By Road to Indy
With the start of another season – the 10th for the highly acclaimed Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires – just over one week away, race teams and drivers will have one final opportunity to complete their preparations when the annual Spring Training Open Test begins on Saturday, March 2, at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida. The “regular season” will kick off the following week some 275 miles to the northwest at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
The Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder comprises three distinct steps, with drivers starting out in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship and progressing through the newly rebranded Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. Scholarships and awards totaling more than $2.5 million will be up for grabs during the year, enabling talented young drivers to progress all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
Showcasing the global nature of the world’s most effective open-wheel ladder system, no fewer than 17 nations are expected to be represented among the three series which will be in action on the 2.21-mile, 14-turn road course.
Both the Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 fields will have a total of four hours of track time spread over the weekend, March 2-3, while Indy Lights will have five hours of testing on Monday, March 4. Drivers from all three series also will benefit from traditional Spring Training staples such as dedicated photoshoots, a Media Seminar hosted by Kevin Lee, well-known host and pit lane reporter for NBCSN’s coverage of both IndyCar and Indy Lights as well as play-by-play announcer for NFL and college basketball; and special presentations from both Cooper Tires, which will continue its popular hashtag program for a sixth successive year, and RoadtoIndy.TV, which will continue to provide extensive and exclusive coverage of the entire ladder system in 2019.
Veterans vs. Rookies in Indy Lights
An intriguing mix of drivers make up a select Indy Lights field, all of them with aspirations of claiming a scholarship to ensure entry into at least three IndyCar events in 2020, including the 104th Indy 500.
Zachary Claman, Dalton Kellett and Ryan Norman will be among the proven veterans. Claman, 20, from Montreal, Que., Canada, already has a taste of the premier category after contesting nine IndyCar races in 2018, but this year has chosen to step back to Indy Lights with Belardi Auto Racing. Claman finished fifth in the 2017 title-chase, winning once at Road America.
Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada, has joined Juncos Racing for his fourth full year of Indy Lights. He has secured podium finishes in each of the past three seasons, and last year claimed his first pole at Indianapolis for the series’ headline event, the Freedom 100.
Norman also must be considered a championship favorite as he heads into his third season of Indy Lights with Andretti Autosport. The Aurora, Ohio, native has made steady progress since jumping directly from Formula Atlantic to Indy Lights in 2017. He claimed his first win last year in sensational style at Gateway Motorsports Park and ended the year with his first pole, at Portland International Raceway.
An extraordinarily talented group of rookies will include last year’s Indy Pro 2000 champion Rinus VeeKay (Juncos Racing), the previous year’s USF2000 champion Oliver Askew (Andretti Autosport) and 2018 Indy Pro 2000 race winner David Malukas (BN Racing).
“I challenged for the championship the last two seasons in the Road to Indy so I don’t expect anything less,” said VeeKay, 18, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, who also finished a close second to Askew in the 2017 USF2000 title-chase. “I’m certainly going to try to win another championship, but I think we have a good shot and I’m super-confident we can do it.”
VeeKay already has a championship under his belt this year after clinching the Asian Formula 3 Winter Series crown last weekend at Sepang in Malaysia.
Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., who finished last year with a flourish, claiming his maiden Indy Pro 2000 victory at Portland to cement third in the championship table, has similarly high expectations after joining Andretti Autosport, which finished first and second (with Patricio O’Ward and Colton Herta) in 2018.
“This year will be my third full season of car racing and for all three years the season has officially kicked off at Spring Training at Homestead-Miami Speedway,” said Askew, who topped the time charts in a recent test at Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas. “I look forward to learning more about my new Andretti Autosport-prepared Dallara IL-15.”
In common with Askew and VeeKay, 17-year-old Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., is also embarking on just his third season of car racing. Malukas set the fastest time during a rain-affected test last December at Homestead and will be looking to continue that momentum.
Other rapid rookies will include Robert Megennis (Andretti Autosport), from New York, N.Y., who will celebrate his 19th birthday next week as he steps up after a promising year in Indy Pro 2000, and Brazilian Lucas Kohl, who is graduating directly to Indy Lights after three seasons of USF2000 competition.
More driver announcements are expected heading into the weekend.
Indy Pro 2000 Makes its Bow
A change in name for the middle step on the Road to Indy ladder, known previously as Star Mazda and then Pro Mazda, will have no effect on the level of competition as a talented field takes aim at a scholarship valued at almost $600,000 to move up to Indy Lights in 2020.
A few high-profile names are still to announce their plans for the upcoming season, but there’s no doubt that Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., must be considered a major contender after winning 12 of the 14 USF2000 races in 2018 en route to the championship crown.
“I’m beyond ecstatic to start this new season,” said Kirkwood. “I don’t have much time in the Indy Pro 2000 car but I have enough to say the car feels amazing and I can’t wait to see how I stack up against the rest of the stout field at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
“I am incredibly thankful and honored to drive one of the Soul Red Mazda scholarship cars. I hope I can prove my worth and make Mazda and past Mazda Scholarship drivers proud to have me following in their footsteps. If not for them, Andersen Promotions and Cooper Tires, none of this would be possible.”
