California’s Kody Swanson has been striving for years to gain an opportunity to compete in the Indianapolis 500. Now 32, Swanson is a five-time USAC Silver Crown Series champion. Friday evening at Lucas Oil Raceway, a 0.686-mile oval situated only 15 minutes or so from the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Swanson took a big step toward that goal by winning the Cooper Tires Freedom 90. Remarkably, it was Swanson’s very first race on the highly acclaimed Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder – and in a rear-engined car, a Tatuus PM-18 entered by Legacy Autosport and co-owned by Mike Meyer, whose great-grandfather Louis was the first-ever three-time Indy 500 winner.
After qualifying second last night, Swanson swept into the lead on Lap 40 of the 90-lap race, run entirely under green-flag conditions, and controlled the remainder of the 90-lap distance to secure an emotional victory in what was also the very first start in the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires for Legacy Autosport.
“I’m 32 years old. I’ve been trying to do this for a long time, and to have the group of people around me, rallying around me to give me a chance, I’m so grateful, said Swanson. “I can’t thank Legacy Autosport, Fred Edwards at Metalloid, and Fatheadz Eyewear enough for stepping up and making this possible this weekend.”
New Zealander Hunter McElrea also drove a fine race, rising from sixth on the grid to take second for Pabst Racing. Polesitter Manuel Sulaiman, from Puebla, Mexico, had to be content with third for DEForce Racing.
The effectiveness of Swanson’s sublime performance cannot be overstated. Sure, he had plenty of experience at Lucas Oil Raceway, but he had never before raced on radial tires. The driving style necessary to extract the maximum performance from his 275-horsepower, 2.0-liter Elite Engines-powered Tatuus was completely different to that demanded by his usual thunderous V8-powered steed. Yet he took to the new discipline immediately.
By his own admission, and unsurprisingly, Swanson struggled to come to grips with the car in the early stages of the race. He almost lost control early in Turns 1 and 2, under intense pressure from series veteran Sting Ray Robb (Juncos Racing), but quickly settled down.
Sulaiman, who claimed his second Cooper Tires Pole Award Thursday night, took advantage of his greater familiarity with the car to pull out a useful advantage of almost three seconds over the course of the opening 20 laps. But by then Swanson was into his groove. The margin between them shrank steadily. By Lap 35, the two leaders were nose-to-tail, with Robb hanging on gamely in third.
Five laps later, as the leading trio worked to put a lap on Canadian Antoine Comeau (Turn 3 Motorsport) in Turns 3 and 4, Swanson used his wealth of oval-track experience to sneak alongside Sulaiman on the preferred outside line. He then edged ahead as they crossed the stripe to begin another lap. Swanson never looked back, eventually taking the checkered flag almost a quarter-lap clear of the field to secure a first-ever PFC Award for Meyer and his father, Butch, as the winning car owners.
Then, after the victory celebrations, Swanson calmly headed off to climb aboard his USAC Silver Crown car in pursuit of yet another race victory.
With Swanson long gone in the lead, the focus centered instead on the battle for second. Sulaiman had seemed to be in control, but McElrea had other ideas. After making up one position at the start, the New Zealander had to wait until the 60th lap to make any more progress, when he scythed past Robb in Turns 1 and 2. Ten laps later he overtook Frost, whereupon it took only another handful of laps to reel in Sulaiman, whom he again passed in Turns 1 and 2.
There was no catching Swanson but it was still a fine drive by McElrea, earning him the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Sulaiman held on for third, his maiden Indy Pro 2000 podium, while championship leader Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), in his first-ever oval race, somehow found a way past Frost – a dominant winner at Lucas Oil Raceway one year ago – on the final lap to finish fourth.
Robb slipped to sixth at the finish ahead of Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport), who narrowly held off Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing) and Russian Artem Petrov (Juncos Racing). Parker Thompson (DEForce Racing) was the final unlapped finisher in 10th.
The Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will return to action next week with the second oval race of the season, the Indy Pro 2000 Oval Challenge of St. Louis Presented by Cooper Tires on Saturday evening, August 29, at World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill.