so long. But the team kept me updated on the pace and the gap so I just kept that up. It was a long race – it wasn’t that many laps, but when you’re on your own on such a long race track, it seems long. I was on my own while the guys behind me were fighting for position and that helped me. I pushed very hard early and then worked to control the gap. It’s great to get wins now – I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together. Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum!”