One point separates Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires championship leader Santiago Urrutia and second-place Ed Jones as they prepare for the final doubleheader round, the Soul Red Finale, starting today at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
With an opportunity to cement their name in the history books as well as earning a $1 million Mazda scholarship that awards a ride in three Verizon IndyCar Series races next year to the victor, including the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, it is all for the taking in the last two races of the 2016 season at the 2.238-mile, 11-turn permanent road course in Monterey, Calif.
Jones (right) enters the finale with two wins, seven podiums and seven poles, but hasn’t touched the top step on the podium since the opening race in the grand prix at Indianapolis Motor Speedway back in May. The 21-year-old Dubai native recently tested an Indy car for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing at Watkins Glen International, furthering the desire to win the Indy Lights championship and move up to the top level of North American open-wheel competition in 2017.
“Winning the championship has always been the goal,” said the No. 11 Carlin Mazda driver, in his second Indy Lights season. “The scholarship gives the winner the opportunity to move up to IndyCar, to prove what you can do. I really want to be in the Indy 500 next year and I know that if I get the right opportunities, I can do a good job. The (Verizon IndyCar Series) car really suits me and I know I could be successful.”
Urrutia comes into the last round with a target on his back, with much to gain but everything to lose.
The 20-year-old Uruguayan and reigning Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires champion has enjoyed a successful rookie season, amassing six podiums and four wins, including a sweep of both races at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in late July. A mechanical issue in last weekend’s round at Watkins Glen International relegated the No. 55 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports with Curb-Agajanian driver to a 12th-place race finish, hindering the hope of entering this weekend with a larger points lead and eliminating some of the remaining six drivers eligible for the title.
Despite the rough outing, Urrutia (above) is just looking at the goal and nothing else.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Urrutia said. “I know that, either way, this championship could change my future, if I win the championship or if I don’t, but I don’t have it in my mind to lose the championship. I’m only thinking of winning the championship.
“Our goal (as a team) for this weekend is to get the both pole positions, to win both races and get the championship.”
With a shot at the Verizon IndyCar Series on the table, Urrutia had the opportunity to test the No. 7 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda, usually driven by Mikhail Aleshin, at Sonoma Raceway on Thursday.
“It was great … I want more,” Urrutia said.
Driving an Indy car would put Urrutia alongside his racing hero and fellow countryman, Gonzalo Rodriguez, who was driving his second race weekend with Team Penske at Laguna Seca when he died in a crash during practice on Sept. 11, 1999. With his idol in mind and goal within reach, the pride of Uruguay also wants to do it for his country.
“It would be awesome for my country to be racing in IndyCar next year.”
The Soul Red Finale weekend at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca is the climactic weekend for all three Mazda Road to Indy series (Indy Lights, Pro Mazda and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda). All weekend sessions are set to stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.
Practice sessions take place today, beginning with Pro Mazda at 11:45 a.m. ET and running through the conclusion of Indy Lights practice at 7:55 p.m. Qualifying for all three series runs from 11:35 a.m. to 1:35 p.m. ET Saturday, with the first race for each later that afternoon (Pro Mazda 5:05 p.m., Indy Lights 6 p.m., USF2000 7:05 p.m.). Pro Mazda’s second race will be at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, followed by USF2000 at 2:20 p.m., Indy Lights at 4:10 p.m. and the third Pro Mazda race concluding action at 5:35 p.m.