Third time proved to be a charm for Simon Sikes. The 22-year-old from Augusta, Ga., started his Pabst Racing Tatuus on pole position at the legendary Sebring International Raceway road course for the third successive USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires race, and this time managed to secure his long awaited maiden victory.
Last year’s USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires champion Mac Clark, from Milton, Ont., Canada, made a decisive pass in the closing stages to finish second for DEForce Racing as New Zealander Jacob Douglas climbed from ninth on the grid during a dramatic race to complete the podium for Exclusive Autosport.
A separate qualifying session earlier Sunday saw Sikes claim his third Cooper Tires Pole Award, comfortably clear of new teammate Max Garcia. Points leader and Saturday race winner Lochie Hughes (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Surfers Paradise, Australia, lined up third on the grid ahead of an impressive Ethan Ho (DC Autosport), from Los Angeles, who was pulling double duty this week after also competing in the trio of USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires races on Thursday and Friday.
Another aggressive start from Hughes saw him challenging for the lead through Turn 1, but this time Sikes was able to cling onto his advantage. Ho slotted into third ahead of Garcia, who was then tipped into a spin at Turn 4 by fellow 14-year-old Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing), from Gulfport, Fla.
Evagoras Papasavvas (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Loveland, Ohio, also mounted an early charge, taking advantage of the incident ahead of him to challenge and then overtake Ho for third place on lap 2.
The two leaders, Sikes and Hughes, immediately began to pull clear of their pursuers, and Sikes seemed to have matters under control until the caution flags flew due to an incident on the seventh lap.
The drama began when Elliot Cox drafted alongside Papasavvas heading into Turn 1. The two rivals made contact at the exit of the corner, which coincides with a slight kink to the right at Turn 2, whereupon they locked wheels and slid sideways through the grass until rejoining the race track – still out of control – at the apex of Turn 3.
Ho miraculously avoided a major catastrophe by jinking to his right merely an instant before seemingly inevitable contact. A handful of others also took drastic evasive action, with an unfortunate Sam Corry, from Cornelius, N.C., who had been running sixth, the only major casualty as his VRD Racing Tatuus sustained suspension damage and was forced out of the race.
Hughes attacked Sikes at the restart, only to run wide at the exit of Turn 1. Hughes also inadvertently selected sixth gear, which cost him critical momentum and allowed Clark to make the pass for second at Turn 3. Clark had been the major beneficiary of the earlier fracas, rising from seventh to third.
Hughes tried his best to regain the place at Turn 7, but Clark steadfastly held the inside line, forcing the Australian to try the outside. Minor contact at the exit caused something of an accordion effect on the following short straightaway. As well as a wholesale shuffling of positions, Canadian Louka St-Jean’s optimistic attempt to capitalize ended dramatically with a harrowing end-over-end somersault for his Jay Howard Driver Development car from which he was fortunate to emerge unscathed.
Another full-course caution brought the race to a premature conclusion, with Sikes still out in front ahead of Clark and Douglas, who had nimbly passed Hughes shortly before the caution flags waved. The move enabled Douglas to clinch the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
“We started from pole, which is always where you want to be,” Sikes said after the race. “It was a tough race from the start, huge amounts of pressure off the green flag. Lochie was right there behind me, but I was slowly able to build a gap right up until that caution halfway through the race. From there, I knew it was going to be a fight on the restart. He got the outside of me going into Turn 1 and we went side by side. Luckily, I was able to come out of that out front. There was some fighting behind me and by the time I looked back, I had a six-car length gap to the cars behind me. There was a crash behind which brought out that last caution and ended the race. It is such a nice feeling to finally, after all these years, end it on top.”
Augie Pabst claimed his first PFC Award of the season as the winning car owner.
The USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires contenders will take a short hiatus before reconvening at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Grand Prix road course for a triple-header event in conjunction with the NTT IndyCar Series on May 11-13.