There was an expectation that this year would be one of the most competitive in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires. It has certainly lived up to the billing.
After nine of 16 races, there have been five first-time winners – Aaron Telitz, Colton Herta, Nico Jamin, Matheus Leist and Zachary Claman DeMelo. Four of those drivers rank among the top five in the championship.
However, they all trail series veteran Kyle Kaiser. The third-year Indy Lights driver sits atop the standings with a 27-point lead over Leist heading into Sunday’s 100-lap race at Iowa Speedway.
Although Kaiser has just one win in 2017, the 21-year-old Californian has elevated his game with six podium finishes and remained level-headed each race weekend. His eyes are focused strictly on the title and $1 million Mazda scholarship that guarantees a ride in at least three races in the Verizon IndyCar Series next season, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
"I definitely feel there’s been races where I left something on the table,” said Kaiser, driver of the No. 18 Juncos Racing Mazda/Dallara IL-15 whose lone win this season came in the second race of the INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
“I feel like Barber was one of them (that got away),” added Kaiser, the third-place finisher in the 2016 Indy Lights championship. He recalled specifically being passed by Jamin for the lead in the first race at Barber Motorsports Park, even though Kaiser logged a pair of second-place finishes that weekend. He also pointed to Claman DeMelo getting past for second place in the first race of the INDYCAR Grand Prix weekend.
“I think of little moments where I might have played it a little more cautious to finish the race,” Kaiser said. “Which overall might have been the smarter move because, if I had fought too hard, I may have not even finished. I think we’re definitely having a really strong championship year so far. We’re finishing races, we’re consistently on the podium, so I’m really happy with how we’ve done each race weekend.”
Kaiser said he has a simple, big-picture way to approach the rest of the season.
“Each weekend,” he said, “I’m just going to keep an eye on who is directly behind me in the championship and, as long as we beat them every weekend, we’ll win. That’s pretty much my only concern every weekend.”
That second-place spot currently falls to Leist, the Carlin driver who won the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May – in the 19-year-old Brazilian’s first-ever oval race – and he followed that with a win June 24 at Road America.
“I felt at the beginning of the year that we had a car to win, but I couldn’t put it all together,” Leist said. “Everything was new to me, but I’m glad I have a team like Carlin to help me to improve my techniques, as well as my teammates. Everything is going our way now so I hope we can keep up the momentum.
“Of course, I want to win the championship, but you have to be cautious that the championship is very long,” Leist added. “Still a lot of rounds, still a lot of tracks that I’ve never been (to). I’m sure it’s going to be a tough year for me, but anyway, here we are fighting for the championship.”
Another series newcomer and two-time race winner is second-generation driver Herta. The 17-year-old Californian and son of retired driver and current Verizon IndyCar Series team co-owner Bryan Herta became the youngest winner in Indy Lights history in the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg in March. He followed it up by winning the 400th race in series history at Barber Motorsports Park in April. Consistency has been the issue for the Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing driver, who is third in the standings (38 points behind Kaiser) after suffering five finishes of 10th place or worse.
“I think we just need to consistently finish now,” said Herta, driver of the No. 98 Deltro Energy Mazda. “We’ve had two weekends now where we just completely fumbled up and finished outside the top 10. We need to start finishing on the podium every race and, if we’re not on the podium, we still need to maximize the weekend and get everything we can out of it.”
Expectations were high entering 2017 for Santiago Urrutia, the championship runner-up last season by a slim two points to Ed Jones. The 20-year-old Uruguayan has endured a tough season, with three race runner-up finishes to counter four finishes of 11th or worse for Belardi Auto Racing. His frustrations evident, Urrutia is eighth in the standings (59 points behind Kaiser) and seeking to find a way back into the championship conversation.
“We’re not quick, we don’t have the speed and we’re not going to win the championship if we keep (going) this way,” Urrutia said.
“We’ve got to figure out where is the problem, find the speed and then see if we can win races, because if we don’t win races, we’re not going to win the championship.
“It’s been hard. I came here for my second year in Indy Lights to win the championship. I almost won it last year (with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports). I won four races and three pole positions, and up to today, I haven’t even been P1 even in free practice. It is what it is.”
Indy Lights will contest a pair of 30-minute practices at Iowa Speedway on Friday (2:15 and 6:30 p.m. ET). Qualifying is set for 11:15 a.m. ET Saturday, with the 100-lap race on the 0.894-mile oval at 3 p.m. that afternoon. All sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.