ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Aaron Telitz drove away from a battle for second to win Saturday’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg.
The victory for Telitz, the reigning Pro Mazda champion, came in his first Indy Lights start.
The remainder of the 15-car field staged a thrilling contest for second, which ended with fellow Americans Colton Herta and Neil Alberico completing the podium.
The push-to-pass system debuted aboard the Mazda turbo-powered Dallara IL-15 package during Saturday’s race and it provided a number of great overtaking moments during the 35-lap race.
There was action almost literally from start to finish. It began just seconds after the green flag when the field narrowly averted disaster at the first corner as Juan Piedrahita, who had qualified a career-best third for Team Pelfrey, tried to brake a tad too late at turn one while making a move for the lead.
Cars were seemingly scattered in all directions as many contenders took evasive action, but thankfully, once the dust had settled, Telitz had managed to maintain his lead. Rookie Matheus Leist emerged in second while Alberico followed in third.
Shelby Blackstock, Kyle Kaiser and Herta ran next at the completion of the first lap, followed by Piedrahita and his teammate Pato O’Ward.
Telitz took full advantage of a fresh set of Cooper tires to pull out more than a second over his pursuers to ensure he was not within range of attack by anyone using their push-to-pass, and indeed a series of quick laps allowed him to extend his lead to move than five seconds in just eight laps.
“I was expecting to do well this year but I had no idea coming in that I would be on pole and win the first race of the year, especially with such a deep field,” said Telitz. “It feels really good to be on the top spot. I had a good jump at the start and survived the pack-up at the start. Once I was out ahead, I just kept on doing consistent lap times through the race and hitting my marks. But honestly, my first feeling at the checkered flag was relief. To be here with Belardi, to be in the Soul Red car and wearing a Mazda driver’s suit, it all just feels a little unreal. When I started in car racing, I had no idea I’d ever be in Indy Lights, let alone win a race in my first go. I can’t thank Mazda enough for creating this ladder system and giving drivers like me a chance.”
The most significant pass for position came on lap six when Alberico found a way past Leist for second. The young man who really made an impression was Herta, still a few weeks shy of his 17th birthday, who used his push-to-pass to excellent effect on the main straightaway, then displayed fearless form under braking as he gradually made his way toward the front.
Telitz was already too far up the road to be under threat by the time Herta executed his final pass – for second on Alberico with only five laps remaining – but it was still a mightily impressive performance.
“I knew that I had 15 push-to-pass uses so I was trying to be conservative,” said Herta. “I would only use it when I knew I could overtake. It took a few tries to get adjusted and it will take a few more to nail it perfectly but it’s a great feature. I love how you have to be within a second of the other driver, so it eliminates defending. I used it when I tried to get around Neil the first time, but I ran out. The dash doesn’t tell you, so I kept pushing it and didn’t feel anything. I got a good run on the inside and he left me room. It was good, hard racing. Everyone left each other room.”
Blackstock finished fourth, followed by O’Ward in fifth.
Aaron Telitz, Colton Herta, Neil Alberico, Shelby Blackstock, Pato O’Ward, Kyle Kaiser, Nico Jamin, Zachary Claman De Melo, Nicolas Dapero, Ryan Norman, Garth Rickards, Dalton Kellett, Santiago Urrutia, Juan Piedrahita, Matheus Leist.