J.K. Vernay won in his debut appearance in the Firestone Indy Lights Championship, driving the No. 7 Lucas Slick Mist/Sam Schmidt Motorsports to victory in rain-saturated St. Petersburg. Vernay, 22, who started on the outside of the front row, held off open-wheel racing veteran Jan Heylen on a lap 29 restart and went on to an 11.2338sec victory in the shortened (from 45 laps to 35) race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn temporary street circuit.
Stefan Wilson drove from the 14th starting position to finish third in the No. 28 Bryan Herta Autosport car while Charlie Kimball tied his series-best finish of fourth in the No. 26 AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport entry.
“I didn't know this track, so I had to learn a lot,” said Vernay, who competed in the Formula 3 Euro series the past three years (two victories and five podium finishes in 20 starts in 2009). “It helped with the work I did with my team. We had a great setup on the car. Practice after practice, I was pushing more and more and we were there so it was good. It was hard not to have the pole, but I was very careful on the first lap. I didn't want to crash at the start of the race. It was great to win in my first weekend in Indy Lights.”
Cars started the race on slicks, with pole-sitter James Hinchcliffe punted in Turn 1 of the first green flag lap by the No. 49 Sam Schmidt Motorsports car driven by Philip Major. He was looking to make a big move on the inside (started ninth) but braked too late to make the sharp right-hand turn.
Sebastian Saavedra emerged as the leader -- until he spun in Turn 4 of lap 5. Vernay was in position to avoid the mid-track mess and took the lead through a red flag at the completion of lap 6 for crews to change to rain tires.
A full-course caution on lap 26 when the No. 29 Bryan Herta Autosport car driven by Saavedra made contact with the tire barrier on the exit of Turn 7 was the lone challenge for Vernay to overcome. Heylen, who competed in nine Champ Car races in 2007, couldn't overtake Vernay on the restart with time running out.
“The conditions were difficult, especially in Turn 1,” Heylen said. “I think we made a bad setup on the car. It was nice being back in the car, I have not been racing for almost three years. So, it's good to be back and I really hope that I can race in some more this year. I very much enjoyed it.”
Gustavo Yacaman, who started 10th in the No. 10 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing car, advanced five positions, while Martin Plowman finished sixth in the No. 27 AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport car.
“It was a really hard and long race,” said Yacaman, who posted two top-five finishes in 14 races last year with Sam Schmidt Motorsports. “I had a good start on the outside, and I was able to make up some positions. I was really cautious on the restart, but I was able to move up to second place before they stopped the race due to conditions. From then on, it was a really long race. I made a couple of mistakes going into Turn 4 that cost us a podium finish. But at the end of the day, I kept it off the wall and a finished a solid fifth."
James Winslow and Jonathan Summerton, also making their series debuts, finished seventh and eighth, respectively.