Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen claimed a stylish maiden Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires victory this morning on the streets of St. Petersburg for the Jay Howard Driver Development team. After knocking on the door of victory lane in each of the opening three races of the season, last year’s winner of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship overtook polesitter New Zealander Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) before driving away into the distance.
McElrea held onto second place until the final lap when he was out-fumbled by the Juncos Racing pair of Manuel Sulaiman and Reece Gold, who rounded out the podium and relegated a disconsolate McElrea to fourth.
McElrea entered the second leg of the Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires on a high after adding his first Cooper Tires Pole Award in qualifying on Friday to the maiden victory he scored on the very same streets in the 2020 season finale. But right from the start it was apparent that he would have a battle on his hands to improve upon his third position from yesterday.
McElrea was forced to defend his pole advantage at the first corner from Rasmussen, who started second, and it was more of the same when the race resumed following a full-course caution due to incidents further down the field on the opening lap.
It took only two laps after the restart for Rasmussen to make his move – a decisive late-braking move to the inside at the end of the longest straight into Turn 1. He immediately romped clear, extending his margin to over 4.5 seconds before another brief caution after 17 laps due to Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports), from Carmel, Ind., collecting the tire barrier in Turn 10.
Undaunted, Rasmussen rapidly pulled away again at the restart and clinched The Ticket Clinic Fastest Lap Award on the 25th and final lap to cement an accomplished victory. The 13th victory of Rasmussen’s burgeoning Road to Indy career was enough to equal the tally of team owner Jay Howard, tied for 11th on the all-time list. He also secured a first Indy Pro 2000 PFC Award for Howard as the winning car owner.
“I got a good run on Hunter and drafted all the way down the front straight, and he didn’t really defend so I made a last-minute dive bomb to the inside in Turn 1 and got by,” related Rasmussen. “From there, I pretty much checked out, even with the yellow flag. I had an amazing car all weekend and I’m so happy to get my first Indy Pro 2000 win and my first win at St. Pete.
“It’s been a long time coming. I had so many emotions at the checkered flag but for me, it’s all about the championship — it’s all we’re thinking about. Getting max points today is crucial, especially with all the guys that I’m chasing finishing further down. The win today is amazing but the championship is the most important thing.”
While Rasmussen motored into the distance, there was no respite for McElrea. The Kiwi still had the entire remainder of the field filling his mirrors, led by Gold and Sulaiman, who had found a way past yesterday’s winner Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport) following the restart with five laps remaining.
Sulaiman took advantage of McElrea’s resolute defense to sneak past teammate Gold at Turn 1 with three laps to go, then drove around the outside of McElrea at the same corner on the last lap. Three corners later, Gold performed an almost identical maneuver on McElrea to secure the final podium position.
Eves found himself shuffled down to sixth in the closing stages, which meant his championship points lead was whittled down to just four points over Rasmussen.
A couple of places further back, Eves’ Exclusive Autosport teammate Artem Petrov, from Saint Petersburg, Russia, earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award after problems in qualifying had left him way back in 14th on the starting grid.
The next stop for the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires will be the Indianapolis Grand Prix, which will host a tripleheader event alongside the NTT IndyCar Series on May 14-15.