Robb and Keane Fastest in Road to Indy Spring Training

Two days of Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires Spring Training for both the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship wrapped up at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course in South Florida. Teams and drivers were greeted by warm weather – a welcome respite for some after a particularly harsh winter in the Midwest and Northeast – as they completed preparations for next weekend’s season-opening Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Sting Ray Robb, 17, from Payette, Idaho, vaulted to the top of the charts in Indy Pro 2000 for defending champion team Juncos Racing just moments before the final checkered flag. Robb edged out fellow series veteran Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada, who had been fastest for most of the two days for new team Abel Motorsports. Darren Keane, from nearby Boca Raton, Fla., emerged fastest for Cape Motorsports from a closely matched 18-car field of USF2000 competitors.

Veterans Lead the Way in Indy Pro 2000
The middle rung on the Road to Indy ladder system has a new identity in 2019, with Indy Pro 2000 replacing the old Pro Mazda moniker, but it was a pair of veterans, Robb and Thompson, who ended the weekend with initial bragging rights prior to the new season.

Four different drivers took turns atop the scoring pylon as the weekend progressed. Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin was quickest in the opening 45-minute session on Saturday for Exclusive Autosport. Last year’s runaway USF2000 champion, Kyle Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., led the way at the end of Day One for RP Motorsport USA, while Thompson, who concluded a late deal to join Abel Motorsports, upped the ante this morning by recording the first sub-1:20s lap of the weekend at 1:19.9506.

Thompson was quickest again in warmer temperatures earlier this afternoon before electing to sit out the final session, which opened the door for Robb’s last-ditch effort. The Idaho youngster’s lap at 1:19.7509, an average speed of 99.761 mph, was a fraction over a half-second away from the standard set one year ago in Spring Training by Brazil’s Carlos Cunha on the official debut of the Tatuus PM-18.

“Our goal at the beginning of the final session was to get into the 1:19s,” said Robb. “Parker set a quick lap earlier but I wanted to beat that! We made a quick new-tire run at the beginning of the session, then made a few changes to adapt to the conditions and went back out on new tires, setting the quick time. I’m happy to be with the team this season – I did the Chris Griffis test with them in 2017 and obviously they know what they’re doing.”

After concluding his arrangement to join Abel Motorsports only days before the test, Thompson’s earlier effort remained good enough for second overall.

“Early retirement wasn’t treating me well, so when the opportunity came about to test with Abel Motorsports, I couldn’t say no,” quipped Thompson, who finished second in the 2018 championship chase. “I know Homestead really well but I don’t know the team, though they have a history of winning and they’re a great group. We hit the ground running – I find it really fun as a driver to sit down with a new team and go over how to make them faster. In two short days, we posted top-of-the-chart times so it was a great experience.”

A spate of quick times in the closing minutes this afternoon saw Kirkwood end the weekend third quickest, narrowly ahead of Swedish youngster Rasmus Lindh aboard a second Juncos Racing Tatuus. The top four were all covered by a slender 0.2781 of a second.
Mexico’s Moises de la Vara enjoyed a very promising test for DEForce Racing, posting the fifth fastest time ahead of Lastochkin, Canadian Antonio Serravalle (Pserra Racing/Jay Howard Driver Development), Jacob Abel (Abel Motorsports), from Louisville, Ky., and Singapore’s Danial Frost (Exclusive Autosport).

Keane Edges Mexican Rookie Sulaiman in USF2000
USF2000 veteran Keane, 19, who in addition to chasing a career in auto racing is pursuing an Engineering degree at the University of Florida, took advantage of slightly cooler conditions this morning to post the best time of the weekend at 1:24.5314, an average speed of 94.119 mph for the 2.21-mile, 14-turn road course. The warm weather precluded anyone from approaching the unofficial USF2000 lap record of 1:23.7723 (94.972 mph), set during last year’s test by fellow Florida resident Kyle Kirkwood, who went on to claim the 2018 championship in dominant style, winning 12 of the 14 races for the St. Petersburg-based team.

As an indicator of the level of competitiveness that is expected in 2019, all of the 17 drivers who took part in each of the five sessions, totaling four hours of track time, were bracketed by just over 1.5 seconds.

“This was an important test for us, with all the other cars out there,” said Keane. “We wanted to make an impression this weekend, knowing that it would stick with us and set a tone for the season – and I think we did that. I feel more confident in general now, especially given all the resources the team has. We trust each other a lot and we’re super confident in each other’s ability. We’re going into St. Pete with a clear mind and we know what we have to do.”

Keane’s effort this morning edged out Manuel Sulaiman, 18, from Puebla, Mexico, who was fastest of all on Day One at 1:24.5835. Sulaiman has joined DEForce Racing for his rookie season in the Road to Indy, after competing for the past two years in the British F4 Championship.

“I really like the car,” said Sulaiman. “The Cooper tires are quite soft, compared to other racing tires I have driven, and I prefer a softer tire. The car is quite powerful and has a good level of aerodynamics and grip, especially on this track. The team and I work well together – we were in the top three in every session, so we feel prepared for St. Pete.”

After being fastest of all during the first session on Saturday, Keane’s Cape Motorsports teammate, Braden Eves, 19, from New Albany, Ohio, ended the weekend with the third fastest time, 1:24.6568, just one-tenth of a second ahead of Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen aboard the first of three Tatuus USF-17s entered by the Jay Howard Driver Development team. Howard, who hails originally from England, won the USF2000 Championship himself as a rookie in 2005. He went on to add the Indy Lights crown one year later.

Brazilian teenager Eduardo Barrichello, son of F1 veteran Rubens Barrichello, was fastest in the final period of practice this afternoon. His time from earlier this morning remained good enough to round out the top five overall for the new Miller-Vinatieri Motorsports team.

Australian Cameron Shields (Newman Wachs Racing), Yuven Sundaramoorthy (Pabst Racing), from Guilderland, N.Y., Puerto Rico-based Reece Gold (Cape Motorsports), Jack William Miller (Miller-Vinatieri Motorsports), from Carmel, Ind., and Englishman Matt Round-Garrido (Jay Howard Driver Development) completed the top 10, all covered by less than three-quarters of a second.

While the Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 teams are already packing up and heading almost 300 miles northwest for the opening race weekend of the season on the streets of St. Petersburg, teams and drivers from the top rung of the highly acclaimed open-wheel development ladder, Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, will remain in Homestead for their exclusive day of testing tomorrow (Monday).

Adam Sinclair