MRTI Gateway notes: Leist aims for Indy Lights oval sweep

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MADISON, Illinois – Matheus Leist is aiming to accomplish something in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires not been accomplished since Greg Moore in 1995. But the Carlin driver will need to come from the 12th starting position this evening to achieve it.

Leist has the chance to sweep the Indy Lights oval races in one season if he wins the 75-lap event at Gateway Motorsports Park. The race starts at 7 p.m. ET and will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

The 2016 British Racing Drivers’ Club British Formula 3 champion was victorious at the Freedom 100 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May and the Iowa Speedway race last month. Amazingly, they were the first oval races in his career.

Leist enters the race fourth in the point standings, 48 points behind Kyle Kaiser with two races remaining on the schedule. With the chances of catching Kaiser remote, Leist is focusing on the oval sweep tonight.

“I was the guy that won the Freedom 100 from green to checkered flag, so I already had pressure in Iowa and it was a very good race for me,” said the 18-year-old Brazilian. “Iowa was one of my best races ever; it just gave me more confidence for this weekend.

“I hope that we can win. I don’t know, it’s difficult to know ovals. It’s always crazy, you never know who’s going to be up there and it’s a different oval and let’s see what can happen.”

Leist’s team has had success at oval racing in Indy Lights. Carlin won at Iowa Speedway with Max Chilton in 2015 and Felix Serralles last year, before Leist’s triumph this season. Even though a broken suspension piece led to a crash during the series’ Gateway test on Aug. 10, Leist remains confident for his chances tonight.

“The car was fast, we were always up there, so I think the car is very good and I’m feeling more comfortable than in Iowa.

“It’s difficult to say this, but it looks like I prefer to race on the ovals more than the road courses,” he said. “It’s so nice, it’s so technical. You need to be very precise, you don’t have space for mistakes and things like this. This challenge is good for me.”

Leist admitted to some apprehension racing on ovals until he participated in the Indy Lights spring training test at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“The first time that I came to the ovals, I was thinking like that,” he said. “I remember I had a briefing with my engineer and he said that we should be easy flat, but it’s difficult and it’s fast.

“And then I went to Homestead and I was like, ‘That’s fine, third lap I’m going to be fast, I’m going to be flat out.’ I remember I finished the day at Homestead and I only did one lap flat out and I was like, ‘Uh-oh, this is difficult,’ but it’s so much fun, it’s very good to drive on ovals.”

Despite qualifying 12th in the 15-car field, Leist doesn’t think it will be an issue.

“In oval races, it’s not about qualifying, it’s about the race,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you qualify in the top three or the top eight. I think the main thing is that we need to have a fast car in traffic and figure out how to be able to pass and to be up there in the race.”

Juan Piedrahita won the pole for the Indy Lights race by the narrowest of margins in today’s qualifying. The Team Pelfrey driver averaged 160.823 mph over his two laps at Gateway, including a track record of 161.354 mph on his second lap.

Santi Urrutia of Belardi Auto Racing was second at 160.822 mph. The time difference in the two qualifying attempts was just six-ten thousandths of a second over 2.5 miles. Points leader Kaiser (Juncos Racing) will start fifth.

“This is a championship-winning team,” said Piedrahita, “we’ve just had a tough season but today, it all came together. This is for them, they’ve worked so hard. The car was awesome. It was a little bit loose, but I held onto it and kept it flat…You really have to drive this track and I was downshifting to get a better exit and that worked out. It’s going to be a great car for the race.”

Points leaders qualify up front in Pro Mazda

Championship front-runners Anthony Martin and Victor Franzoni qualified 1-2 for today’s Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires race at Gateway.

“It was really good fun,” said Martin after posting a two-lap average of 140.001 mph over his run in the No. 8 Cape Motorsports entry. “The car was really hooked up, the Cape Motorsports guys gave me a great car, and I was just pushing extremely hard to see what time I could do, and I was able to put down a couple good laps. It was good and I can’t wait for the race. It’s going to be one hell of a race, I reckon.”

Franzoni’s averaged speed of 139.433 mph placed him second. The two drivers were nearly 4 mph faster than any of the other qualifiers.

Martin leads Franzoni by five points heading into the lone oval event on the 12-race calendar. The Pro Mazda race streams live at 5:55 p.m. ET on RaceControl.IndyCar.com.

Pro Mazda concludes its season with a doubleheader race weekend Sept. 2-3 at Watkins Glen International.

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