All three levels of the USF Pro Championships Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel racing development ladder – USF Pro 2000, USF2000 and USF Juniors – will see action this coming weekend at Sebring International Raceway. The 3.74-mile road course hosted the traditional Spring Training pre-season test last month, marking a return to the schedule for the old-school track in central Florida for the first time in almost a decade.
The most recent USF2000 race at Sebring took place in 2013, while USF Pro 2000 last saw competition under the Star Mazda moniker in 2010.
For the two more senior series, the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of Sebring marks the second event on the 2023 calendar following an outstanding season-opening pair of races a few weeks ago just 100 miles or so to the west on the streets of St. Petersburg. There will be two races for each championship. This week also marks the start of the second season of USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires with a tripleheader event on Thursday and Friday, March 23-24.
Rowe, Porto head USF Pro 2000 field
Two races at St. Petersburg resulted in Christian Brooks and Myles Rowe, sharing the spoils for their respective Turn 3 Motorsport and Pabst Racing with Force Indy teams. Kiko Porto also enjoyed an excellent weekend for DEForce Racing with a pair of second-place finishes.
The current point standings see Rowe, who narrowly lost out on last year’s USF2000 championship, on top by a slender three-point margin over 2021 USF2000 champion Porto by virtue of finishing third in the opening encounter. Rowe will return to Sebring on the crest of a wave after also heading the timing charts at Spring Training.
Others to make a mark early this year include fellow rookies Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing), who claimed fifth and third in the first two races, and a trio of Europeans – Francesco Pizzi, Joel Granfors and Lirim Zendeli.
Pizzi started second and finished fourth in the opening race for new team TJ Speed Motorsports. Pizzi also posted the fastest race lap, securing pole position in the second race in which he finished fifth. Granfors had to work rather harder following an incident during qualifying which relegated him to 20th and last on the grid for Race 1.
After finishing second in last year’s GB3 Championship in the UK, Granfors rebounded well to claim a pair of top-10 finishes and the fastest lap of the weekend in Race 2 for Exclusive Autosport. Zendeli also showed strong pace in a second TJ Speed entry.
The field of 20 USF Pro 2000 contenders will qualify and race on Friday with a second qualifying session and race scheduled for Saturday afternoon.
Hughes leads the way in USF2000
Four drivers representing three different teams secured podium finishes during the first USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires weekend at St. Petersburg. Race 1 was a tour de force for Jay Howard Driver Development and rookie Lochie Hughes headed home Evagoras Papasavvas. In Race 2, VRD Racing’s Nikita Johnson improved from third to first to claim his first USF2000 victory.
The race winners are separated by just one point as the series heads inland to Sebring, by virtue of Hughes, who turned 21 last week, securing the bonus points for pole position and leading most laps in the first race to 14-year-old Johnson’s solitary bonus marker for leading 18 of the 20 laps in Race 2.
Simon Sikes also made an early statement for Pabst Racing, recovering from an accident in qualifying to rise from 15th on the grid to fourth. His fastest race lap was enough to secure his first-ever USF2000 pole for Race 2, although he was unable to keep Johnson behind him and had to settle for second place. Sikes will arrive in Sebring brimming with confidence after pacing the field at Spring Training.
Other likely contenders will include Sam Corry (VRD Racing) and Jorge Garciarce (DEForce Racing), who each earned a top-five finish in St. Petersburg.
In addition, another former karting star, Max Garcia, will make his USF2000 debut for Pabst Racing after celebrating his 14th birthday last Friday. Garcia was too young to contest the opening races of the season.
The 20-car USF2000 field will take to the track for the first time on Saturday morning with a pair of races on Saturday and Sunday.
Debut races for new USF Juniors Tatuus
USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires will kick off their season on Thursday and Friday with the first three of ultimately 16 races this year. A field of 13 cars is expected, headed by 18-year-old Joey Brienza, who starts as one of the favorites for honors after topping the timing sheets during Spring Training earlier this month for the Exclusive Autosport team.
After a promising debut campaign in 2022 with older F4 cars, the series’ brand-new Tatuus JR-23 car will make its competition debut at Sebring. The technical package is closely aligned with the other two steps on the ladder, utilizing exactly the same carbon/honeycomb monocoque chassis, replete with a state-of-the-art Halo-type device for improved safety and allied to a slightly less powerful 2.0-liter Elite MZR engine.
Brienza posted the fastest time during the Spring Training test at 2m11.964s, which compares to the fastest USF2000 lap at 2m05.431s and the quickest USF Pro 2000 time of 1m58.669s.
The three distinct steps on the ladder provide a logical progression to assist drivers as they progress toward a future in Indy NXT and, eventually, the NTT IndyCar Series. Graduation to the next level also is assured by packages totaling in excess of $1.3 million as part of the Discount Tire Driver Advancement Scholarship program.
Third-generation Brazilian racer Nicolas Giaffone was second fastest at Spring Training for DEForce Racing, followed by teammate Quinn Armstrong, Ethan Ho, who will be pulling double duty with DC Autosport in USF2000, and Jimmie Lockhart (VRD Racing).
The first green flag will fly at 4:20pm ET on Thursday, with two more races following on Friday.
Full coverage can be found on the free USF Pro Championships App, YouTube channel and respective series’ websites.