Braden Eves put behind him a sequence of (by his standards) mediocre results of late in this afternoon’s Cooper Tires Indy Pro 2000 Oval Challenge of St. Louis at a sweltering World Wide Technology Raceway in Madison, Ill. After moving into the lead at the start, Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, went on to secure his third win of the season, thrusting himself and the Exclusive Autosport team back into contention for the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and a scholarship valued at over $718,000 to graduate into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2022.
Current championship leader Christian Rasmussen (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Copenhagen, Denmark, finished second ahead of New Zealand’s Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing).
“This is a big weight off our shoulders, just huge relief right now,” Eves said. “We didn’t test here, everyone else did so they have plenty of data and we came in blind. We rolled out great straight out of the gate, so kudos to the team. James (Roe) didn’t quite have the pace that he did in qualifying so I was able to get the lead early and started to check out before the yellow. Rasmussen did a great job, he was following me super close so I couldn’t make a mistake. I had to calculate where to punch off in order to keep him behind me. I’m so proud of the team, they did a great job and it’s a great way to get the momentum reversed. This win is massive for us. Rasmussen looked vulnerable this weekend but you can never count them out, they’re always in the hunt. But we’re clawing back in points.”
Qualifying yesterday afternoon for the second and final race oval event of the year saw Irishman James Roe secure the first-ever Cooper Tires Pole Award for both himself and Turn 3 Motorsport. But Roe was unable to hold that advantage for long as Eves, who qualified second, blew past him on the outside line to take the lead into Turn 1 on the opening lap.
— Team Cooper Tire (@TeamCooperTire) August 21, 2021
Rasmussen, too, was on a charge early. After starting an uncharacteristic seventh, the Dane overtook several cars around the outside line in Turns 1 and 2, then gained another couple of positions in Three and Four to emerge in third place after just one circuit around the egg-shaped 1.25-mile oval.
Eves edged clear of Roe in the opening stages, while Rasmussen piled on the pressure in third with McElrea easing clear of a jostling group led initially by Reece Gold (Juncos Hollinger Racing), from Miami, Fla., who had started third.
Eves’ Russian teammate Artem Petrov also was in the midst of that battle, as was Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports), from Carmel, Ind., until they made contact at Turn 1 on Lap seven before sliding helplessly, and hard, into the outside retaining wall. Cue the caution flags as both badly damaged cars were removed. The drivers were taken to medical and subsequently released.
Rasmussen was on the move again at the restart, overtaking Roe and immediately tucking under Eves’ rear wing. McElrea followed him through into third place.
— Team Cooper Tire (@TeamCooperTire) August 21, 2021
Eves remained under pressure throughout the remainder of the 55-lap race, but maintained his slim advantage expertly to take the checkered flag just 0.7313s ahead to secure a fourth PFC Award for Exclusive Autosport’s Michael Duncalfe as the winning team owner.
Rasmussen had to be content with second and both the Tilton Hard Charger Award and The Ticket Clinic Fastest Lap Award.
“We’ve been struggling so much this weekend,” Rasmussen said. “We tested here a few weeks ago and we were so quick, but back this week and it just didn’t work. We had to turn the entire car around and got it together just in time for race day. We had a good warmup this morning but just didn’t have it in time for qualifying and had to start back in seventh. But to get where we are now, considering where we started, this is a great result. It’s the championship that’s the most important part of it now, and I think we salvaged the best we could in the end.”
McElrea, who had won the most recent race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in early July, ran a relatively lonely race to finish third, well clear of Roe, who held off a determined challenge from Indy Pro 2000 debutant Nolan Siegel (DEForce Racing), from Palo Alto, Calif.
“We dominated in testing, practice, warm-up. We had the best one-lap speed of anyone but we made a mistake in our qualifying setup and started fifth,” McElrea said. “That first green lap was madness, guys going three wide. We really had to claw through – I probably underestimated how big the tow was on that first lap. I got into third on the restart from the yellow and I was one of the fastest cars out there – I just wasn’t as close as I needed to be at the end. Overall, I’m happy with the weekend, it’s another podium, good points and we know we have good pace. Considering all the bad luck we had in the middle of the year, we’ll take that and keep going.”
Siegel, 16, who regularly competes in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, the first rung of the Road to Indy ladder, gained some valuable experience of the faster cars as he worked his way from 10th in the early stages to finishing a fighting fifth.
The Indy Pro 2000 Championship contenders will continue next weekend, August 28/29, for a triple-header road course event at New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville, N.J.
Provisional championship points after 13 of 18 rounds:
1. Christian Rasmussen, 345
2. Braden Eves, 313
3. Reece Gold, 274
4. Hunter McElrea, 264
5. Artem Petrov, 264
6. Manuel Sulaiman, 214
7. Jacob Abel, 210
8. Kyffin Simpson, 192
9. James Roe, 157
10. Wyatt Brichacek, 144