Locally based teenager Nikita Johnson put on a master class in this morning’s Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. The youngest driver in the field of 21 cars at just 14, Johnson, from nearby Gulfport, Fla., displayed maturity far beyond his years as he took the lead shortly after the start in his VRD Racing Tatuus USF-22 and held off race-long pressure from series veteran Simon Sikes (Pabst Racing) to claim his first USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires victory.
Sikes had to be content with second, despite starting from the pole position and recording the fastest race lap, while yesterday’s winner, Lochie Hughes, from Gold Coast, Australia, finished third for Jay Howard Driver Development.
The grid for today’s race was set according to either each driver’s second fastest lap set during the lone qualifying session on Friday or their fastest race lap from the opening race yesterday afternoon. After damaging his car severely following a mistake in qualifying, Sikes redeemed himself by climbing from 15th on the grid to fourth at the finish. He also posted a lap faster than anyone else had managed during qualifying to ensure his first ever Cooper Tires Pole Award.
After an initial attempt at a start this morning was waved off because the field was improperly aligned, Sikes accelerated away in the lead ahead of fellow front row starter Evagoras Papasavvas (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Loveland, Ohio. But it was Johnson, who turned out to be the early mover after starting third.
Johnson slipped past Papasavvas at Turn 1 on the opening lap. One lap later, he took advantage of Sikes leaving his braking a little too late at the end of the long start/finish straightaway and sliding wide into the marbles. Johnson quickly ducked to his inside and was through into the lead.
As the two JHDD teammates, Papasavvas and Hughes, squabbled over third, Sikes kept the pressure on Johnson, but the youngster was wise to every move. Sikes clearly had a slightly faster car, but Johnson made not the hint of a mistake, and increased his pace with each successive lap.
With two laps to go, Sikes took advantage of the draft to haul alongside the leader on the main straightaway, only to once again leave his braking a fraction too late and slide wide at Turn One, which allowed Johnson to regain the position. With that, his victory was assured.
“Yesterday we were pretty fast. We made some improvements in my driving of the car,” related Johnson. “Coming into the race, I was third. I went to the outside and got into second and stayed behind Simon. The next lap, I went and did an over/under. After that, I was in the lead and just controlled the race the whole time, backing him up in some of the corners. I knew I needed to be in front to control the race and that’s what won it. The car was very fast and super consistent.”
Hughes found a way past Papasavvas on lap 12 at Turn 13 but could make no impression on the two leaders. He nevertheless maintains a slender one-point edge over Johnson after the opening weekend of the season.
A variety of minor incidents served to break up the field, but the race remained under green for the entire duration, with DEForce Racing’s Jorge Garciarce rising from 10th on the grid to secure a career-best fifth, just ahead of Future Star Racing’s Trey Burke.
Danny Dyszelski drove a tidy race for VRD Racing, rising from 20th on the grid to a career-best seventh to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award. Dyszelski was shadowed across the finish line by teammate Gordon Scully, who had started 19th.
A fine day for VRD Racing also saw Dan Mitchell scoop the PFC Award as the winning car owner.
The USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires competitors will remain in Florida for the third and fourth rounds of the championship at Sebring International Raceway on March 25-26.
Provisional championship points after 2 of 18 races:
1. Lochie Hughes, 54
2. Nikita Johnson, 53
3. Simon Sikes, 47
4. Evagoras Papasavvas, 44
5. Trey Burke, 29
6. Sam Corry, 27
7. Jorge Garciarce, 25
8. Nicholas d’Orlando, 23
9. Danny Dyszelski, 19
10. Jacob Douglas, 19