ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Zachary Claman this afternoon displayed the wisdom of his decision to step back to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires by scoring an accomplished victory for Belardi Auto Racing in the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires. After campaigning a partial season in last year’s NTT IndyCar Series, Claman, 20, from Montreal, Que., Canada, qualified on pole position for today’s season-opener and proceeded to lead the 35-lap race from start to finish.
Toby Sowery, from Cambridge, England, finished a remarkable second on his debut for BN Racing/Team Pelfrey, despite only being offered the drive a little more than one week ago. Fellow rookie Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., was equally delighted to complete the podium on his debut with Andretti Autosport.
Perfect weather conditions greeted the top rung of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder as the cars lined up in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in downtown St. Petersburg.
Claman, who previously had one Indy Lights victory to his name, at Road America in 2017, left no doubt at the rolling start that he fully intended to find his way back to Victory Lane at the earliest opportunity. The Canadian led the nicely controlled field into the notoriously tricky Turn One, fending off outside front row starter Sowery with ease, while Askew tucked neatly into third place. Behind, last year’s winner of the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), jumped impressively from sixth on the grid to fourth, only to give up one of those hard-earned positions on the next lap to fourth-place qualifier David Malukas (BN Racing), from Chicago, Ill.
The two leaders, Claman and Sowery, quickly eked out a little breathing space over Askew, who in turn was more concerned about the challenge being mounted from behind by Malukas in the early stages.
A series of quick laps from Claman saw the gap from first to second increase to almost two seconds by Lap Seven. Sowery edged a little closer by virtue of setting new fastest laps on three of the next four circuits, only for Claman to hit back again with what would remain as the quickest lap of the race, a 1:06.4240, on Lap 13.
The leader’s advantage grew to as much as 2.6 seconds on Lap 19, but Sowery wasn’t done yet. The Englishman, who finished second in his only two Indy Pro 2000 starts last year at Road America, had been careful to preserve the energy in his Cooper tires, and closed little by little on Claman before crossing the finish line just 0.7271 of a second in arrears.
Askew began to tire a little in the closing stages of what was the longest race of his career thus far, but still held on for a fine third after edging steadily away from Malukas as the contest progressed.
Fellow rookie VeeKay, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, finished fifth to secure the first Tilton Hard Charger Award of the new season.
A separate qualifying session earlier this morning saw Askew post the fastest time to secure the all-important pole position for Race Two tomorrow, which is scheduled to start at 10:05 a.m. EDT. Coverage can be found live and on-demand on NBC Sports Gold in the U.S., with international streaming available on the Road To Indy TV App, RoadToIndy.TV and indylights.com.
Zachary Claman (#13 Zoological Wildlife Foundation/Abe & Mary’s/Paysafe/UPS-Belardi Auto Racing Dallara-AER IL-15): “That was a great welcome-back party. I’m really happy for Belardi. I know last year didn’t always go their way so I’m happy to get the win for them. We pushed really hard in the beginning, so the car dropped off a bit toward the end. Toby was right there, and in his first street race, so he’ll be one to keep an eye on. I was happy to take the checkered flag but my immediate thought was how to make it two-for-two tomorrow.”
Toby Sowery (#2 Gap Guard/Rich Energy-BN Racing/Team Pelfrey Dallara-AER IL-15): “That was good fun. It was longer than I expected, especially on a track like this, but I enjoyed every lap. It’s good hunting someone down because you have a reference being behind them, but he disappeared quite early. I lifted to try to maintain the tires and push toward the end, since it looked as though he was pushing a lot harder. I was hoping he would run out near the end and he almost did.”
Oliver Askew (#28 Index Invest Dallara-Andretti Autosport Dallara-AER IL-15): “A podium was the goal. I was happy to get through cleanly, because this track can really take away points, but I didn’t have much for the guys at the end. We had a good day today – P3 in the race and pole for tomorrow’s race, so I think we made a statement today and we plan to keep the momentum going into the future.”