The wide-open nature of this year’s Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires was exemplified perfectly today at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. Juncos Racing teammates Artem Petrov, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, and Sting Ray Robb, from Payette, Idaho, scored one win apiece from a pair of thrilling 25-lap contests which provided some spectacular wheel-to-wheel action at the midweek Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio Presented by Cooper Tires Honoring First Responders.
Canadian Devlin DeFrancesco claimed a slender points lead following a pair of podium finishes for Andretti Steinbrenner Racing, while rising New Zealand star Hunter McElrea finally put a difficult start to his season behind him with a fine second-place finish in the final race for Pabst Racing.
Ohioan Braden Eves continued his good work from yesterday by claiming another Cooper Tires Pole Award for the Exclusive Autosport team during an extremely competitive qualifying session this morning. Eves edged out Robb by just 0.0208 of a second. Pre-event points leader Danial Frost (Turn 3 Motorsport), from Singapore, also was within the same tenth of a second as the top seven were blanketed by less than a half-second.
Eves duly held the lead from the start but was unable to put any space between himself and a snarling pack of Tatuus PM-18s battling away in his wake.
Petrov lost no time in working his way forward from his fourth-place starting position. A race winner earlier this month for the first time at Road America, Petrov swept past Frost for third place on Lap Three under braking for Turn Four, and two laps later rounded up teammate Robb for second.
A couple of laps later Petrov made his move on Eves, sweeping through into the lead into Turn Four, and soon began to cement his authority.
A brief full-course caution after nine laps, following a spin by Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing) in Turn Four, saw Petrov in the lead, followed by Eves, Canadian Parker Thompson (DEForce Racing), who had moved swiftly from sixth on the grid, then Frost and DeFrancesco, who was also on the move after qualifying eighth.
Petrov benefited from a huge battle in his wake, moving clear and going on to an emphatic victory by over eight seconds.
“I have a good feeling for the track in conditions like this,” said Petrov. “I have done a few races in the rain, so I think that helped. I didn’t have a great start, losing a position when I missed an upshift. Then I saw that not many of the other drivers were hitting the apex and I was, so I was faster in the corners. I made a few overtakes in Turn Five, I really enjoyed that corner. It was really changing conditions which made for a hard race but I tried not to make any mistakes.”
Some rain sprinkles added even more spice to the closing stages as the on-track action intensified. Eight cars were packed together in the battle for second, with positions changing on a regular basis. On lap 20, Eves’ defense finally came undone when he was forced into a spin at Turn Two. He resumed to finish a disappointed ninth.
DeFrancesco took advantage of the melee to leapfrog both Thompson and Frost, thereafter holding onto second until the end. DeFrancesco duly claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
“That was definitely one of my more hectic races,” said DeFrancesco. “The car was good in the wet conditions and I have a great deal of experience in these conditions, so I knew we’d be in good shape. It was very aggressive and hard out there, but quite fair so it was a good race.”
Behind, after slipping from second to sixth in the early stages, Robb mounted a spectacular comeback, finally usurping Frost from third with just three laps remaining. A mistake on the final lap saw Frost slip all the way to eighth behind Thompson, DEForce Racing teammate Manuel Sulaiman, McElrea and Moises de la Vara (DEForce Racing).
After being involved in early incidents, Jacob Loomis (BNRacing with Team Benik), from Corinth, Texas, Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing), from Homer Glen, Ill., and Kory Enders (DEForce Racing), from Sugar Land, Texas, all took advantage of the opportunity to make pit stops and take a fresh set of Cooper tires. Their aim? – to wrestle the fastest lap of the race and the coveted Cooper Tires Pole Award for the third and final race of the week.
It was Loomis who came out on top, snagging his first Indy Pro 2000 pole by a narrow margin over Kaminsky and Enders. Among those who didn’t have the luxury of fresh tires, Frost, Robb, Petrov and McElrea were blanketed by just 0.0105 of a second. They would line up from fourth to seventh on the grid.
The track was entirely dry again for the final race and, unsurprisingly, the action was intense during the early stages. Eves once again was unfortunate, falling victim to contact at Turn Two on the opening lap which necessitated a pit stop for repairs.
Kaminsky and Frost both muscled their way past Loomis on the opening lap. A couple of laps later, after somehow managing to race side-by-side all the way from Turn Four to Turn Nine, the pair clashed wheels as they headed up Thunder Valley. Kaminsky headed forlornly to the pits, his race done, although Frost was able to continue, albeit at the back of the pack.
Incredibly, another of the title protagonists, Petrov, also suffered damage during the early laps. He, too, was out of contention for the win, although Frost did gain the small consolation of a championship point for the fastest lap.
All of a sudden Robb found himself in the lead, and he was soon able to establish a small but comfortable margin over Loomis. McElrea, though, was on the move, having started seventh. He found a way past Loomis for second after 12 laps and gradually began to whittle away at Robb’s two-second advantage.
The two leaders ran nose-to-tail for the final couple of laps, but a joyful Robb kept his wits about him and finally, in his 49th Indy Pro 2000 start, was rewarded with a long overdue maiden victory. Robb’s fine effort ensured a second PFC Award in one day for team owner Ricardo Juncos.
“I started crying halfway through the in-lap, so that’s the only explanation I have for the emotions right now! It’s almost overwhelming,” said Robb. “All this time we’ve been waiting and working hard and finally our day came. I’m so thankful for all the opportunities I’ve gotten in the Road to Indy the last few years. The car was stellar, we should have been on pole, but we were able to get into the lead and hold on. But Hunter was hot on my tail, huge props to him.
(Re the mayhem of the first few laps) “I think it actually helped calmed me down, kind of the calm in the storm. I think that comes from all my experience here over the past few years. I’m thankful that I got through all that, so hopefully it opens the floodgates.”
McElrea was content with second, while Loomis narrowly held onto third, only to subsequently lose the position due to a technical infraction.
“That was a fun race,” said McElrea. “It’s been a really, really tough start to the season so to have some momentum now, to be back where we belong and to show what we’ve got, it feels good. It feels like a mini-win, since we chased Sting Ray down from so far back. It’s hard to pass here but in this race, I was able to get after it and get my elbows out a bit. Congrats to Sting Ray, I’m happy for him. It’s great to see him get his first win, even though I’d have liked to steal it from him! We’ll take this momentum back here next week and do it even better.”
DeFrancesco therefore was gifted third, which was enough to catapult him into a one-point advantage over Robb heading into another double-header at Mid-Ohio next week, August 8-9, in support of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Thompson finished tucked underneath DeFrancesco’s rear wing in fourth, chased by teammates Enders and Sulaiman, with Canadian Antoine Comeau securing the Tilton Hard Charger Award in seventh after starting 15th.
Provisional championship points after five of 17 rounds:
1. Devlin DeFrancesco, 107
2. Sting Ray Robb, 106
3. Danial Frost, 101
4. Artem Petrov, 100
5. Braden Eves, 94
6. Parker Thompson, 72
7. Manuel Sulaiman, 68
8. Hunter McElrea, 66
9. Colin Kaminsky, 63
10. Antoine Comeau, 57