Road to Indy Returns to Competition on St. Petersburg Streets

Testing is complete and the 10th year of racing for the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is set to kick off this week on the famed streets of St. Petersburg. The world-renowned, three-step open-wheel development ladder, which offers opportunities for talented young drivers to progress from the grassroots of the sport to the NTT IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500, will distribute more than $2.5 million in scholarships and prizes between now and late September, when the season finale will be held over 2,800 miles away at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif.

All three levels of the Road to Indy – Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship – will host a pair of races at the challenging, 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in support of the opening round of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series. As a measure of the Road to Indy’s global appeal, no fewer than 16 different nationalities will be represented on the starting grids.

Milestone 500th Driver to Make Indy Lights Start
This weekend’s Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires will mark another milestone as the series will celebrate over 500 drivers having taken the green flag in its long history. Previously, a total of 496 drivers had started at least one race, dating back to the debut of the American Racing Series in 1986.

Judging by lap times during pre-season testing, another year of exciting competition seems to be in store. At stake is a guaranteed minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

Three veterans will be among those chasing top honors, with Ryan Norman, from Aurora, Ohio, perhaps starting out as favorite for the defending champion Andretti Autosport team. Norman came on strong toward the end of 2018, securing a spectacular first win on the Gateway International Raceway oval and then earning his maiden pole at Portland. It was Norman, too, who topped the time sheets on Monday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in South Florida during the final pre-season test.

“I’ve set goals every year,” said Norman, “so this year my goal is to win as many races as possible and earn as many podiums as possible.”

Norman will have two extremely talented teammates in Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., and Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y. Both Americans have shone in testing, and each has tasted success on the St. Petersburg streets. The pair scored a USF2000 victory apiece in 2017, while last year Askew qualified on pole for one of the Indy Pro 2000 races and Megennis went on to secure a podium finish.

“I really like St. Pete – it’s a hybrid racetrack,” declared Askew. “Half of the course is airport runway, so it’s very wide and smooth, but the other half is city streets, bumpy and tight. It’s my home race, so I’ll have a lot of support here from partners, family and friends. It’s the kick-off for the season and everyone is hyped, from the fans to the teams and drivers. To go into the weekend with a level head and drive on a track I love will be great.”

Zachary Claman, who won an Indy Lights race at Road America in 2017, also seems set to be a title contender. The native of Montreal, Que., Canada, has joined Belardi Auto Racing after deciding to refocus his career following a partial season of IndyCar racing. He will be joined by Brazilian Lucas Kohl, who is stepping up directly to Indy Lights after three years in USF2000, and Frenchman Julien Falchero, who displayed impressive speed for the team on Monday after previously testing with Andretti Autosport.

Juncos Racing also will be a factor as the latest in a long line of “Flying Dutchmen,” Rinus VeeKay, seeks to reprise the chemistry which earned him last year’s Indy Pro 2000 championship crown. VeeKay has amassed a remarkable record at St. Petersburg, claiming two USF2000 podium finishes in 2017, en route to second place in the title-chase, and a pair of Indy Pro 2000 wins last year.

“I have quite a lot of confidence driving close to the walls, and I enjoy it,” said VeeKay. “We struggled a bit at the Homestead test last week but we are figuring it out before the race weekend. That’s what a test is for and we’ll come out strong at St. Pete. This is a different car and a different series but my mindset is the same: winning is the goal. That’s the same for every driver.”

The Indianapolis-based team, which guided Kyle Kaiser to the Indy Lights crown in 2017, will field a second Dallara-AER IL-15 for multiple-time Indy Lights podium finisher Dalton Kellett, from Toronto, Ont., Canada.

The field will be completed by two cars from BN Racing – for teenager David Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., who won two Indy Pro 2000 races last year, and Englishman Toby Sowery, who completed a last-minute deal to join the team, in conjunction with St. Petersburg’s Dale Pelfrey, and performed impressively at Homestead during his very first outing in an Indy Lights car.

Florida’s Kirkwood Looks to Continue his Roll
Kyle Kirkwood has marked himself as potential star of the future. The native of Jupiter, Fla. – a lifelong friend and former karting rival of Indy Lights racer Askew – took last year’s USF2000 championship by storm, winning 12 of the 14 races including a record-breaking streak of 11 in a row to round out his initial campaign on the Road to Indy. Kirkwood also dominated the inaugural season of F3 Americas Powered by Honda, winning 15 of 17 races, in addition to claiming the F4 United States Championship in 2017.

It’s no wonder he starts as one of the favorites for honors in Indy Pro 2000 with Italian-based RP Motorsports USA (which won three races during its initial North American campaign in 2018).

“I think the question of pressure can go two ways,” noted Kirkwood. “I have many friends and family in St. Pete and they expect me to do as well. Looking back at last year, it’s funny that a win and a fifth-place finish was actually our least successful weekend. But this is one of my favorite tracks and my favorite event – and I can drive here from home.

“I’m going to try to have the same mentality going into the season that I did last year, which was not to have any expectations. The team has been great: the communication is good and the car has been amazing. If I can carry last year’s momentum forward, with the relationship I already have with the team, I think we can end up with a really good season.”

