Englishman Toby Sowery claimed a well-deserved maiden Road to Indy victory this morning in a thrilling Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix at Portland International Raceway. Sowery, 23, from Cambridge, England, took the lead for HMD Motorsports/Team Pelfrey immediately after an early restart, then held off a determined challenge from yesterday’s winner Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), from Hoofddorp, Netherlands.
Oliver Askew, 22, from Jupiter, Fla., rebounded from a first-corner incident to climb from last place to third for Andretti Autosport. Askew’s eighth consecutive podium finish, and record-breaking 14th of the season, means he will need only to start the final two races of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in three weeks’ time to clinch the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship and a scholarship package which will guarantee entry into at least three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
Today’s 16th race of the season, held under glorious blue skies, began in hectic fashion. VeeKay, who started from pole for the second day in a row, maintained his advantage under braking for the notorious Festival Curves chicane. Behind him Sowery, who started third, was able to sneak past outside front row starter Askew and move into second. Askew momentarily locked up his brakes as he entered the corner, then came into contact with Sowery’s teammate, David Malukas, as the leaders headed into the second, left-handed portion of the opening complex of corners.
Askew’s car sustained damage to the right-hand sidepod, a bent lower rear wishbone and also had its nose section torn off in the impact, but at least he was able to continue back to the pit lane for repairs. Malukas, by contrast, was out on the spot.
The field was neutralized behind the Pace Car for the first three laps while Malukas’ car was recovered, which enabled Askew to rejoin at the back of the slim seven-car field in time for the restart.
Sowery saw his opportunity when the green flags waved again at the start of Lap Four, and promptly seized it by diving to the inside of VeeKay before the Festival Curves and swooping past into the lead. A series of fast laps enabled the Englishman to extend his margin over VeeKay to as much as 2.7 seconds after 11 laps. But then VeeKay began to fight back.
The two leaders continued to trade fastest laps, with VeeKay finally securing a new lap record of 1:03.155, an average speed of 111.933mph, on Lap 24, by which time they were virtually back together again, separated by only a few car lengths. Their battle continued all the way to the checkered flag, but Sowery held firm and took the checkered flag by a margin of just 0.4244-seconds.
Askew, meanwhile, picked off Canadian Dalton Kellett (Juncos Racing) and Brazilian Lucas Kohl (Belardi Auto Racing) within four laps of the restart, then closed inexorably on Andretti Autosport teammates Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., and Ryan Norman, from Aurora, Ohio. Askew finally fought his way past Norman, with his brakes all locked up, at Turn One on Lap 27, to reclaim third place, but by that time the leaders were long gone.
Norman held on for fourth ahead of Megennis, who earned Tilton Hard Charger Award after starting eighth.
Provisional championship points after 16 of 18 races:
1. Oliver Askew, 442
2. Rinus VeeKay, 401
3. Ryan Norman, 328
4. Toby Sowery, 320
5. Robert Megennis, 314
6. David Malukas, 270
7. Dalton Kellett, 245
8. Lucas Kohl, 227
9. Aaron Telitz, 133
10. Zachary Claman, 124
Toby Sowery (#2 Gap Guard/Rich Energy-HMD Motorsports/Team Pelfrey Dallara-AER IL-15): “This isn’t the best race weekend, having just lost (F2 driver) Anthoine (Hubert), and our thoughts go out to his friends and family, and the whole paddock.
“But I’m just over the moon with this. I’d have been so devastated to lose that win: the guys really deserve it, they’ve worked so hard, but we were able to keep in front of Rinus. This has been a learning curve for us all, and to get the win shows the rate of our development. I watched the race from last year and saw everyone get a little rowdy, so I wanted to stay out of that. I made sure to come through clean and put myself in position, though (teammate) David (Malukas) had an unfortunate incident. I managed to get VeeKay on the restart, and I knew it was important to get by him quickly. Those last few laps were tough; you can’t spend the whole time looking in your mirrors. It’s not the easiest track to overtake and that helped.”
Rinus VeeKay (#21 Mazda/Jumbo Supermarkets/La Place Restaurants/KNAF Talent First-Juncos Racing Dallara-AER IL-15): “That was a really tough race. I was able to close the gap to Toby but didn’t have the track to pass. I’m happy with the result, that was the best we could do.
“But I think I’ve shown what I have this season. I think the people in IndyCar see that and my goals are to keep doing that. I cannot win the championship but I can show what I am made of, the fighting spirit the team and I both have. We’d like to keep that going and we have two more races to do that.”
Oliver Askew (#28 Index Invest Dallara-Andretti Autosport Dallara-AER IL-15): “That is by far the hardest race I’ve had all year. I really had to dig deep there: I used my last push-to-pass to get by Ryan. I was pushing so hard and being in dirty air really affects the car, so I was on edge the whole time.
“But this is a good feeling. This is what we’ve been working for all year – for all three years, really. It’s going to be nice to go to Laguna and experience my dream, which is to start and finish my Road to Indy career there. Big thanks to Andretti Autosport for believing in me, for giving me the car to do this. There have been several pivotal people in my career early on who helped get me from karts to cars, including John Doonan (Mazda) and Jeremy Shaw (Team USA Scholarship). It really kick-started my career and it was up to me from there, on and off the track – and off the track is just as important. I’ve stayed out of trouble and have done my job most of the time, so I’m really proud of that.
“And I told my mom that I would win the championship before I saw her again, and that was before St. Louis. It will be great to give her a big hug.”