Story Credit: Road to Indy PR
PALMETTO, Fla. – There is no respite for the teams and drivers on the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel racing development ladder, or indeed their more experienced cohorts in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES at the pinnacle of the sport in North America.
Just a few days after a highly successful season opener at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama which saw some tremendous competition and different winners in each of two races for all three rungs on the ladder – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – 57 drivers are set to do battle again on April 23-25 on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. All are eagerly chasing a career in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, with more than $3.1 million in prizes and scholarships at stake during the season.
They will face an entirely different challenge this weekend, with a tortuous, concrete wall-lined 1.8-mile street circuit threatening to punish even the slightest of errors – in stark contrast to the wide-open, grassy runoff areas that were a feature of the classical Alabama natural terrain road course.
With a victory and a second-place finish at Barber, talented Swedish rookie Linus Lundqvist has taken an early lead in the quest for a scholarship valued at almost $1.3 million to ensure the Indy Lights champion entry into a minimum of three NTT INDYCAR SERIES races in 2022, including the 106th Indianapolis 500.
Neither Lundqvist nor his Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports teammate Benjamin Pedersen, from Denmark, have competed previously on the unforgiving streets, although they will be able to draw on the experience of HMD Motorsports stablemates David Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., and fellow Road to Indy veteran Nikita Lastochkin, from Los Angeles, Calif. Malukas, who bounced back from an incident in the opening race last week to win impressively from the pole in Race Two, was fastest in the lone Indy Lights practice session that was held at St. Petersburg in March 2020 before the COVID-19 global pandemic caused the event – and indeed the Indy Lights season – to be curtailed.
Englishman Toby Sowery (Juncos Racing) and New Yorker Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport) are the only two drivers among the field who have previously raced an Indy Lights car in St. Petersburg. Sowery, in particular, will be looking forward to returning to Florida after shining on his series debut in 2019 when he secured a pair of podium finishers.
Megennis, Andretti Autosport teammate Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., and Juncos Racing’s Sting Ray Robb, from Payette, Idaho, have previously stood on the top step of the podium in St. Pete. Megennis and Kirkwood gained their maiden Road to Indy victories in USF2000 in 2017 and 2018, respectively, while Robb won one of the Indy Pro 2000 races last year en route to securing the championship and a scholarship valued at over $600,000 to make the step up to Indy Lights.
Following practice and a pair of qualifying sessions on Friday, April 23, there will be two Indy Lights races, presented by Foundation Building Materials (Race One on Saturday at 3:20 p.m. EDT, which will be the 450th race in series history dating back to 1986) and Andersen Interior Contracting (Race Two on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.). Coverage can be found on Peacock Premium in the U.S., on REV TV in Canada and internationally on The Race YouTube channel, the Road to Indy TV App and at RoadToIndy.TV and indylights.com.
No one among the Indy Pro 2000 field is more excited about this coming weekend than Braden Eves. After dipping a toe in the water by making his USF2000 debut at Portland at the end of the 2018 season, the 21-year-old from New Albany, Ohio, burst onto the scene a few months later in St. Petersburg, winning both races from the pole and carrying that momentum throughout the season to claim the championship and a scholarship to graduate into Indy Pro 2000 for 2020.
Eves was unable to return for the fall races due to injury sustained in a crash at Indianapolis in September but will return to Florida as the championship leader. Eves guided his Exclusive Autosport Tatuus PM-18 to a clear victory last Saturday at Barber Motorsports Park and backed it up one day later with a solid fourth-place finish.
Eves’ Russian teammate Artem Petrov also began the new season impressively with a pair of visits to the podium.
New Zealander Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) also holds fond memories of the challenging street circuit. After beginning his racing career in Australia, McElrea stood out on his Road to Indy debut at St. Pete in 2019 by garnering a pair of USF2000 podium finishes (behind Eves), then returned to score his maiden Indy Pro 2000 victory at the track last October.
Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen (Jay Howard Driver Development) was part of that strong USF2000 rookie crop in 2019, running second – ahead of Eves – in Race Two before being involved in an incident with Eves’ teammate on the final lap which gifted the win to Eves. The Dane elected to stay in USF2000 for a second year, which paid off with the championship and a scholarship to follow in Eves’ footsteps to Indy Pro 2000. Rasmussen was out of luck last weekend at Barber but left no one in doubt as to his capabilities after gaining a pole, a second-place finish and two fastest race laps.
Others to watch will include Manuel Sulaiman, from Puebla, Mexico, who finished second in the 2019 USF2000 race at St. Pete on his debut (behind Eves and ahead of McElrea), Juncos Racing teammate Reece Gold, from Miami, Fla., who took a USF2000 podium finish in his home state last year, and Englishman Enaam Ahmed (RP Motorsport USA), who is new to North American racing this year but counts an FIA Formula 3 Championship pole position at the classic Pau street course in France on his resume.
The Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires will kick off on Friday with practice and the first of two qualifying sessions which will set the grid for Race One at 11:50 a.m. on Saturday, April 24. A second qualifying period earlier on Saturday morning will establish the grid for Race Two at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday. Global live streaming can be found on the Road to Indy TV App and at RoadToIndy.TV and indypro2000.com.
Judging by the opening weekend at Barber, all three Road to Indy championships seem set to provide some thrilling competition in 2021, but perhaps nowhere more so than in USF2000. At one point during practice last week at Barber, the lap times of the top 20 cars were separated by less than a second. Seven drivers representing four different teams managed at least one top-five result. And there’s every reason to expect the same level of intensity when the 27-car field ventures out onto the St. Petersburg streets.
Yuven Sundaramoorthy (Pabst Racing), from Delafield, Wis., and Prescott Campbell (DEForce Racing), from Newport Beach, Calif., shared the victories one week ago, with Campbell wresting the early championship lead by virtue of a second-place finish in the opening race. Both have previous experience at St. Petersburg, so know what to expect.
But so, too, do quite a few others, including Brazilian Kiko Porto (DEForce Racing) and Christian Brooks (Exclusive Autosport), from Santa Clarita, Calif., who each claimed their maiden USF2000 wins in last season’s Floridian season finale.
After making his debut at St. Pete in 2018, Michael d’Orlando (Cape Motorsports), from Hartsdale, N.Y., scored a pair of top-five finishes last year and will have high expectations of bouncing back from a relatively disappointing outing last week at Barber which netted only a fifth and a ninth.
The schedule for the USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark and Andersen Interior Contracting has been condensed into two days with practice and two qualifying sessions on Friday and a pair of 20-lap races set for 10:55 a.m. and 5:20 p.m. on Saturday. The Road to Indy TV App, RoadToIndy.TV and usf2000.com will feature live streaming coverage of USF2000 on-track activity.