ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Zach Veach has developed quite an affinity for the state of Wisconsin. Almost two years on from his most recent race win – at the historic Milwaukee Mile oval – the 21-year-old from Stockdale, Ohio, bounced back to prominence today at Elkhart Lake’s equally renowned Road America circuit by scoring an emphatic victory in the Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Cooper Tires.
Veach qualified his Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15 squarely on the pole, then led from flag to flag in the 40-minute, 20-lap race around the challenging 4.048-mile road course. England’s Dean Stoneman, driving for Andretti Autosport, and Carlin’s Felix Serralles, from Ponce, Puerto Rico, rounded out the podium.
Indy Lights’ eagerly awaited return to rural Wisconsin following a 25-year hiatus was witnessed by a huge crowd basking in warm sunshine. Veach made hay in the early stages while the remainder of the field fought for every inch of real estate in his mirrors. Points leader Ed Jones (Carlin) drafted past front row qualifier Santi Urrutia (Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian) on the run toward Turn One, but worse was to come for the winner of the 2015 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires when Urrutia found himself squeezed over the curbs at Turn Five by Stoneman. Urrutia resumed in ninth, while Stoneman continued his charge by displacing Jones with an audacious pass on the uphill run toward Turn 13 on Lap Two.
Brazilian Andre Negrao (Schmidt Peterson) also was in the midst of the thrilling battle for second. Jones managed to regain the position with a fine move into Turn One on the third lap, whereupon Negrao’s attempt to overtake Stoneman under braking for Turn Five resulted in him being unceremoniously edged out onto the curb. An aggrieved Negrao resumed in 10th, while Stoneman was assessed a five-second penalty by the race stewards for his part in the incident.
The shuffling continued as Stoneman once again overtook Jones, this time on the approach to Canada Corner on Lap Seven. By then Veach’s advantage had grown to more than five seconds, although that was negated after seven laps when the full-course caution flags flew following a spin by Dalton Kellett at the exit of Canada Corner.
The interruption proved to be but a minor inconvenience to Veach, who again romped clear at the restart to become the seventh different winner in nine races in this year’s Indy Lights Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. Stoneman couldn’t match the leader’s pace but did enough to retain second place – and pull out a sufficient margin over his pursuers to overcome his five-second penalty.
Serralles managed to find a way past Carlin teammate Jones to complete the podium, while Jones struggled with a broken front wing yet still managed to maintain fourth at the checkered flag.
Urrutia crossed the line in fifth but he, too, had been assessed a five-second penalty following contact with Juan Piedrahita (Team Pelfrey) in Turn Five which resulted in a spin for the Colombian and relegated him to ninth. Canadian rookie Zachary Claman De Melo inherited the position for Juncos Racing, but it was no more than he deserved after posting an impressive fastest race lap, at an average speed of 115.4403 mph, with just two laps remaining.
Zach Veach (#5 Belardi Auto Racing): “I have to say, 2016 has been quite a learning experience with the new car having come so close to winning the championship two years ago in the old car. I’ve had to completely change everything except the tracks I’m driving on, so I’m happy to finally turn it around. I was trying to build a gap early on, so I got a little worried when the second yellow came out. I was pretty comfortable, I thought I’d be able to drive it home from there. I’m really happy to be at Road America; I love this place. I raced here with USF2000 so I have to thank the Mazda Road to Indy for that.”