There was no doubt about the winner of today’s Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Allied Building Products. Oliver Askew, 22, took off from his second pole position in just three Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire starts and, unlike on the Floridian’s home state streets of St. Petersburg two weeks ago, this time he was completely untroubled on his way to an emphatic victory for Andretti Autosport.
In his wake, an exciting battle for second place ended with Dutchman Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing) edging fellow teenager Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport) to the checkered flag by just over two tenths of a second.
The first Indy Lights encounter at Formula 1 venue Circuit of The Americas, just a few miles from downtown Austin, Texas, was a thriller… Askew aside, that is. The young American has been an unstoppable force ever since posting the fastest time during a pre-season test in February. He was fastest in practice yesterday, qualified on pole position for today’s race and then, this morning, took pole again for tomorrow’s second race of the weekend during a separate 30-minute qualifying session.
Askew was helped in his quest to win the race when one of his Andretti Autosport teammates, Ryan Norman who had posted the second-fastest lap in qualifying, spun off the road on the warm-up lap and was required to start from the back.
Askew took full advantage of the fact there was no one alongside him as the green flag flew and held a slender but unexpectedly comfortable advantage when he hit the brakes on the steeply uphill approach to the notoriously tight Turn 1. Toby Sowery (BN Racing/Team Pelfrey), who had lined up fourth on the grid, slipped past third-place qualifier Megennis at Turn 1, while VeeKay, from sixth, emerged ahead of Sowery’s BN Racing teammate, David Malukas, in fourth.
Sowery kept some pressure on Askew for the first couple of laps before Askew hit his stride and began to edge away. Instead of pressuring the leader, Sowery instead found his mirrors filled by Megennis. The pair then involved in a titanic battle for position, exchanging places on numerous occasions on different parts of the racetrack as Askew disappeared into the distance.
By the end, Askew had stretched his advantage to a whopping 24.68 seconds, one of the largest margins of victory in Indy Lights history. In doing so he joined St. Petersburg winner VeeKay in becoming only the ninth driver to win on all three levels of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel ladder.
“I just kept my head down and built a gap to where we could start conserving tires just in case there was a caution,” said Askew. The No. 28 Index Invest car was really good so a big thanks to everyone at Andretti Autosport for all of their help. I don’t think we are satisfied at the moment, but we will keep pushing until we are. This track requires really smooth inputs on both the steering wheel and the pedals, as well as a good car. That’s the most important thing.”
After falling several seconds in arrears while being embroiled in his own tussle for fourth with Malukas in the early stages — until the youngster clipped the curb in Turn 15 and broke his car’s suspension — VeeKay closed inexorably on the squabble between Sowery and Megennis. By half-distance in the 20-lap race, the trio was together. Game on!
Sowery, though, was troubled by some loose bodywork and wasn’t able to use his AER engine’s push-to-pass capability quite as effectively as his rivals.
VeeKay made the final pass for position on the back straight with just one lap to go, earning himself the Tilton Hard Charger Award as well as second place by the slenderest of margins. Sowery looked set to cling onto fourth, behind Megennis, until contact under braking for Turn 12 on the final lap with Norman delayed them both and allowed Frenchman Julien Falchero through into fourth for Belardi Auto Racing.
The championship chases for both teams and drivers have tightened considerably. Despite a disappointing seventh-place finish for Canada’s Zachary Claman after an early drive-through penalty, Belardi Auto Racing now leads the Team standings by four points over Andretti Autosport and five over BN Racing. In the drivers’ standings, VeeKay now leads by two points, 73-71, over Claman, with Askew just five points further back in third. Tomorrow’s fourth round will see the green flag fall at 9:10 a.m.