Story Credit: Road to Indy PR
Photo Credit: Road to Indy Photo
MONTEREY, Calif. – Another exciting season of Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires competition, featuring the future stars of North American open-wheel racing, was highlighted at a well-attended Road to Indy Championship Celebration yesterday evening. The Monterey Plaza Hotel, overlooking Monterey Bay on the scenic California Central Coast, provided a glorious setting for over 250 members of the close-knit racing community, including drivers, families, teams and sponsors.
The evening capped a momentous weekend at nearby WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where all three championship titles – for Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – were settled in conjunction with a thrilling finale to the NTT IndyCar Series in which 2011 Indy Lights Champion Josef Newgarden clinched his second IndyCar Championship in three years for Team Penske.
The Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is unique in the world of auto racing, offering scholarships and awards valued at more than $2.2 million for talented young drivers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. The open-wheel development ladder’s global appeal was underscored this year by the fact that 16 different nationalities from five continents were represented on the grids.
Last night’s champions’ roll was topped by 22-year-old Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla. The Andretti Autosport driver’s payday included a scholarship valued at $1.1 million to guarantee entry into a minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500. Askew, who has made a meteoric progression from karting to Indy cars inside four years – after earning the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy $200K USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in 2016 and the following year’s USF2000 title – also took home the Indy Lights Rookie of the Year Award.
Coincidentally, Askew’s childhood friend and longtime former karting rival Kyle Kirkwood, also from Jupiter, Fla., enjoyed an equally productive evening. One year on from dominating the USF2000 title-chase, Kirkwood became the first driver since Matthew Brabham in 2012 and 2013 to claim consecutive championships in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000. Kirkwood’s roller-coaster season with RP Motorsport USA saw him encounter some early season dramas, then overcome a deficit of as much as 45 points to virtually clinch the title with his ninth victory of the season on Saturday at WeatherTech Raceway. All that was required the following day was to start the 16th and final race of the season.
It was just as well, because Kirkwood was eliminated in a crash at the first corner, and with his primary rival, Sweden’s Rasmus Lindh, ending up in Victory Lane, Kirkwood’s final margin was a mere two points to secure a $500,000 scholarship to advance to Indy Lights, a Cooper Tires Tire Allotment Award valued at $66,900 toward his 2020 season and a Series Race Entry Fee Award valued at $29,800 for a total value of $596,700.
The most exciting title-chase of the weekend came in USF2000. Braden Eves, 20, from New Albany, Ohio, arrived in California with a six-point deficit to New Zealander Hunter McElrea, which then became a 12-point hole after McElrea finished second on Saturday with Eves in fourth. But when McElrea hit trouble in qualifying for the final event and Eves made a spectacular pass for the lead on the opening lap and then held on throughout a nail-biting 20-lap race to secure his series-leading sixth win of the season, an emotional first Road to Indy title was assured.
In addition to claiming a record-extending 13th USF2000 crown – and ninth in a row – for Cape Motorsports, Eves guaranteed himself a $250,000 scholarship to advance to Indy Pro 2000, a Cooper Tires Tire Allotment Award valued at $31,000 and a Series Race Entry Fee Award valued at $24,600 for a total payday worth $305,600.
Another traditional element to the evening included the induction of three new members to the Road to Indy Hall of Fame. The Class of 2019 comprises Ed Carpenter, who won the inaugural Indy Lights Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and now runs a successful NTT IndyCar Series team; Gerardo Bonilla, a race winner in the 2006 Indy Pro 2000 Championship who is now director of operations for the Lucas Oil School of Racing; and Augie Pabst, a third-generation racer who made 22 USF2000 starts in 1996 and 1997, is a highly valued member of the Road to Indy family as a team owner, and this weekend claimed his third successive USF2000 Team Championship.