He might already have this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – and a Mazda Scholarship worth at least $325,000 to graduate onto the next rung of the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder in 2019 – under his belt, but now Kyle Kirkwood has his eyes set on the record books. Specifically, he is targeting the standard of most wins in a single USF2000 season, which currently stands to former Verizon IndyCar Series driver J.R. Hildebrand, who won 12 times en route to the championship title in 2006 – coincidentally, the last time USF2000 graced the flat but challenging Portland International Raceway in the Pacific Northwest.
Kirkwood, 19, from Jupiter, Fla., took another step toward that mark this afternoon as he claimed his 11th win of the season for Cape Motorsports.
Igor Fraga provisionally claimed second place for Exclusive Autosport, only for the Japanese-born Brazilian to receive a post-race penalty for avoidable contact which elevated Calvin Ming (Pabst Racing), from Georgetown, Guyana, into second place and Kory Enders (DEForce Racing), from Sugarland, Texas, into third.
Kirkwood set out his stall early by posting the fastest lap in qualifying on Friday to secure his fifth pole of the season at a new lap record of 1m10.9581s, an average speed of 99.642mph. He narrowly maintained his advantage as the 18-car field funneled into the tight Festival Curves chicane for the first time, but he wasn’t able to prevent Pabst Racing’s Swedish rookie Rasmus Lindh from driving around the outside of him to take the lead at Turn 2.
Teammate Kaylen Frederick, who started second, had pulled alongside Kirkwood into the braking area for Turn 1, only to receive a hefty bump from Fraga which sent him into the escape road. With all of the other shuffling in the first couple of corners, Frederick, from Potomac, Md., was able to resume in third behind only Lindh and Kirkwood, while Fraga emerged in fourth ahead of Enders and Braden Eves, from Columbus, Ohio, who was enjoying an impressive debut with Newman Wachs Racing.
After leading across the line at the end of the opening lap, Lindh, by his own admission, failed to close the door on Kirkwood as they headed once again into Turn 1. Kirkwood saw his opportunity and required no second bidding as he dived to the inside and regained the advantage.
Try as he did, though, Kirkwood was unable to make any ground on his pursuers. The recently crowned champion turned an impressive series of consistently quick laps, including the fastest of the race, a new record 1m11.2010s (99.289mph), on Lap 14, but still Lindh and Frederick remained in tight formation directly behind him.
The Pabst pair were granted seemingly a lifeline when the caution flags waved after 19 laps due to an incident in the midfield. The restart came with four laps remaining, but while they swarmed either side of Kirkwood entering Turn 1 at the restart, both effectively left their braking just a fraction late and skated off wide to the outside of Turn 1.
Kirkwood gratefully picked his way through and emerged with an appreciable advantage, which he held to the end to notch his 11th victory of the season.
“Honestly, it’s still hard to wrap my head around this,” said Kirkwood. “I had no time to think during the action in that race – it was one of the wildest races this season. The start and restart were crazy, with guys bump-drafting through the first turn. I expected Kaylen to try to throw it in there and I got out of the way, but I didn’t realize Igor was trying to go right behind him. We touched and it bent my (wheel) rim, but it was a fight. I couldn’t be happier to have made it out of Turn 1.
“Everyone asks me about the record, but we’ve already had a fantastic season and I don’t want to add pressure for me or the team. We just want to have fun, and that’s how it should be. I’ll do the best I can but no matter what, this has been a great season.”
After taking the checkered flag in second, Fraga was later adjudged to have been at fault in a multiple incidents, which relegated him to 15th in the final results.
Ming inherited the position and also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award after working his way up from ninth on the grid.
Enders followed home in third to claim his first podium finish ahead of the recovering Lindh, who, following the penalty to Fraga, was able to strengthen his hold on second place in the championship with just one race remaining tomorrow afternoon. Lindh now holds a 15-point edge over teammate Lucas Kohl, who battled back from an early incident to finish fifth.
The result also allowed Pabst Racing to eke out a 12-point advantage, 321-309, over Cape Motorsports in its quest for a second consecutive Team Championship. The final outcome will be decided in tomorrow’s 16th and final round of the season, which is set to start at 3:20 p.m.