PALMETTO, Fla. – Teams and drivers from the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, the primary training ground for American open-wheel racing, are chomping at the bit. Almost four months later than originally scheduled, both the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship will finally take the green flag later this week with the Grand Prix of Road America Honoring First Responders at scenic Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis.
Their season was all set to start in early March on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The traditional Spring Training open test at Homestead-Miami Speedway had been completed and even the initial practice sessions at St. Petersburg were in the books; but it had quickly become apparent that the COVID-19 health crisis was worsening. Within hours, the remainder of the weekend was canceled and the entire racing calendar was put on hold.
Now, following the implementation of strict protocols for social-distancing and PPE, two races will be held for each series this coming Friday, July 10, in advance of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES event on Saturday and Sunday.
The top rung on the development ladder, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, has been placed on hiatus for this year but the other two series will undertake full 18-race campaigns. Uniquely in the world of auto racing, both Road to Indy champions will earn a graduation scholarship to include a guaranteed contract to compete on the next level in 2021.
Thompson Still Chasing First Title
After finishing third through fifth in last year’s Indy Pro 2000 championship, Parker Thompson, Sting Ray Robb and Danial Frost are hoping that their experience will stand them in good stead as they aim for a scholarship which would enable them to make the step up to Indy Lights next year.
Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, has finished among the top three in each of the past two seasons. Prior to that he placed second and third in a pair of USF2000 campaigns. He has now joined forces with DEForce Racing as he chases an elusive first championship crown. Thompson will line up alongside experienced teammates Kory Enders, from Sugar Land, Texas, and Moises de la Vara, from Guadalajara, Mexico, plus Mexican newcomer Manuel Sulaiman.
On the other hand, Robb hopes that stability will be the key to his future. Still only 18 years of age, Robb, from Payette, Idaho, remains with two-time defending Team Championship winner Juncos Racing for his fourth season at this level. He will be joined by Russian second-year racer Artem Petrov and rookie Nate Aranda, from Albuquerque, N.M.
Frost, also 18, from Singapore, originally planned to compete in Indy Lights after winning twice last year. Instead he has rejigged his plans and will join former Indy Lights race winner Peter Dempsey’s Turn 3 Motorsport team alongside Canadian Antoine Comeau, who ran a partial campaign in 2019. Frost impressed during the recent Open Test at Mid-Ohio by posting the fastest time.
While Thompson, Robb and Frost will start among the title favorites, they face a group of talented rookies who have every intention of claiming the championship at their first attempt. Among them are three of the top four finishers in last year’s USF2000 title-chase: Braden Eves, Hunter McElrea and Colin Kaminsky.
Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, clinched the crown in sensational style with a come-from-behind victory in the final race. This year he joins Exclusive Autosport as he seeks to emulate fellow former Team USA Scholarship winner Kyle Kirkwood by winning Road to Indy titles in consecutive seasons.
“I’m super excited to be heading to a race weekend,” said Eves. “We’ve had our time away and now we’re back into race mode. This is a very competitive field so it’s going to be difficult, just like it was for me last year. Hunter McElrea was extremely good all last year so to win the title in a do-or-die moment was huge, and that’s what it’s going to take again this season. But having done that was such a confidence boost, and with all the testing we’ve had and the pace we’ve shown, we’re in an even better position than we were last year, so we just have to get the job done. I know Exclusive Autosport is up to the task.”
McElrea was desperately unfortunate to miss out last year by the narrowest of margins, having suffered a mechanical problem in qualifying for the season finale which obliged him to start at the back of the field. But the gifted New Zealander certainly made his mark during an impressive rookie campaign. He remains with the same Wisconsin-based team, Pabst Racing, as he graduates to the next level with close friend Colin Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill. Kaminsky’s father, Bob, a veteran campaigner at this level, will drive the team’s third Tatuus PM-18
“This race (Road America) last year was a turning point for me, with my first win, so to start the season here is very cool,” said McElrea. “We’ve had really good tests as well, so it gives us a great deal of confidence going into the weekend, especially since it’s the team’s home track. Because of the extra time we’ve had, I feel that the team and I are even more prepared than we were at the start of the year, so I’m ready to get the season started.”
Devlin DeFrancesco is another name to watch. The 20-year-old Canadian commences his maiden season of North American racing with the famed Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport team after performing extremely well in a variety of European open-wheel championships in recent years.
BNRacing with Team Benik will enter two cars for impressive youngster Jacob Loomis, from Corinth, Texas, and the only woman in the field, Sabré Cook, from Grand Junction, Colo., who is focusing on Indy Pro 2000 after a second year of the all-female W Series in Europe was placed on hiatus. Veteran Charles Finelli, from Locust Valley, N.Y., will complete the expected 17-car field.
A trio of 45-minute test sessions on Thursday, July 9, at 9:00 a.m., 11:45 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. will be followed by 30 minutes of official practice at 5:00 p.m. Qualifying at 8:50 a.m. will set the ball rolling on Friday, July 10, leading into a pair of 50 minute races at 12:15 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. All times CDT.
Rasmussen Aims to Break the Cape Stranglehold
Expatriate English brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape have created a remarkable legacy by guiding one of their drivers to the USF2000 championship in each of the last nine years. Cape Motorsports once again is loaded for bear with entries for Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y., who narrowly topped the timing charts during a final preseason test last week at Mid-Ohio, former karting rival Josh Green, from Mount Kisco, N.Y., Reece Gold, from Miami, Fla., and Kyle Dupell, from Portland, Ore.
“I’m so glad to be able to get back out racing,” said Green, who impressed during a one-off USF2000 weekend last year at Portland after finishing second in the competitive F1600 Championship Series. Green also claimed a coveted Team USA Scholarship.
“We’ve tested and done race simulations, but it’s just not the same. We have a great team this year; I’ve known all the other drivers for years through karting and it’s been a lot of fun to work with them. We’re competitive on track but we have a great relationship off track, which is huge. Of course there is added pressure, but it’s not just because of the Capes’ streak: for me, it’s also because the past three Team USA Scholarship drivers have gone on to win the USF2000 championship (Oliver
Askew, Kyle Kirkwood and Braden Eves). But my mindset is to do the best I can and get the best finish I can in every race, and the rest will take care of itself.”
This year, ironically, another English-born team principal, Jay Howard, who himself won championships in USF2000 and Indy Lights, hopes to end that streak. Jay Howard Driver Development will field no fewer than five Tatuus USF-17s, with talented Danish driver Christian Rasmussen among the title favorites after winning three times in 2019. Rasmussen also finished on the podium in seven of the final eight races, placing third in the title-chase.
“I’ll try and continue where I left off at the end of last season,” said Rasmussen. “I’m pretty calm about me being the ‘favorite’ – I don’t plan to let it affect me, I will come to each day with the same approach as always, with the same preparation and the same mindset. We have a good team and I’m ready to be back at the racetrack.”
Christian Bogle, from Covington, La., Wyatt Brichacek, from Johnstown, Colo., Nolan Siegel, from Palo Alto, Calif., and rookie Bijoy Garg, from Atherton, Calif., also will run under the JHDD banner.
Pabst Racing, based nearby Road America in Oconomowoc, Wis., also has established a strong legacy in USF2000. After claiming three consecutive Team Championships, Augie Pabst III has his eyes firmly fixed on an elusive first drivers’ crown, especially after Hunter McElrea only narrowly missed out on the title in 2019.
Second-generation Brazilian racer Eduardo Barrichello, will lead the charge alongside fellow veterans Matt Round-Garrido, from Stourbridge, England, and Yuven Sundaramoorthy, who, coincidentally, was born in Oconomowoc but now lives in Guilderland, N.Y. Barrichello ended last year on a high by qualifying on the front row of the grid for the season finale. He also posted the fastest time during the lone practice session at St. Petersburg in March before the event was halted.
Four additional multi-car teams will complete an extremely competitive 21-car field.
Last year’s Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series champion Prescott Campbell, fellow Californian Christian Brooks and Oregonian rookie Josh Pierson will represent Exclusive Autosport, with Canadian Nico Christodoulou and Brazilian Kiko Porto lining up for DEForce Racing.
Legacy Autosport will have two cars for Australian Cameron Shields, a race winner last year, and young Floridian Ayrton Ori. And finally, but certainly not least, Miller Vinatieri Motorsports will be looking for breakthrough results for Jack William Miller, from Carmel, Ind., who topped the timing charts during one session last week at Mid-Ohio, and fellow teenager Max Kaeser, from Keystone, Colo.
The USF2000 contenders will follow a similar schedule to their more experienced peers in Indy Pro 2000 with three 45-minute tests and one 30-minute official practice on Thursday, plus qualifying and two 40-minute races on Saturday, at 11:15 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. CDT.
All practice, qualifying and race events will feature live audio and live Timing & Scoring available on the Road to Indy TV App, the Road to Indy TV website and the respective series websites at indypro2000.com and usf2000.com.
About the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires: Celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2020, the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is one of the most successful driver development programs in the world. Comprised of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the ladder system provides a unique, scholarship-funded path to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and Indianapolis 500. The NTT INDYCAR SERIES grid is comprised of numerous drivers who have come through the Road to Indy. In 2019, 23 of the 33 starters in the Indianapolis 500 were graduates including nine Indy Lights champions. The mission of the Road to Indy is to develop and advance, and that includes not only drivers but teams and personnel as well. More information can be found at www.roadtoindy.info, www.indylights.com, www.indypro2000.com, www.usf2000.com, www.roadtoindy.tv and www.indycar.com.
About Cooper Tire & Rubber Company: Cooper Tire & Rubber Company is the parent company of a global family of companies that specializes in the design, manufacture, marketing and sale of innovative, great-performing tires that you can count on to last for thousands of miles, getting you where you need to go, and back again. Cooper is proud to be the spec tire for all three levels of the Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, a development program within the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Cooper tires can also be seen on the track in rally, rallycross and short course off-road racing. Headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, Cooper, with its subsidiaries, has manufacturing, sales, distribution, technical and design operations in more than one dozen countries around the world. Connect with Cooper on Twitter and Instagram by following @TeamCooperTire or visit our website at www.coopertire.com.