ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – Colton Herta is on a roll. Despite qualifying only third for today’s Mazda Indy Lights Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Cooper Tires, the 18-year-old second-generation racer from Valencia, Calif., charged quickly to the front for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing before streaking to a well-judged fourth successive victory. Herta thereby strengthened his points lead in the quest for an Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship and a Mazda Scholarship valued at $1 million to ensure entry into at least three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2019, including the 103rd Indianapolis 500.
Andretti Autosport teammate Patricio O’Ward challenged Herta in the middle stages before slipping back to finish a relatively comfortable second. Polesitter Victor Franzoni finished third for Juncos Racing.
Warm sunshine and a cloudless sky greeted the Indy Lights drivers early this afternoon in rural Wisconsin, in stark contrast to the cool, overcast conditions they experienced yesterday during qualifying. The change in weather brought changes in fortune, too.
Franzoni, 22, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, was the class of the field in qualifying. Last year’s winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires followed up his impressive speed from the series’ open test one week earlier on the challenging 4.014-mile Road America circuit by securing his first pole position in Indy Lights.
Today was a different story.
Franzoni made a good start to lead into Turn One, but eyes almost immediately were on Herta as he sliced past front row qualifier Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) for second place as the leaders headed into Turn Six on the opening lap. Urrutia duly slotted into third, while O’Ward and Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing) squabbled over fourth and fifth. It was Telitz who made the early jump, but the Wisconsin native held his advantage only as far as Turn Five, where O’Ward made an aggressive inside pass to reclaim the position.
Up front, Herta lost no time in putting the pressure on Franzoni. The Brazilian clung on as best he could for the first five laps but was clearly fighting a losing battle. Herta’s car was working perfectly. Sure enough, next time around, Herta got the jump on Franzoni as they raced side-by-side down the long straightaway leading toward Turn Five, then cemented the pass under braking.
But instead of having things his own way, all of a sudden Herta began to come under pressure from O’Ward, who, after finding his way past Urrutia on the run toward Turn Five, took advantage of a slight mistake by Franzoni in Turn Seven to elevate himself into second.
O’Ward harried Herta for several laps before, on Lap 12, he ran a little wide on the exit of Turn Five. Fearing he might have damaged his tires, O’Ward settled into a more comfortable pace and allowed Herta to speed away to the victory.
The young Californian finally took the checkered flag 3.7061 seconds clear of O’Ward to secure his fourth successive victory and his second Tilton Hard Charger Award of the season.
Franzoni followed O’Ward for his third podium finish of the season, with Urrutia in fourth, just ahead of teammate Telitz.
Colton Herta (#98 Andretti Steinbrenner Racing Curb Mazda Dallara-Mazda IL-15): “Getting the win today is massive. I didn’t really expect to win four in a row going into the month of May, but I knew we had the car to win and it was just about maximizing that. I guess these not-so-great qualifying sessions have really set us up for the race. We seem to do well when we’re not on pole. The key was holding onto the tires because there’s a lot of degradation here, but we were super quick at the end. The car was amazing, even in the heat. With the hot day and the pressure that’s put on me, it’s tough. It’s so rewarding to be able to relax once it’s done.
“But it’s a bit of a balance with the championship. We’re only halfway through the season and coming into this race, it was only a six-point gap but you have to take risks. You still have to win races to win the championship.”
Patricio “Pato” O’Ward (#27 Riverina CDMX Mexico City Mazda-Andretti Autosport Dallara-Mazda IL-15): “I was just trying to take the positions one by one. I got by Santi, then Victor made a mistake and I got by. I tried to get by Colton, and I had a couple of shots at it, but I don’t think I was close enough out of Turn Three to get in front of him. I was counting the push-to-passes that I had left and I thought I had more, but I didn’t. I picked up some rocks when I went onto the rumble strips in Turn Five and the car started acting funky, so I backed off. But I’m happy. The team did a great job and Colton drove an awesome race. We’re starting from pole tomorrow so we’ll be going for the win.”
Victor Franzoni (#23 Mazda Motorsports-Juncos Racing Dallara-Mazda IL-15): ““We were super strong in spots, but the race didn’t go as we expected. We didn’t have the pace that Colton and Pato had, and I made some mistakes that cost us a position but it was a good learning experience. We’ll change some things for tomorrow and be stronger.
“I would like to thank everyone at the Mazda Road to Indy for what they’re doing for Jeff [Green], and for me and my team this weekend. Jeff was an amazing guy and a huge friend. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have been in Pro Mazda last year and I wouldn’t be in Indy Lights now. I wouldn’t have any testing this year, I would just be racing. He helped me so much last year – he wanted to test, but in the end, I ended up driving even more than he did. He gave me his engine at Mid-Ohio when I had problems. He did everything for me to win and it’s so sad that we lost him.”