Firestone Indy Lights – 2009 Season Review – Spring Races
A dedicated feeder series to the primary American Open-Wheel Racing series has been in existance in one form or another since 1986. The American Racing Series began in 1986 to serve as a development platform for CART, since the Formula Atlantics series which had been around since 1965 had failed to race in 1984, and existed as two separate series, a Pacific and an Atlantic series, from 1985 to 1990. In 1991, the same year that the split Formula Atlantics championship merged back into a single national series, the American Racing Series was renamed as the Dayton Indy Lights Series, a name it kept until 2001. In 2002, the Indy Racing League took over the sanctioning of the Indy Lights series and renamed it as the Menards Infinity Pro Series. The series was renamed again as both Menards and the Nissan’s Infinity brand elected not to renew their relationship with the series and it became simply the Indy Pro Series. In 2008 after the merger with the nearly bankrupt Champ Car World Series, the Indy Pro Series changed names one last time to become the Firestone Indy Lights Series as it is known today.
The history of this series is deep and listed amongst its champions are some of the great names in the recent history of the sport including Jon Beekhuis (now commentator for Versus), Paul Tracy, Eric Bachelart (now owner of Conquest Racing), Robbie Buhl (commentator for Versus and co-owner of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing), Bryan Herta, the late Greg Moore, Tony Kanaan, Cristiano Da Matta, Oriol Servia, and Scott Dixon. Recent champions include Jay Howard who will drive a part-time schedule for Sarah Fisher Racing in 2010, Alex Lloyd who has driven for Target Chip Ganassi Racing in the past two Indianapolis 500 Mile Races and will likely drive for Newman/Haas/Lanigan full-time next season, and Raphael “Rafa” Matos who drives full-time for Luczo-Dragon Racing.
The opening race at St. Petersburg saw 27 cars make the grid. This was a great beginning to the Firestone Indy Lights season, and sparked a lot of optimism for the series’ future. The St. Pete weekend was also the only double-header on the schedule, with all the other road course events being single-race weekends. The AFS/AGR team showed fantastic pace during qualifying with JR Hildebrand taking the pole position in Race 1 and Sebastian Saavedra taking pole in Race 2. Neither Andretti pilot would win this weekend, however. In both races, JR Hildebrand would suffer electrical issues that left him with a sluggish, underpowered car. Saavedra showed good speed in both races, but was never able to stay out front. In Race 1, Saavedra would end up classified last, in P26, after a mid-race retirement. In Race 2, Sebastian proved much racier, but could not take advantage of a late race restart to overtake the driver of the weekend, Junior Strous. Although he did not qualify especially well, Strous had two outstanding drives resulting in a clean sweep of the St. Petersburg weekend. Young American, Johnathon Summerton also had a good weekend at St. Pete finishing in P2 in Race 1 and P4 in Race 2. It was certainly a good way to start.
JR Hildebrand picked up right where he left off in St. Petersburg with regards to qualification, taking his second pole of the season in only the third race. The only question that remained was whether the AFS/AGR mechanics and engineers had located and solved their electrical issues that plauged the #26 machine in St. Pete. Junior Strous hopes for repeating his St. Pete performance went up in flames on only the second lap of the race. …literally.
“The car was good, but on the first lap, I started seeing errors on my dash,” [Strous] said. “Then, in Turn 8, the car started to bog down. I looked back and saw flames and parked it immediately. I have to give credit to the marshals, because they did a great job getting to car and helped limit the damage to the car. It sucks for sure. We had a bad weekend, but will back next week for sure, hopefully with more luck.” — FirestoneIndyLights.com
JR went on to a relatively easy victory with no real challenge from anyone else on the grid. Johnathon Summerton continued his solid performance in the series with yet another top-five finishing in P4. James Hinchcliffe also showed good consistency achieving back-to-back podium finishes.
The race at the Kansas Speedway was the first oval race of the season, and the first oval race ever for many of the drivers. Inexperience combined with some of the most trecherous conditions immaginable resulting in a hair-raising and accident filled race. The winds that day were 30 mph and gusty, which for aero-sensitive race machines makes for a challenging conditions as you’re ever going to see. There were many brilliant driving moments throughout the race, as drivers fought to keep their machines pointed straight. The “quick hands” award of the weekend has to go to Ana “Bia” Biatriz. While trying to overtake Sebastian Saavedra in Turn 4, her car got wicked loose, and it was absolutely remarkable that she didn’t end up in the wall. Others were not as fortunate as Bia. There were multiple crashes throughout the race including a seriously nasty accident as Ali Jackson lost his car in Turn 4 resulting in a multi-car incident that saw Sergey Mokshantsev hit the Safer Barrier helmet-side first and skid down the front stretch upside down. Fortunately, no serious injuries were suffered by any of the drivers in this incident or others that would follow. Serious penalties, however, were handed down to driver Sean Guthrie who flew at race speed by the safety crew on track as they were clearing up yet another Turn 4 incident. Guthrie was black flagged, a flag he ignored. Sean’s father and team owner became irate with race officials post-race as he and Sean launched in to a profanity-laced tirade. Both Sean and the Guthrie Racing team were banned from future competition. Overshadowed by all this was Sebastian Saavedra’s first victory in Firestone Indy Lights. This was not only his first FIL win, but also his first oval win coming in his first oval race.
I was fortunate enough to see this race with my wife and my father on Carburetion Day 2009. We now consider ourselves amongst the lucky few who were witness to one of the most epic races of all time! Wade Cunningham, winner of this event in 2006, won the pole during Thursday’s qualifying session, followed closely by Sebastian Saavedra, winner of the previous race at the Kansas Speedway. On the start, Ana “Bia” Beatriz, J.R. Hildebrand, and Jay Howard immediately joined in the fray, battling for position. The biggest mover of the race was Mario Romancini who moved from his starting position of 18th to 10th on the first lap, 8th on lap 2, 6th on lap 3, and eventually worked his way up to 2nd and battled Hildebrand for the lead for the better part of the last half of the race before finishing 3rd. There were nine lead changes over the 40-lap event between three drivers, Cunningham, Hildebrand, and Saavedra. With four laps to go, Saavedra made an attempt to pass his teammate Hildebrand for the lead, failed and fell back to fourth before eventually finishing fifth right behind Jay Howard. Wade Cunningham would end up crossing the bricks frist on the last lap becoming the first and so far only two-time winner of the Firestone Freedom 100.
Tomorrow: The Mid-Season Grind
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