Real-world Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires drivers Braden Eves and Toby Sowery each claimed a victory this evening at a virtual WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, but sim racing expert Max Esterson extended his points lead in the TireRack.com Road to Indy iRacing eSeries Presented by Cooper Tires with just two races remaining.
Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, took control of the first of two 20-minute races. The 2019 Cooper Tires USF2000 Champion who races now for Exclusive Autosport on the next step of the ladder, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, was chased home by his iRacing teammate Esterson, from Water Mill, N.Y., with Canadian Mac Clark finishing third.
Race Two wasn’t nearly as satisfying for Eves, who survived an incident while battling for the lead and had to be content with a fifth-place finish. Esterson escaped the carnage to run up front, only to be tracked down by Englishman Toby Sowery, who posted a sensational drive from 26th on the grid. Andre Castro, from New York, N.Y., completed the podium in third.
New Zealander Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) looked set for a strong event after setting the pace in unofficial practice and the initial qualifying session. But in the top-six final qualifying segment, which set the grid for the opening race, it was Eves who stepped up to secure his second SimMetric Driver Performance Labs Pole Award of the season.
McElrea, who started third, immediately made his presence felt by diving past Esterson into second. He then continued to pressure Eves hard until the pair came up to lap some slower cars at the infamous Corkscrew turn on Lap 12. The unfortunate McElrea spun while trying to seize advantage of the opportunity, which allowed Eves a relatively easy run to the finish and his second win of the year.
Esterson (Team Pelfrey) couldn’t keep pace with the leader but still finished a comfortable second, well clear of Clark (Team Gonella) and Turn 3 Motorsports’ USF2000 driver Josh Green, from Mount Kisco, N.Y.
Max Kaeser (NSDD), from Keystone, Colo., took fifth after a tremendous scrap with Canadian Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires driver Devlin DeFrancesco (Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport), Michael Myers, from Lizton, Ind., and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin.
A solid 10th-place finish for teenager Will Salisbury, from Niagara Falls, N.Y., who earned his place on the grid by virtue of winning the most recent round of the World Karting Association Maxx Racing eSports Series, ensured he would start from the pole position for Race Two.
Unfortunately, an overly aggressive move from outside front row starter Bryson Morris, from Mount Juliet, Tenn., took both cars out of contention under braking for the Mario Andretti Hairpin on the opening lap.
De Francesco took advantage by sneaking through into the lead, where he remained until inadvertently tangling with Eves at the exit of the same corner on Lap 9. A close-following Esterson somehow sneaked through the carnage to take the lead, although Clark and Green weren’t so fortunate.
As Esterson escaped into the lead, a disbelieving Sowery emerged in third behind Eves, whose car had sustained damaged in the melee. Sowery, who will drive in Indy Lights this year for Juncos Racing, quickly slipped past into second, then rapidly closed down on Esterson before taking the lead into Turn Five with just a couple of laps remaining. After posting one of the drives of the virtual season, Sowery also deservedly took home the Sabelt Hard Charger Award – and a pair of Sabelt Hero racing gloves.
Morris worked his way back through the field to finish fourth after serving a drive-through penalty following his error at the start. Eves salvaged fifth ahead of Grant Palmer, from St. Charles, Mo., who kept his nose clean to secure his best result so far.
The champion’s prize of $2,000 plus one hour of simulator time with SimMetric Driver Performance Labs at each race on this year’s Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tire season will be determined one week from now on Wednesday, March 3, when the final two races are slated for another classic road course venue, the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Provisional championship points after eight of 10 races:
1. Max Esterson, 172
2. Braden Eves, 147
3. Bryson Morris, 132
4. Mac Clark, 112
5. Max Kaeser, 105
6. Josh Green, 98
7. Benjamin Pedersen, 94
8. Michael Myers, 92
9. Keawn Tandon, 86
10. Toby Sowery, 77
Toby Sowery (#51 m-start/Kumpf-Juncos Racing Tatuus PM-18): “After being taken out in the first race, I thought maybe a top-10 was somewhere we could get to but things just kept falling into place. I had the pace and it just all fell into place. I think I was able to pass Max [Esterson] in Turn Five. Honestly, I was too pumped thinking that I could win this that I don’t remember where the pass took place!”
Braden Eves (#91 MDRN Livery/Community Choice Financial/Huston Insurance-Exclusive Autosport Tatuus PM-18): “It started out really well getting the pole and leading every lap of the first race. It is always a little bit crazy with the reverse top-10 grid [for Race Two]. I started 10th and managed to avoid the carnage in Turn One. I got up to third and managed to pass Mac [Clark], and Devlin [DeFrancesco] was being really, really aggressive defending, parking it at the apex and getting good exits so it was really hard to get by. I tried to do a little fake right, go left and managed to get alongside at the exit of the corner but he just pinched me down a little bit and there was light contact that put him wide. From there, he just caught the dirt and spun into me. It was unfortunate, but I am happy with the result and decent points.”