One of his principal rivals is sure to be Road to Indy veteran Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., Canada. Thompson finished second in the USF2000 title-chase in 2016 and third the following year, then claimed runner-up honors in his rookie season of Indy Pro 2000 in 2018. The personable Canadian concluded an arrangement just prior to the Spring Training test to join Abel Motorsports, which is stepping over to Indy Pro 2000 after guiding Kirkwood to the 2018 F3 title.

“We hit the ground running,” said Thompson. “In two short days we posted top-of-the-chart times, so it was a great experience. I’m looking forward to St. Pete.”

The Juncos Racing pair of Sting Ray Robb, from Payette, Idaho, and Swedish rookie Rasmus Lindh, who placed second in his rookie season of USF2000 in 2018, also have high expectations after displaying good speed in last weekend’s Spring Training test at the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

“This is one of my favorite races of the year,” said Robb. “I set the fastest time in the (St. Petersburg) race last year so obviously I have a history of doing well here. It’s a fun track, with a good rhythm to it, and for a driver, that’s very appealing. There are good passing zones, especially in Turn One with guys dive-bombing in, so it makes the racing very interesting.”

The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products will carry a distinct international flair with other contenders to include Italian Damiano Fioravanti (RP Motorsports USA), Mexican Moises de la Vara (DEForce Racing), Singapore’s Danial Frost and Los Angeles-based Russian Nikita Lastochkin (Exclusive Autosport).

Wide-Open Field of 21 Contenders Set for USF2000
The first rung on the Road to Indy ladder, USF2000, has attracted a strong entry of 21 Tatuus USF-17s to the opening rounds of the 15-race season – the St. Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen RacePark (Race 1) and the St. Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen Interior Contracting (Race 2).

Picking likely winners is far from easy, although many eyes will be focused on Alex Baron, who won one of the two races in St. Petersburg one year ago. He also emerged victorious at the Indianapolis road course – the only defeats incurred by runaway champion Kirkwood all year – but was unable to complete the season. This year Baron, who carries dual French and British citizenship, has joined the new Legacy Autosport team and will be embarking on what he hopes will be his very first full season of racing since winning the extremely competitive French F4 Championship in 2012.

“I’m very excited and eager to get the 2019 season underway,” said Baron, who elected not to travel to South Florida last weekend for the traditional Road to Indy Spring Training test. “Of course, the whole Legacy Autosport crew, my sponsor Metalloid and I are aiming for the championship. We have everything we need to thrive as a new team and to open some eyes. I’m very much looking forward to St. Petersburg as I’ve already won there last year, and I will do everything in my control to emulate that.”

In Baron’s absence at Homestead-Miami, 14 drivers were blanketed by less than one second. Darren Keane, from Boca Raton, Fla., emerged with the fastest time, just 0.0521 of a second ahead of Mexican rookie Manuel Sulaiman, who was extremely impressive for DEForce Racing.

Keane, who at the same time is pursuing an Engineering degree at the University of Florida, is also beginning his first full season after completing partial campaigns over the past two years. He has joined the St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports team, which has guided drivers to the last eight USF2000 championships in a row.

“There’s pressure, but you can either crack under it or use it to your advantage,” said Keane, who finished third at St. Petersburg last year. “I’ve been testing with the team for a while and I know they’re going to get the best out of me, and if they’re pushing me it’s because they know I have more. It’s all positive pressure. And I love going to St. Pete. I love street courses and being the opener of the IndyCar season brings so many fans out. It’s a great event.”

Keane will be joined at Cape Motorsports by highly rated rookies Braden Eves, from New Albany, Ohio, and Floridian-born Reece Gold, who is based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Gold, who is just 14 years old, won the 2018 Lucas Oil School Formula Race Car Series.

After winning the coveted Teams Championship in each of the past two years, Pabst Racing now has its eyes set firmly on adding the Drivers Championship to its resume. The Wisconsin-based organization boasts a four-driver lineup consisting of veterans Colin Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., Bruna Tomaselli, the only female in the field from Caibi, Brazil, and Yuven Sundaramoorthy, from Guilderland, N.Y., along with California-born, New Zealand-raised Australian Formula Ford Champion Hunter McElrea.

“I can’t wait to get on track at St. Pete; it will be so exciting,” said McElrea, who earned his opportunity by winning the third annual Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout last December. “This is my first street race, so it’s all a new experience. There is so much to learn so my main focus now is to make sure I am prepared as much as I can be ahead of time. Pabst has had a lot of success here so I know I’m in the best place for me to get the best results possible.”

The Jay Howard Driver Development team, headed by 2005 USF2000 (and 2006 Indy Lights) champion Jay Howard, has similarly high hopes as it fields a trio of cars for Denmark’s Christian Rasmussen, who finished third in last year’s F4 series, Englishman Matt Round-Garrido, who won the Northern Ireland Formula Ford 1600 Championship, and F3/F4/F2000 graduate Christian Bogle, from Covington, La.

Other young drivers to keep an eye on will include Eduardo Barrichello, the 17-year-old son of veteran Formula 1 star Rubens, who will join fellow second-generation racer Jack William Miller at another new team, Miller-Vinatieri Motorsports, and Cameron Shields (Newman Wachs Racing), who has gathered an immense amount of experience in Formula Ford, F4 and F3 in his native Australia before embarking on his first season in North America.

Adam Sinclair