Meet the Contenders: Urrutia, Herta and Kaiser

Santiago "Santi" Urrutia

Engineer Tim Neff and Urrutia
Engineer Tim Neff and Urrutia

Driving for Belardi Auto Racing, Santi Urrutia enters the final two races of the season tied for second place in the standings with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing's Colton Herta and within mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing.

Santiago "Santi" Urrutia came into the 2017 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires as one of the favorites for the championship after finishing an agonizingly close second in 2016. But his title aspirations were dealt a blow in November, when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, with which he had signed a two-year contract, announced its withdrawal from the series. Enter Belardi Auto Racing, which, with help from SPM, honored the second year of Urrutia's contract and set him back on track.

The team experienced its share of growing pains early on, with Urrutia capturing only two podium finishes in the first seven races. But they have roared back in the second half, taking four podiums and a victory in the last six events to put Urrutia 42 points back of title leader Kyle Kaiser with two races remaining. That the 20-year-old Uruguayan not only survived but thrived under the tutelage of Brian Belardi's eponymous team is a testament not only to the team's championship pedigree, but to Urrutia's passion and determination to reach his goal: the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Urrutia appreciates the chance the 2014 champions gave him to return to the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires in 2017.

"It was difficult at the beginning," Urrutia acknowledged." I wanted to do my second year with Schmidt but Brian gave me a chance to race with his team and that was big. He believes in me and helped me race with them. Everything was new in the beginning, since I didn't know anyone on the team. As soon as I adapted to the way they work, everything was okay."

Not only was the team new, but so were the teammates – sophomore Shelby Blackstock and rookie Aaron Telitz, who succeeded Urrutia by winning the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires last season. Telitz scored the first victory of the season but it took the team chemistry a bit longer to get off the ground – though becoming accustomed to the atmosphere in the United States also has demanded some adaptation for the intense young driver.

"Just like with the mechanics and engineers, it took a while for us to figure it out, but once we did, it really worked. Shelby and Aaron are really good guys. We go out to dinner and talk not just about motorsports but about life. It's gotten stronger all season and I'm really glad to have them as teammates. We help each other make the cars quicker. Coming from Europe, where the atmosphere is colder, you don't have relationships with other teams or other drivers. It took me a little while to understand how it is here in America but now I realize how friendly it is, that you can talk to other drivers. I know people still call me ‘ice man' here, probably because I don't smile so much, but when I win, I'm happy."

[adinserter name="GOOGLE AD"]Urrutia's season took off at Road America, where he came back from an 11th-place starting position to finish second. He repeated the feat at Iowa, making a nail-biting storm up through the field. But it was the Mid-Ohio weekend last month that cemented his resurgence, as Urrutia took a victory from pole and a second place to close the gap to Kaiser. He knows it's going to be tough overhauling Kaiser with only two races remaining, but that doesn't mean he isn't going to try.

"The goal for the season was to win the championship, but it's been a tough year. We've had weekends with good luck, weekends with bad luck, but we always turned things around. The team never gave up and worked hard, and when you work, the results will come to you. That's been the key, to put everything together. We've gotten wins and pole positions in the second half of the season. I've been here in America for three years and, for the third time in a row, I get to fight for the championship. There are two races left to go and who knows what happens from here? We're stronger than ever and I know it's going to be difficult for us to win the championship but our goal is to win the next two races then see what happens.

"Each of these last two races will be like a final. We had a good car at the Gateway test so we should be good for the race. And I had the pole at Watkins Glen last year so I think I'm in a good position, the best position I've been in this year."

One constant for Urrutia from last season has been his engineer, Tim Neff. After earning five Indy Lights championships in 17 years with SPM, Neff has a close relationship with Urrutia, who feels the pair have a unique kind of communication.

"I really trust Tim. I don't have a lot of friends in racing and I can call him my friend. I believe in him and we have a really good relationship. If he makes a mistake, he tells me – and if I make a mistake, I tell him what I did. I can work closely with him and he really helps me. I know he'll give me 100 percent to make the car as quick as he can, and he knows I'll drive it as fast as I can. I'm really glad that we were able to do a deal for this year and I hope that if I go to IndyCar I can bring him with me."

