Ryan Norman

MADISON, Illinois – When seeking the most improved driver of the 2018 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season, it’s hard to look beyond Ryan Norman.

The second-year pilot of the No. 48 Journey Mazda/Dallara IL-15 for Andretti Autosport has shown increased pace and earned three podium finishes this year, easily surpassing his lone top-five finish in 2017. Norman looks to continue the upward trend this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park, site of the third oval event of the Indy Lights race of the season.

The 1.25-mile oval plays host to round 15 of 17 of the top rung of the Mazda Road to Indy development ladder.

“I'm definitely excited for Gateway because I was really fast during testing when we went there,” Norman said. “I was the fastest of the test and I did pretty well at Iowa (finishing fourth). I'm getting better and better at ovals, so I think I have a real shot at winning there.

“If I can pull off that win, obviously that would really throw me up the order.”

Currently fifth in the championship standings, a victory at Gateway would go a long way at closing a 56-point gap to third-place Santi Urrutia of Belardi Auto Racing.

Largely known for his road racing prowess after winning the 2016 Atlantic Championship, Norman’s mentality brought to ovals has taken on more of a finesse approach at Gateway.

“I think you have to be aggressive, but you really have to limit that, especially in Turn 1,” Norman said. “If you overcook that corner and get in the marbles, … I don't really know (if on) the race weekends if there's grip up there.

“It's just important juggling being aggressive and consistent at the same time.”

Although the 20-year-old Ohio native is pushing to climb up the overall standings and join teammates Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta in the top three, Norman knows 2019 is already looming.

With nearly two Indy Lights seasons already in the books, the comparison to 2017 Indy Lights champion Kyle Kaiser, who won the title in his third year, is apparent. There is still much up in the air for next year, Norman cautioned.

“That was definitely someone that I was trying to emulate a little bit was Kaiser, coming in just getting better and better and just more experience,” Norman admitted. “I’ve just got to figure out what my sponsors want to do. I do think that I would be in a position to win the championship next year and get some wins and everything like that. But at the end of the day it's all about sponsorship and if they want to move up long-term or something like that.

“I think I definitely have a lot of sponsors that have been interested in me and didn't really want to do Lights; they want to wait and do INDYCAR. I'm talking to a couple teams, so we'll see what happens. It's nothing set in stone. We're probably 50-50 on what we're going to do, so we'll see.”

Indy Lights got in one practice session on Friday, with rain at Gateway preventing qualifying from taking place. Herta (No. 98 Andretti-Steinbrenner Racing) paced the session at 161.432 mph, edging Norman by a slim 0.0692 of a second.

The series has scheduled a 15-minute practice session for 12:10 p.m. ET Saturday, followed by qualifying at approximately 1 p.m. The 75-lap race is scheduled for 5:40 p.m. (live stream on RaceControl.IndyCar.com).