Hargrove, Pigot Win in Pro Mazda

Spencer Pigot lost, then recovered the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires points lead in a wild weekend at the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston. Scott Hargove claimed the first win of the doubleheader and, briefly, the points lead, but Pigot came back strong on Sunday to win and retake the point in the championship.

Hargrove claimed victory in the strangest of fashions during the first leg of the Allied Building Products Pro Mazda Grand Prix of Houston Presented by Marlin CNG Services. Fellow Canadian Garett Grist (Andretti Autosport) qualified on pole position for the second straight race but maintained his advantage only until Turn 2 where erstwhile series points leader Pigot (Juncos Racing) made a bold maneuver around the outside. Pigot’s teammate, Kyle Kaiser, demoted Grist one more position at Turn 3.

The trio finished Lap 1 in that order – Pigot ahead of Kaiser and Grist – with Hargrove, who had started third, next in line but locked in combat with Nicolas Costa (Team Pelfrey) and his own teammate, Neil Alberico. Costa, on a charge from sixth on the grid after making a mistake in qualifying, then passed Hargrove cleanly into Turn 4. Alberico followed him through. Into the braking area for Turn 6, Hargrove abruptly veered to the inside, hoping to take his teammate by surprise, but succeeded only in tagging the unfortunate Alberico’s rear wheel and sending him spinning into the wall.

During the ensuring full-course caution the heavens opened – but only on a small section of the track, in Turns 6 and 7. When the green flags waved again with six laps completed, Pigot and Kaiser continued to lead the way. Hargrove quickly moved from fifth to third, only to be assessed a drive-through penalty for causing the earlier incident.

With rain soon beginning to fall again more heavily, the Canadian dropped far back down the order in serving his penalty, then followed the example of several other drivers by stopping in the pits next time around for a change to wet weather Cooper tires. At almost the same time, local driver Clark Toppe’s Pro Mazda debut came to an abrupt end when his JDC MotorSports car ground to a halt out on the circuit and the caution flags flew one more time.

By now everyone except the first two had stopped to change tires. Kaiser made his stop under caution after 11 laps, leaving only Pigot on dry weather tires – on a soaking wet track. As the field was unleashed again at the end of Lap 12, Pigot finally ducked into the pits, leaving Team Pelfrey’s Dalton Kellett to lead the way at the restart. Grist ran second, followed by Costa, who then made a move for second almost immediately.

Once again the race ran green for only a brief period before Ryan Booth’s JDC car also stopped on track bringing another caution. The race went green again with around eight minutes remaining, with Kellett leading Costa, Grist and the fast recovering Hargrove. By the end of that lap, Hargrove had somehow fought his way into the lead ahead of Kellett. The two Canadians exchanged places another couple of times over the final few laps before Hargrove took the win with 22 laps in the books. A mistake by Kellett at Turn 7 on lap 21 allowed Costa to move into second. Kellett held on for third before capping an extraordinary race by crashing heavily in Turn 1 mere moments after taking the checkered flag.

“This was the craziest race that I have ever had and I can’t believe that I was actually able to finish,” said Hargrove. “At the start, I fell down a few spots and was back to fifth. We were running really close and Neil [Alberico] got a run on me into Turn 5 and, unfortunately, when I tried to cut underneath him I caught him right when he was braking and ran into him and took him out. I am pretty bummed about that particularly because he is my teammate. The team did a great job of rebounding. I had to serve my drive-through penalty but I was able to get up to third on a restart. I was passing people left, right and center. I think I passed 15 cars throughout the race and the team did a great job on the pit stop and got me from the back of the field up to 10th. The MAZDASPEED/Analytic Systems car was rolling from there from 10th to first in the rain so that was pretty unreal.”

Pigot bounced back from a series of misfortunes to score a commanding victory in the second leg. Starting second on the grid, Pigot made an explosive start, then dived to the inside of polesitter Grist under braking for the tight chicane at Turn 2 on the unforgiving 1.7-mile street and parking lot circuit. He remained under pressure from Alberico for the first dozen or so laps, then edged clear to win the 30-lap race by almost four seconds.

“It’s been a rough patch for us the last few race weekends,” said Pigot. “Even coming out here on Friday, we were really off the pace back in eighth, ninth, 10th position – the whole team. We just kept working harder and harder and looking over every area where we could improve the car and improve our driving. Slowly but surely we made our way to the front row yesterday and led the first half of the race but it was a crazy race with all the rain. We were forced to the back of the pack in the pits. We came out today with the same idea – we lost the points lead so we had to come out and win the race. It was a great day for the points and a great day for the team. Unfortunately, a couple of my teammates had a little bit of bad luck but I am very happy with the way today went. Neil [Alberico] and I have a mutual sponsor in Rising Star Racing and it’s great to be up here one-two for them.”

The victory, Pigot’s fifth of the season for Juncos Racing, moved him back into the lead of the championship after Hargrove exited the race on the first lap following an incident in Turn 3. The result also enabled Juncos Racing to move back into the lead of the Team Championship with five rounds remaining in the 14-race season.

Alberico profited from the early drama to move from sixth on the grid to second, where he remained until the finish. Alberico posted the fastest race lap – a new track record – for good measure. Grist’s teammate, Shelby Blackstock, couldn’t match the leaders’ pace in third and remained under intense pressure for almost the entire distance from Ryan Booth (JDC MotorSports) until the latter’s rear wing mounting failed in the closing stages. Booth somehow managed to hold onto fourth ahead of a fast-closing Costa (Team Pelfrey), who charged back through the field after narrowly avoiding two separate incidents on the first lap and falling to the tail of the field.