Zachary Claman displayed the wisdom of his decision to step back into Indy Lights by scoring an accomplished victory for Belardi Auto Racing in the St. Petersburg Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series opener.
After campaigning a partial season in last year’s NTT IndyCar Series, Canadian Claman qualified on the pole and led today’s 35-lap Race 1 from start to finish.
Englishman Toby Sowery finished a remarkable second on his debut for BN Racing/Team Pelfrey, despite being offered the drive only a little more than one week ago. Fellow Lights rookie Oliver Askew was equally delighted to complete the podium on his debut with Andretti Autosport.
Claman, with one career Indy Lights victory (Road America in 2017), left no doubt about his intentions today, pulling away from the rolling start to lead into Turn One, fending off outside front row starter Sowery as Askew tucked neatly into third. Behind, last year’s Indy Pro 2000 (formerly Pro Mazda) champ Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), jumped impressively 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 (BN Racing).
A series of quick laps from Claman saw the gap from first to second increase to almost two seconds by Lap 7. Sowery then pulled the gap back, setting new race fastest laps on three of the next four circuits, only for Claman to hit back again with what would remain as the fastest lap of the race, a 1m6.4240s, 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 BN Racing/Team Pelfrey driver, who finished second in his only two Indy Pro 2000 starts last year at Road America, had been careful to preserve his Cooper tires, and reeled in Claman, crossing the finish line just 0.7271s behind.
Askew, tired in the closing stages of what was the longest race of his career, held on for third, edging slowly away from Malukas as the race progressed.
Fellow rookie VeeKay, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, finished fifth to secure the first Tilton Hard Charger Award of the new season.
A separate qualifying session earlier this morning saw Askew post the fastest time to secure the all-important pole position for Race 2 tomorrow, which is scheduled to start at 10:05am ET.