ST. PETERSBURG, FL – After beginning with a Floridian flourish last Thursday and Friday at Sebring International Raceway, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, step one on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, will continue this weekend with a top-quality field of 31 up-and-coming drivers entered for a pair of 30-minute races on the Streets of St. Petersburg.
Two-time defending champion team Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, based locally in St. Petersburg, will enter the weekend as a firm favorite for top honors after winning the three most recent USF2000 races on the challenging 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown street circuit. The team also swept both 2013 season-opening races at Sebring, with 18-year-old Scott Hargrove, from Vancouver, B.C., Canada, grasping an early advantage in the point standings by virtue of a commanding victory and a second-place finish. American teammate Neil Alberico, from Los Gatos, Calif., similarly marked himself as a championship contender after overcoming a mechanical problem in Race 1 and storming from fifth on the grid to take the checkered flag in Race 2.
Alberico, 20, who cut his racing teeth in the ultra-competitive Formula Ford Championship of Great Britain in 2011, began his sophomore USF2000 campaign by winning five of the six races that comprised the Florida-based preseason Cooper Tires Winterfest mini-series in early February at Sebring and Palm Beach International Raceway.
Estrela/ Grist/ Lazare Emerge as Early Challengers: Three teenaged series rookies – one from Brazil and two from Canada – also stood out from the crowd at Sebring. Danilo Estrela, a resident of Orlando, Fla., who hails originally from Goiania, Brazil, currently holds second place in the championship after claiming a pair of third-place finishes for Indianapolis-based Belardi Auto Racing.
Garett Grist, 17, from Grimsby, Ont., Canada, driving for Andretti Autosport (which, uniquely, runs cars in all four levels of the Mazda Road to Indy), overtook Estrela to snatch second place on the final lap of Race 1, while 15-year-old Jesse Lazare (Pabst Racing Services), from Montreal, Que., Canada, rebounded from a poor qualifying effort to drive from 18th to 11th in Race 1 and followed up with a strong fourth in Race 2 after overtaking Grist in the closing stages.
Paralyzed Racer to Support Local Wheelchairs 4 Kids Charity: Michael Johnson is an inspiration to many. The 20-year-old from Flint, Mich., qualified 14th fastest among the strong 31-car field and notched 16th and 17th-place finishes in last week’s pair of season-opening races at Sebring, which is especially impressive as Johnson has been paralyzed from the chest down since an accident during a motorcycle race in 2005.
Determined to pursue his racing aspirations, Johnson began his comeback in karts in 2008. Three years later he became the first paralyzed driver to win an open-wheel formula car race when he triumphed in a Skip Barber Summer Series event at the legendary Watkins Glen International circuit in upstate New York. Johnson became the first paralyzed racer to earn an INDYCAR license last year and is now contesting his sophomore season of USF2000 in a specially adapted Van Diemen-Mazda featuring hand controls only.
Johnson this week will help raise awareness of Tarpon Springs, Fla.-based Wheelchair 4 Kids, a 501(c)(3) charitable organization which aims to improve the lives of children with physical disabilities by providing wheelchairs, home and vehicle modifications as well as other adaptive devices. He has provided for auction – and will wear during this weekend’s races – a specially designed racing helmet which will feature the name of the highest bidder, who will attend the event as a VIP guest of Johnson and his Minnesota-based JDC MotorSports team.
Mazda Road to Indy Attracts International Flavor: Drivers from North America comprise the bulk of this year’s USF2000 entry but the lure of the Mazda Road to Indy, which provides scholarship awards for title-winning drivers to graduate through each step of the ladder – from USF2000 to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires to Firestone Indy Lights and ultimately to the IZOD IndyCar Series – has attracted drivers from around the world to chase the dream of one day competing in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Indianapolis 500. In addition to 14 Americans and eight Canadians, competitors this year include three Brazilians, two Englishmen, one Dutchman, one Frenchman and a Norwegian.
The education process extends far beyond the race track. During the lead-up to this weekend’s races, all USF2000 and Pro Mazda drivers will attend a media training session hosted by Sportscast Stars Training, LLC; a Mazda Business of Motorsports Seminar; a “Building a Successful Brand” presentation by James Hinchcliffe, who will drive the Go-Daddy car for Andretti Autosport in this weekend’s feature event; and a Team Talk with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and team driver Tristan Vautier, who has won consecutive championships in Pro Mazda and Indy Lights.
Peninsula Pipeline Provides Title Sponsorship for Sunday’s Race: Dover, Del.-based Peninsula Pipeline, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chesapeake Utilities Corporation, which plays a significant role in improving Florida’s fuel diversity and competitiveness by increasing the availability of natural gas in areas not currently served, will headline Sunday’s race which will be titled the Peninsula Pipeline Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Peninsula Pipeline’s guests will enjoy a VIP suite for entertaining and participate in a variety of activities over the race weekend including exclusive paddock tours and driver meet-and-greets as well as involvement in race activities with honorary starters and podium presenters. In addition, all 31 cars on the USF2000 grid will carry Peninsula Pipeline branding throughout the event.
Ohio Racer Leads National Class Contenders: Scott Rettich, from Camden, Ohio, will head the contingent of competitors chasing honors in the USF2000 National Class Presented by SCCA Enterprises, which features cost-effective Mazda-powered Van Diemen chassis and offers opportunities to graduate to the Championship Class in 2014. Rettich, who has multiple SCCA National Championship titles to his credit, will face opposition from Alliance Autosport teammate Ryan Verra and fellow Canadian James Dayson (ArmsUp Motorsports).
Race Week Schedule: Sebring race winners Hargrove and Alberico will be available for interviews during the Green Flag VIP Luncheon at the Renaissance Vinoy Golf Resort, beginning at 11:00 am ET on Thursday, March 21. The pair will be joined by Grist and James Fletcher, from Windsor, England (who will celebrate his 19th birthday on Saturday), in the Festival of States Parade at 7:00 pm that same evening.
The on-track action will commence on Friday, March 22 with a pair of practice sessions at 8:00-8:30 am and 3:40-4:10 pm. Official qualifying will run from 8:00-8:30 am on Saturday morning, followed by an autograph session at the INDYCAR Fan Village (located between Turns Four and Five) from 10:00-10:30 am and then Race 1 which will start at 12:15 pm. The green flag for Sunday’s Race 2, the Peninsula Pipeline Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, will fly at 9:30 am.
From Tamy Valkosky, Public Relations USF2000