Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen was a dominant force in today’s second leg of the Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of Alabama Presented by Cooper Tires, but it was New Zealander Hunter McElrea who claimed the victory spoils following a dramatic 30-lap contest. Rasmussen was first to the checkered flag despite a quick spin in the closing stages, but the Dane was adjudged to have unfairly impeded his rival, McElrea, as he attempted to maintain his lead following the error. The resulting 5-second penalty dropped Rasmussen to second in the final results, handing McElrea his second Indy Pro 2000 victory for Pabst Racing after also claiming the final race of the 2020 season in St. Petersburg.
Russia’s Artem Petrov finished third for Exclusive Autosport, chased across the line by American teammate Braden Eves, who still leads the standings following his victory in yesterday’s opening round.
Rasmussen, the winner of last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, started from the pole position and soon took control of the race for Jay Howard Driver Development. As with Eves yesterday, Rasmussen was content to build his speed steadily in the early stages, which allowed McElrea to stay in touch, but a series of 11 incrementally faster laps enabled the Dane to extend his lead to over two seconds.
Rasmussen continued to extend his advantage to over six seconds before making an uncharacteristic mistake on Lap 23 in Turn 5. He was able to regain control of the car but made several blocking maneuvers in order to make sure there was no way for McElrea to slip past. He was successful in that quest but the moves did not escape the purview of race control, which soon issued a 5-second penalty in accordance with the regulations which expressly prohibit drivers from making any “reactionary” moves to maintain position.
Rasmussen put his head down and seemed to be on course possibly to overcome the time penalty as he completed Lap 28 with an advantage of 3.8 seconds over McElrea after resetting fastest lap of the race — and his own lap record, which he had set on Saturday — at 1m16.6098s. But his next lap was fully three-quarters of a lap slower, and McElrea was able to complete the final lap within 3.6s of Rasmussen to assure himself of the win by 1.4102s.
“I was all over Christian for the first five laps to try and apply the pressure, but he had the most pace today,” admitted McElrea. “Having gotten sixth yesterday, I was going for points today and was ready to accept second when I came out of Turn 5 and he was stopped in the middle of the road. He put three blocks on me, so I feel as though he had the win just about in the bag but he gave it to me. He was super fast; I’m sure he’s disappointed. I love racing him, I know we’ll have some good battles this year, but I got lucky with that win and in this game, you have to take them. I probably had the second-place car today but I got lucky. This win puts me right where I need to be.”
“I was leading by quite a margin but made a mistake coming out of Turn 5, went wide, got on the curb and spun. It was completely my fault,” admitted Rasmussen. “I saw Hunter coming and went to the inside — which is where you’re supposed to go when you’re defending the position — and he went to the outside. I held my line, so I didn’t feel as though I impeded his line at all, kept the lead and pulled away again. I have to look at the video but I felt as though I kept to the rules in that situation.
“I’m not sure what I think of the penalty at the moment, but again, we have to look at the video and see what happened. Right now, I don’t think it was fair. I feel as though I deserve that victory, but that’s racing sometimes.”
McElrea’s efforts moved him to third in the championship points table, just six shy of Eves, and secured a first PFC Award of the Indy Pro 2000 season for Augie Pabst as the winning car owner.
Rasmussen had to be content with second place and his second The Ticket Clinic Fastest Lap Award in as many days.
Teammates Petrov and Eves were embroiled in a spirited battle for third following an inspired opening lap from the Russian which vaulted him from sixth on the grid and was enough to assure him of the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Jacob Abel (Abel Motorsports) also made up ground on the first lap, moving from seventh to fifth which he maintained to the finish despite intense pressure from Wyatt Brichacek (Jay Howard Driver Development) and Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing). Manuel Sulaiman (Juncos Racing) and Enaam Ahmed (RP Motorsport USA) also were in close attendance by the finish. Ahmed, in particular, posted an impressive charge after losing a couple of positions on the opening lap but then recovering from 13th to ninth.
The Indy Pro 2000 contenders will return to action in just a few days when they take on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.