INDIANAPOLIS – As Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires competitors prepare to take on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval for this week’s Freedom 100, drivers in all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires developmental ladder are more confident in their capabilities thanks to an oval clinic held May 14.
With support from sanctioning body INDYCAR, the program at IMS was conducted by 2006 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires driver Gerardo Bonilla and included an all-star panel of two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Al Unser Jr., Johnny Unser, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach.
Many young drivers focus strictly on road courses before reaching the Mazda Road to Indy, so need all the tutelage they can get before taking on an oval. That’s why MRTI’s seven-part clinic agenda went over the fundamentals of oval driving.
Each MRTI level sees an oval at some point on the 2017 schedule. In addition to the Freedom 100 at IMS, Indy Lights – the top rung of the stepladder – also competes at Iowa Speedway and Gateway Motorsports Park. Pro Mazda, the middle MRTI level, will run at Gateway and the entry-level Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda takes the track at Iowa Speedway.
The oval clinic panel focused on proper racing line, passing, blocking, drafting, handling, restarts and incidents.
Stressing the importance of the unique track disciple, Unser Jr., a two-time Indy car champion and 34-time race winner, called road and street courses “80 percent physical and 20 percent mental” and ovals “80 percent mental and 20 percent physical.”
The inherent dangers of motor racing ever-present, the clinic is a positive way to help educate young drivers and something Unser Jr. believes would have helped as he moved up the open-wheel ladder.
“It definitely would have been beneficial back in the day,” said Unser Jr. “For myself, I had my dad (four-time Indy 500 winner Al) and my uncle (three-time Indy 500 winner Bobby), so they were my clinic and I thank God for that. It helped tremendously. To be able to do this with the kids, I think it’s a great opportunity for them to ask questions and be a part of it.”
Johnny Unser, race director for Pro Mazda, echoed his cousin’s words. He pointed to MRTI graduates Pigot and Veach as shining examples.
“I think the Mazda Road to Indy is an incredible opportunity for all of these kids,” said Johnny Unser, the 1989 GTU class winner of the 12 Hours of Sebring who drove Indy cars from 1993-2000. “Obviously, you look at two of the guys sitting on the panel here (Veach and Pigot), they’ve been through the whole ladder system.
“It’s an educational process from USF2000 to Pro Mazda to Indy Lights, and it’s an incredible opportunity to come up through the whole thing and to come to a clinic like this and to learn. It’s really an incredible program and I think these kids are pretty darn fortunate.”
Pigot, who will compete for Juncos Racing in his second Indianapolis 500 on Sunday, was in the unique role of having been a past oval clinic student and now an instructor.
“I think that the clinic is definitely very useful for kids in the Mazda Road to Indy, especially those that haven’t been on ovals before,” said Pigot, the two-time MRTI champion (2014 Pro Mazda, 2015 Indy Lights).
“I know it was useful to me to hear from guys that have been there and done it and won the Indy 500 many times. That experience and knowledge they have about oval racing is very unique and something that you can’t always get access to. It’s a really good thing that they put on and I hope the drivers really take advantage of it and remember some of the things that they heard.”
Indy Lights will conduct a pair of practice sessions Thursday (9 and 11 a.m. ET) before qualifying in the afternoon (1:30 p.m.). The 40-lap race starts at 12:30 p.m. ET Friday and airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
Pro Mazda and USF2000 are idle until each series has a doubleheader race weekend June 23-25 at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin.