After one exploratory outing at the end of last year, then joining forces over the winter with eight-time defending champion team Cape Motorsports, Braden Eves began the new Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship season with one goal and one goal only: to win. The 19-year-old from New Albany, Ohio, did just that in today’s season-opening St. Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen RacePark.
Eves, who secured the pole position in qualifying yesterday afternoon, was never seriously challenged during a crash-marred 40-minute race. He held off another equally impressive rookie, Manuel Sulaiman (DEForce Racing), from Puebla, Mexico, by just 0.4372s following a one-lap dash to the checkered flag. Another rookie, New Zealander Hunter McElrea, from Gold Coast, Australia, rounded out the podium for Pabst Racing.
“I was really focused on getting a good start and making sure there wasn’t any pressure going into Turn 2. After the final yellow, I was able to make sure Manuel didn’t go on the inside of me and from there I focused on not making mistakes and keeping it clean,” related Eves. “Cape has such a winning history so to continue that on, from what Kyle Kirkwood was able to do last year — and at their home grand prix — feels great. People think it’s a lot of pressure on me, but they give me and my teammates an incredible amount of support and that really helps.”
The race began in somewhat messy fashion when one of the pre-race favorites, Frenchman Alex Baron, found his Legacy Autosport Tatuus USF-17 pointing skyward even before Turn 1 (pictured). Baron, who won at St. Petersburg last year but qualified a disappointing seventh this time around, was caught out in the braking area and launched off the back of one of his rivals’ rear tires. Miraculously, while several contenders were forced to take evasive action, including outside front row qualifier McElrea, as Baron’s car cartwheeled into the escape road, no one else was caught up in the melee and Baron was unscathed.
One lap later, with the field still running under caution as a result of the first-turn incident, Nate Aranda (Team E-JAY) also crashed heavily in Turn 14. When Aranda reported that he was experiencing some back pain, officials displayed the red flags while the rookie was extracted from his damaged car. He was transported to Bayfront Health St. Petersburg for precautionary X-rays.
Eves maintained his composure at the front of the field at the restart and held onto his lead ahead of Sulaiman, who had started third, and the recovering McElrea. Next in line was Danish rookie Christian Rasmussen, who had vaulted his Jay Howard Driver Development entry from ninth on the grid.
Rasmussen lost a position to Indianapolis native Zach Holden (BN Racing) at the restart, then gained it back following another brief full-course caution after Mexican Manuel Cabrera (Exclusive Autosport) crashed in Turn Eight.
One more single-car incident involving Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports) left enough time for merely a one-lap dash to the finish during which Eves comfortably held off Sulaiman, who was delighted with second place after his team worked late last night to repair his car following an incident in the second qualifying session. McElrea, last year’s Australian Formula Ford champion who earned his drive after winning the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200k Scholarship Shootout last December finished third ahead of Rasmussen, who held off Holden to ensure five different teams were represented in the top five positions.
Brazil’s Bruna Tomaselli, the only female in the field, took sixth for Pabst Racing, while Darren Keane (Cape Motorsports) earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from 19th on the grid to seventh. Keane also earned a championship point for posting the fastest lap of the race.
Yuven Sundaramoorthy (Pabst Racing), Anthony Famularo (BN Racing) and 14-year-old Floridian Reece Gold (Cape Motorsports) completed the top 10.
Round 2 of the championship, the St. Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen Interior Contracting, will take place tomorrow afternoon at 12:20 p.m. ET.