ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Zachary Claman opened the Indy Lights season in winning fashion Saturday by capturing the opening round of the season on the Streets of St. Petersburg.
After campaigning a partial season in last year’s NTT IndyCar Series, Claman returned to Indy Lights competition this year with Belardi Auto Racing. He qualified on the pole for Saturday’s season-opener and proceeded to lead the 35-lap race from start to finish.
Toby Sowery finished a remarkable second in his debut for BN Racing/Team Pelfrey, despite only being offered the drive a little more than one week ago. Fellow rookie Oliver Askew was equally delighted to complete the podium in his debut with Andretti Autosport.
Perfect weather conditions greeted the top rung of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder as the cars lined up in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in downtown St. Petersburg.
Claman, who previously had one Indy Lights victory to his name at Road America in 2017, left no doubt at the rolling start that he fully intended to find his way back to victory lane. The Canadian led the nicely controlled field into the notoriously tricky turn one, fending off outside front row starter Sowery with ease, while Askew tucked neatly into third place. Behind, last year’s winner of the Indy Pro 2000 champion Rinus VeeKay jumped from sixth on the grid to fourth, only to give up one of those hard-earned positions on the next lap to fourth-place qualifier David Malukas.
The two leaders, Claman and Sowery, quickly eked out a little breathing space over Askew, who in turn was more concerned about the challenge being mounted from behind by Malukas in the early stages.
A series of quick laps from Claman saw the gap from first to second increase to almost two seconds by lap seven. Sowery edged a little closer by virtue of setting new fastest laps on three of the next four circuits, only for Claman to hit back again with what would remain as the quickest lap of the race, a 1:06.4240, on lap 13.
The leader’s advantage grew to as much as 2.6 seconds on lap 19, but Sowery wasn’t done yet. The Englishman, who finished second in his only two Indy Pro 2000 starts last year at Road America, had been careful to preserve the energy in his Cooper tires, and closed little by little on Claman before crossing the finish line just .7271 of a second in arrears.
“That was a great welcome-back party,” said Claman. “I’m really happy for Belardi. I know last year didn’t always go their way so I’m happy to get the win for them. We pushed really hard in the beginning, so the car dropped off a bit toward the end. Toby was right there, and in his first street race, so he’ll be one to keep an eye on. I was happy to take the checkered flag but my immediate thought was how to make it two-for-two tomorrow.”
Askew began to tire a little in the closing stages of what was the longest race of his career thus far, but still held on for third after edging steadily away from Malukas as the contest progressed. Fellow rookie VeeKay finished fifth in the 10-car field.