Talented field points to highly competitive Indy Lights season

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The 2017 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season is one of the most highly anticipated in recent memory.

The star-studded field features a healthy blend of talented veterans and rookies alike, including the return of last year’s championship runner-up, Santiago Urrutia, and third-place finisher, Kyle Kaiser.

Urrutia, the 2016 Indy Lights Rookie of the Year who scored a series-high four wins, moves to Belardi Auto Racing to pilot the No. 5 Mazda/Dallara IL-15 after his former team, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, ceased its Indy Lights program over the offseason.

The 2015 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires champion sees similarities between the teams, but added that Belardi’s focus squarely on Indy Lights and not multiple programs is something that provides a huge benefit for the upcoming season.

“The car is pretty much the same,” Urrutia, 20, said. “I will not say the (exact) same because Belardi has different things on the car, but it’s pretty much the same. Schmidt is (a Verizon IndyCar Series) team and a little bit bigger than Belardi, but it seems like, at Belardi, they concentrate 100 percent on winning the (Indy Lights) championship.

“If you are a team that has two series, like Schmidt (had), they probably have too many things to concentrate (on). At Belardi, they only have Indy Lights – so everything they got they are going to give to the team for trying to win in Indy Lights.”

Reigning Pro Mazda champion and Mazda scholarship award winner Aaron Telitz will team with Urrutia and run the Soul Red paint scheme on the No. 9 Belardi Mazda/Dallara. The 25-year-old Wisconsin native believes that this year is wide open in terms of talent.

“Even though our field isn’t over 20 cars, we’ve got 10 guys who could probably win every weekend,” said Telitz.

Belardi completes its three-driver lineup with Shelby Blackstock, who returns for a third season in the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, sanctioned by INDYCAR.

Andretti Autosport brings on 2015 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda champion Nico Jamin, along with Ryan Norman, and sees the return of veteran Dalton Kellett.

The team also partnered with George Michael Steinbrenner IV, grandson of legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, to form Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, with Colton Herta, son of four-time Indy car race winner Bryan Herta, piloting the No. 98 Deltro Energy Mazda. The second-generation driver hopes to follow in his father’s footsteps in capturing an Indy Lights title.

“It’s awesome to finally get a chance to do what he did in 1993, which is win the Indy Lights championship,” said Colton Herta, who turns 17 on March 30 and was slated to throw out the ceremonial first pitch prior to the Yankees’ spring training game today in Tampa, Florida.

Carlin, which captured the 2016 Indy Lights title with Ed Jones (now a Verizon IndyCar Series rookie), fills that void with reigning British F3 champion Matheus Leist in the No. 26 Mazda. The team added another rookie in Garth Rickards. Neil Alberico, who finished a career-high fifth at Watkins Glen last year, returns to the team for a second Indy Lights campaign, while Zachary Claman DeMelo comes over from Juncos Racing.

At Juncos Racing, Kaiser is hoping the third time is the charm as he returns for a third season in Indy Lights. The 21-year-old Californian scored two wins, eight podiums and three poles in 2016. He isn’t focused on carrying over momentum from last season, rather maximizing his experience to get the best result possible each weekend.

“At this point, I’m a third-year driver in Indy Lights,” said Kaiser. “I’m a veteran. I’ve got all the experience now.

“I just want to go out there and dominate, that’s really my goal. That’s the mindset I’m going to have every weekend – to go out there and do everything I can to win.”

Team Pelfrey returns Juan Piedrahita, the 24-year-old Colombian competing for a fourth consecutive Indy Lights season. Pato O’Ward, last season’s Pro Mazda runner-up fresh off his Prototype Challenge win in January at the Rolex 24 At Daytona, will compete in the opening rounds of Indy Lights this weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg for Team Pelfrey.

The 16-race campaign features nine races on permanent road courses, four on temporary street circuits and three on ovals – including the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on May 26. The schedule kicks off with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a doubleheader race weekend on the 1.8-mile street course. Practice begins at 9:05 a.m. ET Friday, with races at 5:10 p.m. Saturday and 9:45 a.m. Sunday. All sessions will be streamed live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

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