PORTLAND, Ore. – Englishman Toby Sowery claimed a well-deserved maiden Road to Indy victory Sunday in a thrilling Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix at Portland Int’l Raceway.
Sowery, 23, took the lead for HMD Motorsports/Team Pelfrey immediately after an early restart, then held off a determined challenge from yesterday’s winner Rinus VeeKay.
Oliver Askew rebounded from a first-corner incident to climb from last place to third for Andretti Autosport. Askew’s eighth consecutive podium finish, and record-breaking 14th of the season, means he will need only to start the final two races of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in three weeks’ time to clinch the Indy Lights championship and a scholarship package, which will guarantee an entry into at least three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
Sunday’s 16th race of the season, held under blue skies, began in hectic fashion. VeeKay, who started from pole for the second day in a row, maintained his advantage under braking for the notorious Festival Curves chicane. Behind him Sowery, who started third, was able to sneak past outside front row starter Askew and move into second. Askew momentarily locked up his brakes as he entered the corner, then came into contact with Sowery’s teammate, David Malukas, as the leaders headed into the second, left-handed portion of the opening complex of corners.
Askew’s car sustained damage to the right-hand sidepod, a bent lower rear wishbone and also had its nose section torn off in the impact, but at least he was able to continue back to the pit lane for repairs. Malukas, by contrast, was out on the spot.
The field was neutralized behind the Pace Car for the first three laps while Malukas’ car was recovered, which enabled Askew to rejoin at the back of the slim seven-car field in time for the restart.
Sowery saw his opportunity when the green flags waved again at the start of Lap Four, and promptly seized it by diving to the inside of VeeKay before the Festival Curves and swooping past into the lead. A series of fast laps enabled the Englishman to extend his margin over VeeKay to as much as 2.7 seconds after 11 laps. But then VeeKay began to fight back.
The two leaders continued to trade fastest laps, with VeeKay finally securing a new lap record of 1:03.155, an average speed of 111.933mph, on Lap 24, by which time they were virtually back together again, separated by only a few car lengths. Their battle continued all the way to the checkered flag, but Sowery held firm and took the checkered flag by a margin of 0.4244-seconds.
“This isn’t the best race weekend, having just lost (F2 driver) Anthoine (Hubert), and our thoughts go out to his friends and family, and the whole paddock,” said Sowery.
“But I’m just over the moon with this. I’d have been so devastated to lose that win: the guys really deserve it, they’ve worked so hard, but we were able to keep in front of Rinus. This has been a learning curve for us all, and to get the win shows the rate of our development. I watched the race from last year and saw everyone get a little rowdy, so I wanted to stay out of that. I made sure to come through clean and put myself in position, though (teammate) David (Malukas) had an unfortunate incident. I managed to get VeeKay on the restart, and I knew it was important to get by him quickly. Those last few laps were tough; you can’t spend the whole time looking in your mirrors. It’s not the easiest track to overtake and that helped.”
Askew, meanwhile, picked off Canadian Dalton Kellett and Brazilian Lucas Kohl within four laps of the restart, then closed inexorably on Andretti Autosport teammates Robert Megennis and Ryan Norman. Askew finally fought his way past Norman, with his brakes all locked up, at turn one on Lap 27, to reclaim third place, but by that time the leaders were long gone.