ST. PETERSBURG — Junior Strous' baptism into Indy Lights racing did not go exactly as planned. The rookie driver, who began Saturday's race second, flew wide on the first turn and dropped to fourth.
"I had a bad start," Strous said. "I came by in fourth on the first lap, so it was like, oh, damn, this is not going okay."
But by keeping his cool, driving for maximum fuel mileage and getting yellow flags when he needed them, Strous closed the gap and won the 40-lap race, the season opener, by 0.7205 seconds over Jonathan Summerton.
Strous, 25, is just the seventh driver to win an Indy Lights debut.
"I'm just so happy," Strous said. "The crew worked so hard. We only had one day of testing last Monday on Sebring, and the people came together so late and I'm just so happy to be up here and to win."
J.R. Hildebrand, who had the pole position, led the first 22 laps. But his momentum was slowed by two caution periods, the second one a full-course yellow flag for a tow-in.
Hilderbrand led Strous by 0.1557 seconds on a Lap 22 restart. The pivotal moment came the next time around when Strous and Summerton both passed Hildebrand on Turn 1.
"We got out to a good lead at the beginning," Hildebrand said. "A couple yellows came out, and after the second yellow the car wasn't pulling off the top end down the straight. I had a tough time getting into sixth gear. It turns out we had a battery going dead. That just held me up down the straights. I was kind of a sitting duck."
Hildebrand and Strous initially went wide on the turn in Lap 23 and both cars touched tires momentarily. Strous then went inside to pull ahead.
"I was able to make the move on J.R.," said Strous, of the Netherlands. "I had a really good exit out of the last turn, and … put the car right next to him. We braked so late, and we touched for a moment, I believe, and we went really wide, both of us, but I managed to come through the corner quite well in first position."
Strous, of the Winners Circle Group team, starts second in today's Indy Lights race, which begins at 10 a.m. Sebastian Saavedra earned the pole in Saturday's qualifying with a lap of 96.404 mph.