PALMETTO, Fla. – A glance down the 21-car field for the opening two rounds of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda suggests a wide-open title-chase which will commence this coming weekend on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. Local fans will be well represented with two of the top teams, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing and Team Pelfrey, based within a few miles of the downtown street circuit.
The pair of 30-minute races will run on Saturday and will set the scene for a 16-race championship on step one of the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy. The winner will earn a Mazda scholarship to advance to the next step, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, in 2017.
St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing is the benchmark team in USF2000 competition after winning five consecutive driver championships. Its challenge in 2016 will be spearheaded by three drivers who finished among the top eight in the 2015 standings.
Anthony Martin, from Perth, Australia, emerged as the top rookie last year and confirmed his ability by posting the fastest lap during the Spring Training pre-season open test earlier this week at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala. Teammates Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin, who placed fifth and eighth, respectively, in the 2015 championship, also were among the top seven at Barber.
“The Cape team are very experienced, so they’ll have a good setup for the track,” said Martin. “The atmosphere and the crowd (in St. Petersburg) is really great. I’m looking forward to being out there with so many cars in the field this year; it’s going to be a spectacular race. The first turn is very fast and you’ve got a lot of cars on a street circuit – and judging from the series test last weekend, we’re all very close in times so you want to be on the front row in qualifying.”
Team Pelfrey, based in nearby Palmetto, Fla., also impressed during the Spring Training test. Rookie James Munro, from Christchurch, New Zealand, set the second fastest time and already has plenty of racing experience under his belt this year after contesting the 15-round Toyota Racing Series in his native New Zealand in January and February. Teammates TJ Fischer, from Vacaville, Calif., Jordan Cane, from Bognor Regis, England, and Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., rounded out the top 10 at Barber, within 0.6 seconds of the fastest time.
“It will be really cool, being right in the middle of the city,” said Munro. “I’ve been watching a lot of onboard video to get an idea of the layout and what works versus what doesn’t. A track like this really comes down to feel, since track conditions can change a great deal from session to session. I’m going in as well-prepared as I can be, with track notes from the team and as much information as I can gather.”
JAY Motorsports, also based in Palmetto, will field another Southern Hemisphere driver, Luke Gabin, from Perth, Australia, who won a Skip Barber Championship Shootout Scholarship to graduate into USF2000 last year. Gabin finished sixth in the 2015 title-chase.
Gabin’s successor as the Skip Barber Mazda Scholarship Shootout winner, Dakota Dickerson, from San Diego, Calif., will make his debut this year with Afterburner Autosport.
Another driver to watch will be Ayla Agren (John Cummiskey Racing). Agren, from Baerum, Norway, who became the first female to win the F1600 Championship Series in 2014, finished 10th in her rookie USF2000 season in 2015 and showed impressive speed throughout the Spring Training test, culminating in the fourth fastest time.
“I used to live in St. Pete so it’s kind of going back home, which makes it that much more special,” said Agren. “We had a good series test last weekend, we showed that we have good pace and we’re ready to fight for the championship.”
Pabst Racing also will be strong after winning both St. Petersburg races last year. The Wisconsin-based team will field a trio of cars for Australian Formula 4 Champion Jordan Lloyd, Yufeng Luo, from China, and Garth Rickards from Mechanicsburg, Pa.
Official practice for USF2000 will start tomorrow, Thursday, March 10, at 5:45 p.m., followed by another half-hour session at 7:30 a.m. on Friday and then qualifying at 10:10 a.m. Race One, the Priority Marine Construction Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark, will start at 8:40 a.m. The green flag for Race Two, the Hi-Tide Boat Lifts Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark, will fly at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday. Live streaming shows of all sessions will be available at usf2000.com, indycar.com and on the Road To Indy TV App.