A new Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires racing season kicks off this coming week on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. The event, which will commence with practice and qualifying on Thursday, March 12, will be held on a 1.8-mile downtown street circuit in conjunction with the opening round of the NTT IndyCar Series.
Today, a few hundred miles to the south, teams and drivers on the first two of three rungs of the open-wheel racing development ladder – the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – completed their preparations with the traditional two-day “Spring Training” test at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
The Canadian-owned Exclusive Autosport team laid down a marker as last year’s USF2000 champion Braden Eves emerged fastest of the Indy Pro 2000 Championship contingent, while Prescott Campbell (pictured above) set the pace in USF2000 testing.
The third and final step on the ladder, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, will be in action tomorrow on the 2.21-mile road course situated an hour or so south of Miami, Fla.
In all, more than $2.7 million in scholarships and prizes will be distributed among the three open-wheel development series this year, providing opportunities for talented young race car drivers to work their way from the grassroots of the sport all the way to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
Eves steps up in Indy Pro 2000
One year ago, Eves was preparing to begin his first season on the Road to Indy. Now, after clinching the USF2000 title and claiming a scholarship of more than $600,000 to facilitate the next step into Indy Pro 2000, he has a much better understanding of what he needs to do to continue his ascent on the auto racing ladder. And even though his track time this weekend was limited by a few mechanical difficulties, Eves didn’t allow that to distract him one iota.
Indeed, after completing just a handful of laps yesterday, he ended the day fifth on the timing charts. Eves (pictured above) built upon that base superbly this morning, taking advantage of slightly cooler conditions to post the fastest lap of the weekend at 1m18.4405s. Eves’ time was more than three-quarters of a second faster than the unofficial testing record set two years ago by Brazilian Carlos Cunha.
“We’ve done a lot of off-season testing and this test just confirms that we’re quick,” said Eves, who began his career last year by winning both races in St. Petersburg. “We had some mechanical issues this weekend that were out of our control, but better here than St. Pete. This series is super competitive and anything can happen but it’s good to see where we are compared to the rest of the field. The pace is good, and the car feels amazing, so I’m feeling good heading into the first race weekend.
“To be perfectly honest, I didn’t feel as though I was driving very well heading into that first weekend last season and I didn’t feel confident, but this year I have the utmost confidence in my team and in myself. I’ve done it before; I know I can do it again. It is so cool to win in St. Pete and you can get some good momentum right out of the gate.”
Road to Indy veteran Parker Thompson ended the test second fastest at 1m18.7347s for DEForce Racing.
“I’m happy with what we’ve done this weekend, but it’s Spring Training,” noted Thompson, who finished second in last year’s Indy Pro 2000 title-chase. “I’m ready to get to St. Pete and start racing. I had two wins and a new track record last year and I feel as though I’m in an even better position this year. I’m glad this test is done because I’m ready to get to St. Pete.”
Hunter McElrea, who finished a close second to Eves in last year’s USF2000 championship chase, only announced his deal to step up to Indy Pro 2000 with Pabst Racing on Friday, but the talented New Zealander lost no time in getting up to speed in the significantly faster car. He ended the day third fastest on 1m18.7665s.
“We’d like to be P1 but we’re happy with the car and that’s the most important thing,” said McElrea. “We just chipped away at it and made the car better and better throughout the weekend. The boys did a great job to get us to this point but there’s plenty of more work to be done before St. Pete. I am less nervous this year than last year – last year’s race was my first USF2000 and Road to Indy race, and my first street track. It was a good weekend, with double podiums so I’m looking for even better this year.”
Toby Sowery, who will compete this year in Indy Lights, was invited to take a step backward this weekend in order to assist the relatively new Turn 3 Motorsport team in dialing in its Tatuus PM-18. Sowery did so in style, turning the fourth fastest time at 1m18.9336s, just ahead of Indy Pro 2000 veteran Sting Ray Robb, who remains with Juncos Racing after finishing fourth in the championship last year.
Teammate Artem Petrov ended the weekend sixth fastest ahead of Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing), from Homer Glen, Ill., and DEForce Racing teammates Kory Enders (DEForce Racing) and Manuel Sulaiman.
The Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires and Allied Building Products will begin on Thursday, March 12, with a 30-minute practice session at 12:45 p.m. EDT, followed by qualifying for Race One at 3:45 p.m. The opening race of the season will start at 1:25 p.m. on Friday. Qualifying for Race Two is slated for later that same day at 5:30 p.m., with the green flag due to fly on Saturday at 11:45 a.m.
Campbell leads the wWay in USF2000
A 19-year-old motorsport engineering student at Oxford-Brookes University in England, Campbell earned his opportunity to graduate onto the first step of the Road to Indy by pocketing a scholarship valued at $75,000 for winning last year’s Lucas Oil School Formula Car Series. Clearly he is intent on putting that to good use. Campbell posted the fastest time of the two-day test this morning at 1m23.6719s – just over a tenth quicker than the unofficial lap record which was established two years ago by Kyle Kirkwood – and, despite his rookie status, will start as one of the favorites for next weekend’s USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark and Cooper Tires.
“This is a big confidence booster going into St. Pete,” said Campbell. “Coming into this Spring Training test, I didn’t know what to expect from myself compared to my competitors. It’s the first time we’ve tested against the full grid. I think I surpassed my expectations and some other expectations as well.
“There will be a lot to learn next weekend but, of course, the goal will be to keep the car clean. It’s a great opportunity to perform in front of a crowd and it will be great to be part of such a huge event.”
Second-generation Brazilian driver Eduardo Barrichello, who placed 11th at the conclusion of his rookie USF2000 season in 2019, was equally impressive this weekend, fastest of all on the first day and ending today second for Pabst Racing at 1m23.7074s.
“My car was very, very good,” said Barrichello, who now lives in Orlando, Fla. “The crew members on the Pabst team are very clever and they did a great job. We have long debriefs after every session so we make sure we know what we want and they’ve learned so quickly how I like the car. I already feel at home with the team and I’m very thankful for the opportunity. It is only testing so we’re not completely sure how things will go, but to be quickest in three of the five test sessions means we’re very competitive.
“I had no expectations going into St. Pete last year, but this year I’m more relaxed,” he continued. “I know what I need to do to get it right, and with experience comes confidence. Street courses are special, because you have to get the car to the limit but you can’t get it wrong. It’s hard to get that perfect lap because you’re trying to avoid the walls, but I enjoy that! And it’s great to be so close to IndyCar – it’s an extra boost because we all want to be there. It’s great motivation.”
Former kart and rallycross star Christian Brooks continued the rookie streak by setting the third fastest time for Exclusive Autosport, followed by series veteran Christian Rasmussen, representing the Jay Howard Driver Development team. Rasmussen has high expectations for the new season and after finishing third in the 2019 standings.
“We have just been running our own show, to be honest,” said Rasmussen, who finished on the podium last year on his USF2000 debut on the streets of St. Petersburg. “We haven’t been that focused on lap time, we’ve just been doing our prep for St. Pete. We are 100 percent focused on next weekend – there are no points awarded for testing. I think we’ll be very competitive next weekend and that was the main goal for this weekend. I definitely feel more confident this year going into St. Pete. I had the fastest lap last year so I’m looking forward to getting back there and competing for the top spot. I love the street circuits and I love coming to Florida – it’s cold back home!”
Cameron Shields, a race winner last year despite running only a partial season, was fifth fastest this weekend for Legacy Autosport, with Michael d’Orlando (Cape Motorsports), Nolan Siegel (Jay Howard Driver Development), Matt Round-Garrido (Pabst Racing), Kiko Porto (DEForce Racing) and Reece Gold (Cape Motorsports), completing the top 10 in testing.
The first race weekend of the new season, which commences a second decade for the Road to Indy, will begin with a half-hour practice session for the 20-strong USF2000 field at 12 noon on Thursday, March 12, then continue with a pair of 20-minute qualifying sessions at 2:15 p.m. EDT and 4:20 p.m. Race 1 will take the green flag at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, with the start of Race 2 slated for 12:40 p.m. on Saturday.