Juncos Racing’s Victor Franzoni drove to an emotional first Indy Lights victory Sunday at Road America, a week after his former Juncos teammate, mentor and friend Jeff Green died in a vintage racing accident.
Franzoni started Sunday’s race on the front row alongside polesitter Pato O’Ward. O’Ward edged clear at the start and on the first lap, and Belardi Auto Racing’s Santi Urrutia got past Franzoni for second.
But Franzoni was able to take control on lap 3 when O’Ward was forced off track by a charging Urrutia off the exit of Turn 5, sending O’Ward into the grass and breaking Urrutia’s front wing and front suspension.
Urrutia made a lengthy pit stop to replace his car’s nosecone, and O’Ward was able to maintain second place for a few laps, despite intense pressure from championship leader Colton Herta. On lap 7, Herta used push-to-pass to pass O’Ward on the long downhill run toward Turn 5.
But there was no catching Franzoni, who won by more than eight seconds and erased some disappointment from Saturday, when he won his first Indy Lights pole but finished the race third.
“It’s amazing,” Franzoni told IMS Radio. “When you win it’s good, when you win first time in Indy Lights, it’s a different feeling. Finally now I can pay off [Mazda, Cooper Tires, Juncos Racing] this help. I love this track. I was having a difficult weekend, and yesterday I had the worst race of my career, made so many mistakes, was not good. And today I think I did one of the best races of my career. I’m super happy. There’s no words to describe what I’m feeling.
Of his friend and 2017 Pro Mazda teammate Green, who died from injuries suffered in a Formula 5000 vintage race at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Franzoni said, “This victory for sure is for him.
“What he did for me was amazing. He’s one of the guys who took me to Indy Lights. Without him I wouldn’t be in Pro Mazda, in the championship. Without him I wouldn’t be here today, so it’s difficult, it’s really, touch my heart, but he was awesome and this victory is for him today.
“Now we have to win all the races because I’m quite far [back] in the points! I think today’s the day that I really learned the car, knew how to do a whole race with this car and I think I did a good job. From now I’m just going to focus on winning races.”
Herta, who has finished on the podium in all but one of the nine races so far this season, stretched his championship lead to 17 points over O’Ward, 245-228, with eight races remaining. Herta also picked up the Tilton Hard Charger Award after lining up fourth on the starting grid.
“I was able to get to the inside of Pato, and from there it was pretty straightforward, just braking late and getting it done,” Herta said. “It’s opposite pressure now: I think the championship pressure is on Pato and Santi. I just need to beat them every weekend, rack up the points that I need and not take too many risks. You still have to push but if you finish on the podium and get a few wins, you’ll be in the title hunt.”
Aaron Telitz (Belardi Auto Racing), from Birchwood, Wisconsin, overtook O’Ward for third three laps from the finish for his third podium of the season. O’Ward finished fourth and Andretti Autosport’s Ryan Norman finished fifth.
“It’s great to get a podium at my home track, with all my friends, family and supporters here,” Telitz said. “So many of my supporters – Rice Lake Weighing Systems, Morrie’s Automotive Group, Central Standard Distillery – they’re all from Wisconsin or have stores in Wisconsin. And of course, my team owner Brian Belardi is from here. We may be down in the championship, but winning races and impressing people, showing people that I’m still fighting and not giving up in any way, is just as important right now.”