WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Aaron Telitz put on a clinic Sunday in treacherous conditions to win the Mazda Indy Lights Watkins Glen Grand Prix Presented by Cooper Tires, while Juncos Racing’s Kyle Kaiser wrapped up the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship title with a steady seventh-place finish.
Telitz’s Belardi Auto Racing teammate, Santi Urrutia, finished in second place, well clear of Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing’s polesitter Colton Herta.
Steady rain shortly before the start ensured the entire field was on wet-weather Cooper tires, and following an additional pace lap to permit the drivers an opportunity to assess the track conditions, it was Herta, the youngest driver in the field at age 17, who led on the long downhill run toward turn one. Telitz, who started third, immediately thrust to the inside under braking to claim the advantage, only for Herta to fight back as they swept into the uphill Esses for the first time.
Urrutia, too, was in the mix, ensuring a spectacular first few laps as the three leaders traded positions numerous times before Telitz overtook Herta one more time in opportunistic style at turn eight. He then began to edge away as Herta and Urrutia continued to squabble over second place.
Urrutia finally made the position his own on lap seven, but by then the impressive Telitz was already nearly seven seconds up the road.
Herta couldn’t match their pace but still remained clear of Andretti Autosport teammate Nico Jamin, who had overtaken Zachary Claman DeMelo on lap four.
Urrutia set sail – almost literally – after Telitz, narrowing the deficit to around four seconds before Telitz responded with a new best lap of the race on lap 14, just as the yellow flags flew after Andretti Autosport’s Dalton Kellett lost control and crashed at the Inner Loop.
The rain intensified during the clean-up process, leaving officials no choice but to display the red flag in the hope that conditions would improve. Thankfully, they did, and after a 12-minute delay the race was on again for a seven-lap dash to the finish.
Telitz was unfazed, despite intense pressure from his more experienced teammate, Urrutia, who, coincidentally, had preceded him as winner of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2015. The pair romped clear of the field, with Telitz posting three successive fastest laps of the race to seal the victory and ensure that he ended the season as he had begun it on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., in March – with an emphatic victory.
“I think relief is my primary emotion – the team joked with me that I might not remember how to get to victory lane,” said Telitz. “But it was a great way to end the year. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the off season, thinking that all the hard work was worth it. But it was pretty slippery out there! The start was tricky but I had some rain experience here earlier in the year – we did a Cooper Tire test and it was raining in the afternoon, so I thought I would go out and run in the rain. I did about 10 laps, so I knew where the grip was going to be on the track, whereas everyone else was still figuring it out. But by the end of the race, Santi figured it out. I knew the red flag would be coming but I didn’t want to win it in the pits. The team was telling us that if we finished 1-2 we would win the team championship, so ‘don’t crash’ was definitely coming through on the radio.”
In addition to cementing his unenviable position as championship runner-up for the second successive year, Urrutia’s second-place finish ensured a come-from-behind victory in the Team Championship for Belardi Auto Racing by a slender four-point margin over Andretti Autosport.
Herta finished third ahead of Carlin’s Matheus Leist, from Brazil, who earned the Tilton Hard Charger after a fine drive from ninth on the grid.
For Kaiser, the Indy Lights championship earned him a $1 million scholarship, which will guarantee Kaiser entry into three Verizon IndyCar Series races in 2018, including the 102nd Indianapolis 500.
“I never could have imagined this at age 7, getting into a kart for the first time. It has been an absolute dream,” said Kaiser. “But it’s been a strange feeling today, because it wasn’t the best race. The championship never entered my mind during the race – I was just trying to manage the conditions. I think these were the trickiest conditions we’ve had all year. I tried pushing and that’s why I spun. But I just really wanted to bring the car home. We just won the Indy Lights championship and it’s time to celebrate. When I got to the podium and Dan Andersen, John Doonan and Chris Pantani were there to give me the champion’s trophy, I started to realize that it was real.”
Aaron Telitz, Santi Urrutia, Colton Herta, Matheus Leist, Nico Jamin, Zachary Claman Demelo, Kyle Kaiser, Nicholas Dapero, Juan Piedrahita, Ryan Norman, Neil Alberico, Shelby Blackstock, Dalton Kellett, Garth Rickards.