MRTI – Night Before the 500 As Seen From the Grassy Knoll

Yes, I was the lone shooter on the grassy knoll Saturday night at the Lucas Oil Raceway watching the Night Before the 500 races for the Cooper Tires Presents the USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda, the Star Mazda Championship Presented by Goodyear, and the USAC Mopar Midget National Championship.

Doug and Mike love it when a plan comes together!
Doug and Mike love it when a plan comes together!
I did something that I haven’t done in a long while, I sat in a lawn chair, drank some beer, smoked a cigar, and enjoyed simply watching a night of auto racing! Ok, I did bring my camera with me, of course, but I shot from my chair for the most part with an occasional, “Here, hold my beer.” It was great! First of all, if you’ve never been to the Night Before the 500 event, you’re really missing out. The 5/8-mile oval of the Lucas Oil Raceway is a great track for the USF2000 and Star Mazda machines. It’s large enough for the cars to build up decent speed, but small enough that the racers do have to drive the cars into the corners.

USF2000 National Championship
The circuit was very racy offering multiple racing grooves that were not open to the competitors. This created some outstanding racing action in both USF2000 and Star Mazda, and a couple of unfortunate incidents. First off, the USF2000 grid was tremendous once again, as it has been all season so far. Twenty-one cars took the green flag last Saturday night, all in the Championship Class. Multi-class racing may work on a twisty track, but not on an oval! Some regulars in the National Class made an effort in the Championship class, including R.C. Enerson and J.R. Smart. The race started out with a lot of great action all throughout the field as Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammates Spencer Pigot #2 and Matthew Brabham #83 ran ahead of the rest of the racers to resume their private fight for the championship.

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On just the second lap, however, the sole Korean (get it? see what I did there? …oh, nevermind), Heamin Choi, running the #21 Afterburner Autosport machine, lost the rear of his Van Deiman between Turns 1 and 2 wadding up his car and taking out seven other racers to boot. It was a very scary pile-up and took a long time to get sorted. Fortunately, all the racers would emerge from the carnage without serious injury. Heamin was carefully extracted from his wrecked racer and transported to Methodist Hospital as a precaution. The clean-up took a seventeen laps and forced the race to end at the 30-minute time limit after running 46 of the 75 originally scheduled laps. The rest of the race ran without incident as Spencer and Matthew swapped and fought for the lead. Spencer would end up taking the victory, having secured the lead for good on Lap 25.

“It was a fantastic race. Racing side by side with Matt was awesome. It was some of the best racing I have ever had. We were both pushing hard and I think some of my fastest times were when we were side by side. It was so much fun and I am really happy to be here in Indy. The guys at Cape Motorsports gave me an amazing car the whole race. It was awesome. I can’t thank them enough and all of my sponsors.” — Spencer Pigot, #2 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

This was many of the drivers first ever experience racing on an oval track and the Mazda Road to Indy Oval Clinic held earlier in the month at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was of great benefit to many of the drivers, including 2nd-place finisher Matthew Brabham.

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“I am happy with my first oval race. It was lots of fun. I had a good battle with Spencer most of the race and we were running side by side. It was very exciting and, unfortunately, I made a little bit of contact and bent my steering and it was out for the rest of the race. I still had a pretty good pace and I am happy with second. It is good for the championship points and I am pleased with how it went but I am a bit disappointed about getting second.” — Matthew Brabham, #83 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing

This gave Spencer his fourth race win in a row, allowing him to extend his lead over Matthew to 6 points, 146 to 140. Both are well out in front of Roman Lagudi who sits in third place with 108 points. The championship battle will take a couple of months off now, as the next USF2000 event isn’t until the first weekend in August when series joins the IZOD IndyCar Series, the American LeMans Series, and SCCA Pirelli World Challenge at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

Star Mazda Championship
The Star Mazda race, although filled with some great mid-pack action, didn’t see the same battle for position up front as we saw in the USF2000 race. The top three, Juncos Racing’s Connor De Phillippi, the pole sittter, and the Andretti Autosport duo of Sage Karam and Zach Veach ran 1-2-3, respectively, for all 100 laps. Sage challenged Connor a couple of times during the restarts, but never could complete the pass and within a couple of laps, Connor had stretched out a comfortable lead. The race win allowed Connor to close on championship leader Jack Hawksworth, but wasn’t quite enough to allow him to overtake the driver of the #82 Team Pelfrey machine.

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“Tonight was perfect, everything went to plan for us,” said De Phillippi. “We did everything we came here to do by winning the pole and race which only helped us edge our way to the top of the championship point standings. I want to thank Juncos Racing for helping me claim my second victory of the year, ModSpace Motorsports, One24, my family, and everyone who continues to support me.” — Connor De Phillippi, #2 Juncos Racing

The real show was back in the mid-pack as Gustavo Menezes, who started eleventh in his Team Pelfrey #83 machine, slice his way through the grid to battle with his teammates Hawksworth #82 and Petri Suvanto #81. After overtaking Hawkswork, he set his sights on Suvanto and toward the end of the race was running lap times on par with the leader’s and gaining about 0.4s per lap on Suvanto. Unfortunately, he ran out of laps and would have to settle for sixth place this weekend.

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“It was a pretty good day overall. We were first in the first practice and we didn’t have new tires in the second practice but we were still fourth overall. For some reason we only qualified 11th, which made everything difficult after running in the top five all weekend. So we worked really hard to get up there. I got a great start, got ahead of Jack — we had about five laps running next to each other, and it’s tough racing against a teammate because the respect level has to be a lot higher because you can’t risk getting them in a bad position either, whereas the other drivers you can pin them down a bit more. Jack and I had a good race in the closing stages and I got the better out of it with a few laps to go so we ended up sixth. It’s not the happiest result but from where we started, I really think that we showed we had the speed. It’s too bad we made a mistake in qualifying, but we learned and I think we’re going to have one of the strongest cars on the oval at Iowa.” — Gustavo Menezes, #83 Team Pelfrey

The next race for the Star Mazda Championship is the one other oval race on the 2012 schedule at the Iowa Speedway in Newton, IA on Saturday, June 23rd. Jack Hawksworth keeps his championship lead leaving Indianapolis, although its a bit narrower now thanks to Connor De Phillippi’s win. Jack leads Connor by 12 points 129 to 117, and given Connor’s experience on ovals and Jack’s lack of experience, we could easily see that lead evaporate all together. Right now, Jack and Connor are the two strongest contenders for the championship, but Martin Scuncio isn’t too far behind with 97 points. Given how well he raced at Iowa last year, if he can keep it off the Turn 4 wall this time, we could see Martin gain serious ground and make it a three-way battle for the championship as they head on to Toronto in July.

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2 Thoughts to “MRTI – Night Before the 500 As Seen From the Grassy Knoll

  1. Brian McKay

    Wish that I had been there.

    1. The timing is a bit brutal since the midgets don’t usually finish until 11pm or so, and I’m getting up at 0400 the next morning for the 500, but it’s a fantastic event! You should definitely come out next year!

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