Parker Thompson and the Exclusive Autosport team are on a roll in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. The popular Canadian used his oval experience to excellent effect in this evening’s Cooper Tires Freedom 90, speeding to victory on the 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway oval as part of the traditional “Carb Night Classic – The Race Before the 500.”
Thompson led throughout the 90-lap race but was kept on his toes by Brazilian Carlos Cunha, who took advantage of some lapped traffic to close within 0.2213 of a second at the checkered flag. Juncos Racing teammate Robert Megennis finished third for his second podium finish of the season, narrowly ahead of a third Juncos Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 in the hands of Dutchman Rinus VeeKay.
In warm, sunny conditions and in front of an enthusiastic crowd, Thompson made full use of his pole position to streak into the lead ahead of Cunha, who had qualified alongside on the front row of the grid. Behind, a bold move around the outside line in Turn 3 saw Megennis jump ahead of oval debutant David Malukas (BN Racing) for third.
By Lap 25, Thompson had stretched his lead over Cunha to around two seconds, with Megennis a similar distance behind in third but under intense pressure from a battling Malukas and Harrison Scott (RP Motorsport Racing), who had started in sixth.
As the race reached toward half-distance, the main focus switched to the battle for third, with Megennis still battling to remain ahead of Malukas and Scott. The Englishman finally found a way past Malukas on Lap 44, but Malukas refused to give up easily. Next time around, he dived for the inside in Turn 1. The two sped into Turn 3 virtually alongside each other, whereupon contact was made and both cars careened heavily into the retaining wall on the exit of Turn 4. Fortunately, both drivers emerged unscathed. Their cars were left in rather less than pristine condition.
Thompson again took off into the lead at the restart, only this time Cunha remained virtually in his wheel tracks. The pair remained close together for the next 20 laps or so until Thompson gradually eked out an advantage of almost two seconds as the leaders encountered some lapped traffic.
Then, with the laps ticking away, Thompson encountered more slower cars, including last year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports), who graciously allowed the leaders to pass. Even so, Cunha saw his chance and closed to within just a car length or so as the pair accelerated off Turn Four for the 90th and final time. His victory had been perfectly judged.
“This is a special race to win – not just because of the extra points but because we’re here in Indianapolis and this is the month of May,” said Thompson. “And this is my first oval win! Now I have that monkey off my back. But today was tough! It was hard to wait the entire day to go racing, the nerves were really high. We didn’t know where our car was at from yesterday’s practice, but no one did more than a 20-lap run so no one knew how their car would react in the race.
“We put a burly lap down in qualifying. I was really proud of the car from the Exclusive Autosport team. I didn’t know what we’d have for the race but we knew we had to get away and work lapped traffic.”
Megennis finished a distant third, shadowed by teammate VeeKay, with Sting Ray Robb (Team Pelfrey) as the only other unlapped finisher. Robb also claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Thompson, who also notched Exclusive Autosport’s third PFC Award for the winning team, now holds a 40-point championship lead over Cunha, 198-158, with VeeKay in third, one more point in arrears. The Pro Mazda championship will reconvene at Road America for a pair of road course races in conjunction with the Verizon IndyCar Series and the entire Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder series, on June 23-24.