Among those whose contracts have been finalized for some time, the Juncos Racing pair of Sting Ray Robb and Rasmus Lindh are expected to be among the front-runners, both of them with expectations of following in the footsteps of Rinus VeeKay, who won the championship in 2018 for the Indianapolis-based team. Robb, still just 17, from Payette, Idaho, will be contesting his third season at this level, while Sweden’s Lindh displayed immense promise on his way to second place in last year’s USF2000 championship as a rookie. Lindh also emerged with the fastest time from a series test at Homestead-Miami in December.
Canadian-based Exclusive Autosport has entered three of the Tatuus PM-18 cars – which shattered a series of track records upon its introduction last year – for series veteran Nikita Lastochkin and rookies Danial Frost and Parker Locke. Lastochkin, who hails originally from Moscow, Russia, but is now based in Los Angeles, Calif., is looking to build upon his experience as Frost, from Singapore, steps up from a partial season in USF2000. Locke, from San Antonio, Texas, moves over from F4 and F3 after also competing in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand during January and February.
Mexico’s Moises de la Vara, who finished fourth last year at Gateway during a handful of outings, will return with DEForce Racing, while Jacob Abel, from Louisville, Ky., will be part of a two-car Abel Motorsports team. Italian-based RP Motorsports Racing also will be at Homestead with a pair of cars, with Pserra Racing in conjunction with Jay Howard Driver Development entering a single Tatuus PM-18 for young Canadian Antonio Serravalle and FatBoy Racing! returning with Charles Finelli.
As with Indy Lights, more driver announcements are forth coming.
Who Can Challenge Cape and Pabst in USF2000?
Drivers from an impressive 10 different nations are expected at Homestead-Miami Speedway as a typically strong USF2000 field continues preparations for the following week’s pair of opening races of the season in St. Petersburg.
Florida-based Cape Motorsports has high hopes of extending its remarkable streak of eight successive Driver Championships, but Augie Pabst III’s eponymous team from Wisconsin has a strong desire to end that domination and continue its own streak of two consecutive Team Championships. Both will have extremely strong lineups on hand this weekend.
The Cape brothers, Dominic and Nicholas, are pinning their hopes on Darren Keane, Braden Eves and Reece Gold as they concentrate their efforts solely on USF2000 after running a concurrent program in Indy Pro 2000 the past few years. Keane, from Boca Raton, Fla., topped the times on one of the two days at the Chris Griffis Memorial Road to Indy Test at Indianapolis last September, while Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, has turned many heads during sporadic outings in F4, F1600 and USF2000 (making a solid debut at Portland last fall) over the past 18 months. Gold, from San Juan, Puerto Rico, is one of two 14-year-olds among the field but has already made his mark by winning the Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series – and a $100,000 scholarship to graduate into USF2000 – in 2018.
Pabst, meanwhile, has entered four Tatuus USF-17s for Colin Kaminsky, Hunter McElrea, Yuven Sundaramoorthy and Bruna Tomaselli. Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., has made strong progress over the past two years and is set to be the top returning driver after finishing 10th in the points table in 2018. Brazil’s Tomaselli, the sole female driver in the field, and Sundaramoorthy, from Guilderland, N.Y., both also have previous experience in USF2000, while McElrea, from Gold Coast, Australia, laid down a marker by posting the fastest time during the Chris Griffis test at Indianapolis, then cemented his ride by winning the third annual Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in December. McElrea, who was born in California and raised in both New Zealand and Australia, was a clear winner of last year’s Australian Formula Ford Championship.
Several new teams will be making their USF2000 bows this weekend, including Jay Howard Driver Development and Miller-Vinatieri Motorsports.
Former USF2000 and Indy Lights champion Jay Howard will field a three-car team for Northern Ireland Formula Ford champion Matt Round-Garrido, who hails from Stourbridge in England, highly rated Danish talent Christian Rasmussen, who finished third in the 2018 F4 United States Championship Powered by Honda, and fellow F4 grad Christian Bogle, from Covington, La.
Miller-Vinatieri, formed by three-time Indy 500 starter Jack Miller and four-time Super Bowl champion and Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, has entered a pair of Tatuus’ for Jack William Miller, 15, from Indianapolis, Ind., and Brazil’s Eduardo Barrichello, 17, whose father, Rubens, enjoyed a stellar career in Formula 1.
The stacked field also will include Venezuela’s Anthony Famularo (BN Racing), Mexicans Manuel Sulaiman (DEForce Racing) and Manuel Cabrera (Exclusive Autosport), plus two cars from Newman Wachs Racing for 14-year-old Nolan Siegel, from Portola Valley, Calif., and Cameron Shields, who in addition to hailing from Toowoomba, the same town in Queensland, Australia, as defending Indy 500 champion Will Power, was fastest of all in the December test at Homestead-Miami.