Mexico’s Manuel Sulaiman (Juncos Racing) held off a race-long challenge from Russia’s Artem Petrov (Exclusive Autosport) to score his first Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires victory of the season this afternoon at Road America. The pair was separated by a hair over a half-second at the finish, with America’s Jacob Abel a similar margin behind in third for his family-run Abel Motorsports team.
An exciting 15-lap race was also notable for an incident on the opening lap which eliminated championship leader Christian Rasmussen (Jay Howard Driver Development). The Dane now holds a slender five-point edge over Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport), who drove well to climb from ninth on the grid to finish fourth.
Sulaiman secured a fifth consecutive Cooper Tires Pole Award for Juncos Racing during qualifying yesterday and was determined to parlay that performance into the Indianapolis-based team’s first win of the season. But he certainly had to work hard to turn his dreams into reality.
Sulaiman chose to wait as long as possible before mashing his Tatuus PM-18’s accelerator at the rolling start for the first of two races which will comprise this weekend’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Road America Powered by Elite Engines. His tactic worked perfectly as he was able to maintain his advantage over Petrov, who started second, on the drag race toward Turn 1.
The field made it cleanly around the first couple of corners, only for carnage to ensue as the midfield runners jockeyed for position on the exit of Turn 3. The unfortunate Rasmussen was forced out on the spot, as were Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports), Kyffin Simpson (Juncos Racing) and Rasmussen’s teammate Wyatt Brichacek.
After four laps behind the pace car while the track was cleared, Sulaiman took up from where he left off. But he remained under intense pressure from Petrov. Behind them, Juncos Racing’s Reece Gold managed to find a way past Abel for third, only for Abel to redress the balance at Turn 6 with three laps remaining.
A little farther around the same lap, at Canada Corner, Petrov managed to sneak alongside Sulaiman as they approached the braking area, and there was even a puff of tire smoke as the two leaders briefly touched wheels at one of the fastest parts of the course. But Sulaiman made sure he was on the inside line, which allowed him to maintain his lead and then keep Petrov at bay over the final couple of laps to secure his first win of the season and an overdue PFC Award for Ricardo Juncos as the winning car owner.
Sulaiman’s task in fact was made a little easier by Abel, who took The Ticket Clinic Fastest Lap Award and forced Petrov to focus more on his defense of second place than his challenge for the lead.
“That was a very tough race. Artem had a very good car, especially in the high-speed corners, but I was better on the straights,” noted Sulaiman. “He put on a lot of pressure. I’m happy we managed to win the race.
“The track changed so much compared to this morning so managing tires was really important. Huge thank you to the Juncos team because they did an awesome job. These are good points, with Christian not finishing — I’m not sure what happened but I’m glad everyone is OK. This helps the championship goal. This is a good weekend so far so we’ll build on this momentum.”
Eves, who struggled for pace in qualifying and lined up a disappointing ninth, capped his day with a bold pass on Gold in Canada Corner with two laps remaining to clinch fourth place as well as the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
The second half of the 18-race Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season will commence tomorrow morning. Following a second qualifying session held earlier today, Sulaiman again will start on pole position. The race is due to start at 9:55 a.m. CDT, immediately prior to the REV Grand Prix of Road America NTT IndyCar Series headline event.