Neff is not the only source of advice for Urrutia, who has made friends with several drivers in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock, including fellow South Americans Helio Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya. The veteran drivers certainly have a wealth of knowledge about life on the IndyCar circuit to impart.

Santi Urrutia
Santi Urrutia

"I have had a lot of conversations with Helio – he lives in Miami as well, so we're on the same plane quite a bit. He's a good guy and he's given me a lot of tips about racing, about life, about everything. He's very talented and I really respect him. Juan Montoya was always my favorite driver, and I've had many chances to talk to him as well. I really enjoy when he's on track and around the paddock, so I hope he'll be at the Indy 500 next year."

Urrutia holds a special place in the hearts of race fans in his home country. Fans in soccer-mad Uruguay remember another young talent that made his way to IndyCar – Gonzalo Rodriguez, who, tragically, lost his life at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 1999, during his first race weekend with Team Penske. Urrutia was barely 3 years old when Rodriguez died but he knows that Rodriguez paved the way he hopes to follow. He also appreciates the passionate support he receives from his fans, who can be found waving Uruguayan flags at races all over the United States.

"It's great for the Mazda Road to Indy and for IndyCar to be able to see the support that they have from my country. As you can see from social media, they're always responding. But it's not only from the people – I've met the president many times and my biggest sponsor is from Uruguay so it means a lot to me to have that support. People are always posting things about me, people come to the airport when I go home, I have lots of interviews. It's a country that is all about soccer but people are learning more about motorsports and they hope to see another driver in the biggest league, like Gonzalo Rodriguez did in 1999. It's great for everyone."

Urrutia recently held a press conference in Uruguay announcing his intention to graduate to the Verizon IndyCar Series in 2018 – with or without the Mazda Scholarship awarded to the Indy Lights champion. With a little help, Urrutia says, he will make it happen. And for those who have come to recognize his grit and determination, few would bet against him.

"I'm already working on next year. Fans at home and fans here in America want to see me in IndyCar next year and we're working hard toward it. I know it won't be easy, especially if we don't win the scholarship, but it's not impossible. I'm talking to sponsors and to teams, so we'll see what we can put together. I hope I'll be able to announce something by the end of the year."

Colton Herta

Bryan Herta and son Colton
Bryan Herta and son Colton

Driving for Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing, rookie Colton Herta is the youngest driver in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires field, but he enters the final two races of the season tied for second place in the standings with series veteran Santi Urrutia and within mathematical reach of points leader Kyle Kaiser.

Colton Herta has been in the spotlight from the moment he set foot in a go-kart at age 5. So the pressure the 17-year-old Californian finds himself under now, locked in a battle for the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship, is nothing new. But what is new are the stakes: a Mazda scholarship that promises entry into three Verizon IndyCar series events in 2018 (including the Indianapolis 500) and the chance to add to the lore already attached to the Herta name in American open-wheel racing.

Herta is also well-versed in the pressure that comes along with being the son of 1993 Indy Lights champion, former INDYCAR driver and two-time Indianapolis 500-winning car owner Bryan Herta. But this season in Indy Lights, only his second year on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, has established Herta as a formidable opponent in his own right as he took a victory at the season opening weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla. – in only his second Indy Lights race. Herta was thrust into the championship conversation even as the realization struck that, should he win the title, he would be too young to compete in an Indy car at St. Pete in 2018.

His racing exploits are well-documented: a highly successful karting career, a season in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the decision to make his own name in Europe at age 14 with European open-wheel powerhouse Carlin, two years racing European formula cars and the return to America this season with Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing. Herta entered the Indy Lights championship this season with good friend George Michael Steinbrenner IV and backing from Michael Andretti's eponymous team, as the duo set about a two-year plan to graduate to the top step of American open-wheel racing.

That plan nearly went out the window in March, as Herta outstripped even his own expectations by winning the second race of the year from pole position.

"It did change the mindset a little bit," Herta admits. "We felt as though we were really in the championship fight at that point. The goal every weekend was to win races and do the best we could and get the most points, but it's always been a two-year plan in the back of my mind – though if we do win it, it would be pretty hard to say no to that million dollars!

"I've never done a second year in any series that I've run," Herta continued. "It's actually easier because you know what to expect. I had never been on many of the tracks we raced on this year, so it would help to come back for a second year – knowing what to expect from the tires as the race goes on and knowing what you want from the car going into the race. That's why you usually see second-year drivers win the championship."

With two victories, Herta stands tied for second in the title chase, 42 points behind leader Kyle Kaiser, with two races remaining. He leads the series in number of pole positions earned (six) and is third with total podiums (five). Herta is proud of the way the team has come back from difficulties they encountered through the season, and of the relationship he has developed with teammates Dalton Kellett, Nico Jamin and Ryan Norman.

"It's been tough but we always bounced back. We only had half of qualifying session one at Road America because we had a mechanical issue but in qualifying two we finished on pole. I'd never been to Road America before but we learned quickly and got up to speed quickly, so that was the most clutch moment of the year for us. The team has great resources as well, being an IndyCar team. It's an Indy Lights team with an IndyCar approach. And I've had a ton of fun and help this year from my teammates. I was lucky enough to have three experienced drivers as teammates – this helped the development of the car and it helped me as well, because we always had good data to look at."

Herta appreciates the resources that come with the Andretti umbrella. Not only does he have Michael and Mario Andretti available for advice and counsel, he has team principal Steinbrenner, whose family businesses include a successful thoroughbred horse racing farm and stable and, oh yes, those legendary New York Yankees.

Colton Herta
Colton Herta

"Michael helps me a lot, helping me stay focused. He obviously knows what he's doing and he knows what he's talking about. He and Mario both have been super helpful to me, getting my mindset in the right place. George Michael as well. We were really good friends before so it's awesome to be working together now. Before the season started, we went down to the Steinbrenner horse farm in Ocala. It was cool to spend the weekend down there, and it was great bonding time. He's in Indy now so I stay there whenever I'm at the shop. He's learning a lot but he has a huge input. He's been doing a great job and he's always there for support. He really puts his heart into it."

But when it comes to advice, Herta knows he has one of the best in his corner. With maturity has come the increasing appreciation for what his dad Bryan and mom Janette have done to help him get to this point.

"They've been so supportive my whole career, giving up a lot of stuff to be there for me. I'm very thankful. But this year, they've stepped back a bit. The team handles most of my stuff, and I'm old enough now to take care of myself. I'm responsible enough now to know what I need to do. But my dad knows what's going on so if he sees anything that needs to be fixed, or that I'm doing wrong, he'll comment on it. But when I go home, it's back to normal child life."

Flights. Racetracks. Homework. Such is the life of a young race car driver who is trying to balance it all. For Herta, the light at the end of the tunnel is quickly approaching, as he gets ready to complete high school and turn his complete focus to his racing future.

"It's tough, especially with training twice a day. I do my school online and I try to do as much as I can before the race weekend so I don't have to worry about school work when I'm there. I'm looking forward to getting my GED and graduating from high school."

Kyle Kaiser

Kyle Kaiser
Kyle Kaiser

Kyle Kaiser of Juncos Racing currently leads the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship standings with two races remaining at Gateway Motorsports Park and Watkins Glen International. Colton Herta (Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) and Santi Urrutia (Belardi Auto Racing) lie 42 points in arrears with the remaining championship contender, Matheus Leist (Carlin), at 48 points.

Kyle Kaiser knew this would be his best and, perhaps, last chance. 2017 marked his third Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires campaign, so it was a "now or never" scenario that presented itself to the 21-year-old Californian as the season began. Kaiser and his Juncos Racing team proceeded to spend the bulk of the year doing exactly what it took to take, then maintain, the championship lead, placing him on the cusp of realizing his dream: a ride in the Verizon IndyCar Series and the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

"It's everything I've been working toward since I joined the Mazda Road to Indy," said Kaiser. "I have yet to win a championship and the Mazda scholarship, so it would mean that all the hard work over the past five years has, well, not paid off exactly, but it means my name would be etched in the history books. That affirmation would mean a lot."

That Kaiser is in this position now is a testament to his hard work. Making the jump from karting to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires with only a season in the Formula Car Challenge to help in the transition, Kaiser signed with Juncos Racing for his second season in 2014 as teammate to good friend Spencer Pigot. With a front-row seat for Pigot's championship-winning run, Kaiser finished sixth in the title chase and earned his first MRTI victory at the season finale in Sonoma. He graduated with Pigot to Indy Lights the following year and was once again wing man to Pigot's title run. He became the Juncos team leader and championship contender last season, finishing third with three poles and two wins to his credit. Kaiser came into the 2017 season knowing that the time was now if he wanted to claim that elusive title.

