Mazda Road to Indy Drivers Head to the Ovals for “Freedom Friday”
 May 22, 2018| 
  • Series News
LOR USF 2018 Advance Web

USF2000 Returns to an Oval Following a One-Year Gap

SPEEDWAY, Ind. – Memorial Day weekend is steeped in tradition, especially in Indianapolis where the annual federal holiday held in remembrance of the people who died while serving in the country’s armed forces coincides with the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” – the Indianapolis 500.

The Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – a unique open-wheel development ladder which offers scholarship-funded opportunities for drivers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Indy 500 – pays its own tribute to this nation’s history with the biggest event of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, the Freedom 100, taking place on Friday, May 25, as part of the regular Carb Day activities which include one final practice session for the 33 starters prior to Sunday’s 102nd Indianapolis 500.

In addition, the first two rungs on the ladder, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, will see action in the respective Freedom 75 and Freedom 90 events at Lucas Oil Raceway, in nearby Brownsburg, Ind., on Friday evening.

For all three series, this will mark the first oval-track race of the season. A little extra significance will stem from the fact that 50 percent more championship points will be available in comparison to the regular road and street circuit events.

A new challenge will face almost the entire field of Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda drivers this week when they head to Lucas Oil Raceway for Round Five of the 14-race season. The daunting 0.686-mile oval returns to the schedule following a one-year hiatus, with series rookie Kyle Kirkwood (Cape Motorsports) currently holding a 13-point margin over Alex Baron (Swan-RJB Motorsports) in the quest for a $325,000 Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship to move up to Pro Mazda in 2019.

“The Capes and I just had our first test together around an oval at Memphis International Raceway,” said Kirkwood, 19, from Jupiter, Fla. “I’d have to say, it was extremely enjoyable! Being honest, I’ve never been a huge fan of oval racing but, after my first test, my view on it has completely changed.

“I don’t have much expectations going into Lucas Oil Raceway Park because I only have two days around an oval,” he continued. “Fortunately, [2017 USF2000 champion and close friend] Oliver [Askew] tested around there last year [for the Cape team] so I’m sure we have a good baseline setup to start with. With 20-plus cars in the field, I know there will be traffic during the 75-lap race, so I’m sure a lot of the race we will be fighting to get around traffic quickly. This is a huge race for the championship with the added points, so staying clean is very important.”

Baron, 23, who carries joint French and British citizenship, is one of only two drivers in the field with any significant previous oval experience, although in his case it came at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2014, when he finished seventh in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race. Baron spent almost three years away from the sport before rekindling his career while making three USF2000 starts in 2017.

Brazilian Lucas Kohl (Pabst Racing) is alone among the field in having driven a USF2000 car at Lucas Oil Raceway. Kohl finished 10th in the 2016 edition of the Freedom 75 – albeit aboard one of the older Elan/Van Diemen cars which have since been superseded by the vastly superior Tatuus-Mazda USF-17.

Exemplifying the competitiveness of this year’s USF2000 title-chase, no fewer than 19 drivers already have recorded at least one top-10 finish. In addition to Kirkwood and Baron, who each have two race wins under their belts, Mexico’s Jose Sierra (DEForce Racing), Japanese-born Brazilian Igor Fraga (Exclusive Autosport), Florida’s Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), Kohl and Swedish rookie Rasmus Lindh (Pabst Racing) also have made a podium appearance.

Preparations for the 75-lap Cooper Tires Freedom 75 will commence with 90 minutes of testing on Thursday, May 24, followed by a one-hour official practice session starting at 5:45 p.m. EDT. Single-car qualifying will take place at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, with the green flag set for 6:05 p.m.

Indy Lights Champs Newgarden, Kaiser, Karam Headline MRTI Oval Clinic

The first oval race of the season – and for the vast majority of Pro Mazda and USF2000 drivers their very first oval race – will be preceded by a special Oval Clinic hosted by the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires on Thursday morning. The two-hour introduction to oval racing will feature input from reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden and fellow MRTI graduates Kyle Kaiser, winner of last year’s Indy Lights championship, and former USF2000 and Indy Lights champion Sage Karam, who yesterday posted the fastest lap during the first post-qualifying practice session. The trio will be joined by Pro Mazda Chief Steward and five-time Indy 500 starter Johnny Unser, plus Lucas Oil School of Racing instructor Gerardo Bonilla, in offering advice based upon their wealth of experience.

Coverage of all three races can be found on a series of platforms including Road to Indy TV, the Road to Indy TV App and dedicated broadcast channels on demand via Apple TV, Amazon Fire and Roku and, most recently, the Xbox One Official App as well as live streaming and live timing on the series’ respective websites andindycar.com. Indy Lights is also featured on the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network broadcasts on Sirius 214, XM 209, IndyCar.com, indycarradio.com and on the INDYCAR Mobile app.

The Freedom 100 Indy Lights race will be broadcast live on NBCSN, beginning at 12:10 p.m. EDT on Friday.

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