However, the season did not start off as planned, with Kaiser earning a sixth and a fourth-place finish in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. (compared with a third and a second in 2016). The team regrouped and the learning experience set the tone for the season.

"This is my third year in the series so this was the year to get the championship. I have enough experience and I needed to go out and show what I could do. The St. Pete weekend was almost a wake-up call, since we didn't do all that well – especially compared to last year. We had to figure things out and really make a push. Barber was much better, with a pole and two seconds. We found our rhythm so we knew we could make a run at the title and that was the focus from that moment on."

Kaiser went on a four-race run after St. Pete that included two pole positions, four podium finishes and a victory on the road course at Indianapolis to mount a 13-point lead in the championship. He took podiums in four of the next six races, including a sweep of both races in Toronto that meant he holds the distinction of being the only current driver to score series victories on all three genres of race track (ovals, road courses and street courses). Kaiser believes the accomplishment really shows the amount of progress he has made in the series – an accomplishment made even more impressive by the depth of the Indy Lights field.

"I'm proud of the fact that I have won on all three disciplines. I think INDYCAR owners look for that sort of trait, to be versatile enough to win on any type of circuit. Toronto was my first double win and my first win on a street course. It meant a lot, since it's almost like a home race because I have so much family there. But everything has really come together this year – mentally, attitude-wise and experience. All that came together this year to help me get more out of the car.

Kaiser
Kaiser

"Drivers come from all over the world to compete in Indy Lights, so you're racing against some really good drivers," Kaiser continued. "We get a good amount of seat time each weekend and I think my race craft has really improved. That's why I wanted to stay in the series for three years. I wanted to get to the point where, after my last Indy Lights race, I would feel 100 percent ready to get into an Indy car. I'm proud of my progression over the past five years: not just in the results but in my driving. For example, I couldn't get a pole my first couple of years, but this year I have three. I've gotten more aggressive as well, but smartly aggressive. Those are two areas I really wanted to improve upon, and I have."

Ricardo Juncos' eponymous team is well-known for the importance placed in driver development. Kaiser was no stranger to the classroom environment in the Juncos shop, now residing on Main Street in downtown Speedway, Ind. This development, coupled with the relationships established over the past four years, made the decision to stay with the team for his entire Indy Lights career a very easy one.

"The best thing is since I'm in Indy now, I can spend more time at the shop. So during that early stretch, I was there a lot, in meetings, talking to Ricardo, my coach and my engineers. It wasn't about the big picture at that point, it was just a race-by-race focus on what it took to be the fastest car going into each weekend. We did a great job in pre-race so when we got to the track, we were quick right out of the gate. We didn't worry about anyone else, we just focused on ourselves. And the execution was really good. Our best weekends were the ones where we did all our work ahead of time.

"It's a huge benefit to me and that's why I keep coming back. I love the group of guys, I trust everything they do and I know they're going to be honest in their feedback to me regarding what I need to do to be better. Having that trust and that level of relationship is why I've had this kind of progression, and why I haven't felt the pressure that much this year. We focus on having the fastest car in every session and what happens, happens. When things get tough, that's invaluable. The championship lead had really been cut going into Toronto, so we focused on what we knew how to do – and we were quick right out of the gate, won both races and got the lead back. We'll go into Gateway and Watkins Glen with that same mentality; that we took a hit at the previous race but we're going to come back and execute the same way we did before."

As Kaiser looks back over the past three years in the series, he remembers himself as the young driver who shadowed his championship-winning teammate inexorably moving up to the pinnacle of open-wheel racing. Through the lens of experience, he wishes there were a few words of wisdom he could have imparted on that impatient youngster.

"Focus on yourself and don't worry about anyone else – that would be my number one piece of advice. I compared myself to Spencer and all the experience he had and tried too hard to keep up with that instead of focusing on my own driving. I didn't feel as though I wasn't ready; I was just trying too hard to make an impression. I won't make that mistake again."

Leave a Reply