Indianapolis, Ind., remains as the focal point of the open-wheel auto racing world this week. Following an intensely competitive and dramatic Pole Day qualifying weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to set the grid for next Sunday’s 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 Presented by Gainbridge, the attention for dozens of potential future stars of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES this week will switch to Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park for Friday night’s traditional Carb Night Classic.
An action-packed night of racing on the banked 0.686-mile oval will feature two steps on the USF Pro Championships Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder, plus the 70th Annual Hoosier Hundred, one of the crown jewel events on the USAC Silver Crown Series calendar, and a 30-lap National Pavement Midget Championship feature. The entry list for the Midget race includes 2006 USF2000 Champion, 2009 INDY NXT (Lights) champion and 2011 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year JR Hildebrand, who will step out of his comfort zone to drive a car prepared by Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development.
For drivers competing in the Cooper Tires Freedom 90, the seventh round of the USF Pro 2000 season, and the Cooper Tires Freedom 75, round eight in USF2000 competition, this Friday, May 26, will represent their only chance this year to gather race experience on an oval track.
On Thursday morning, all drivers – including 19 who have not competed previously at IRP – will benefit from an Oval Clinic hosted by Andersen Promotions and featuring advice and consultation with current INDY NXT title contender Hunter McElrea, who finished second in the 2020 USF2000 event at IRP, accomplished driver coach Jonatan Jorge and hugely successful team owner/race engineer Dominic Cape.
Rowe Heads Tight USF Pro 2000 Field
Two main talking points have emerged from the opening six USF Pro 2000 races of the season: the closeness of the field and the consistent pace displayed by points leader Myles Rowe as he chases a Discount Tire Driver Advancement Scholarship valued at $664,500 to graduate onto the next step on the ladder, INDY NXT, in 2024.
Rowe, a 22-year-old rookie from Brooklyn, N.Y., already has three wins to his name and has recorded the fastest lap in each of the last three races for the Pabst Racing with Force Indy team. He finished third in last year’s USF2000 race at IRP, and currently holds a 39-point edge in the standings.
The next seven drivers in the championship rankings are blanketed by only 20 points, led by Brazilian Kiko Porto, the 2021 USF2000 champion, who has finished on the podium three times this year for DEForce Racing.
Francesco Pizzi (TJ Speed Motorsports), from Rome, Italy, has been one of the revelations of the season, especially in qualifying having started each of the first six races from one of the top three positions. Pizzi currently lies just one point adrift of Porto, with fellow rookie Joel Granfors (Exclusive Autosport), from Sweden, only four points further back and a similar margin ahead of Rowe’s Pabst Racing teammate Jace Denmark, from Scottsdale, Ariz.
This week will represent the first ever taste of an oval for both Pizzi and Granfors, who claimed his first win in the most recent road course race at Indianapolis, as well as fellow rookies Reece Ushijima (Jay Howard Driver Development) and Lirim Zendeli (TJ Speed Motorsports).
Ireland’s Jonathan Browne also enjoyed a breakthrough weekend at Indianapolis, claiming two fourth-place finishes. Turn 3 Motorsport teammate and 2022 USF2000 champion Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y., has endured all manner of misfortune so far this season, but can reflect upon fond memories of the IRP oval after claiming victory in each of the past two years.
All drivers will gain some valuable experience during a pair of 45-minute test sessions on Thursday, May 25, which will lead into official single-car qualifying at 5:30 p.m. EDT. An additional 15 minutes of practice at 4:50 p.m. on Friday will provide one final opportunity to hone the cars in preparation for the 90-lap Cooper Tires Freedom 90 which is scheduled to see the green flag at 9:30 p.m.
USF2000 Trending Toward a Three-Horse Race
The ebbs and flows of a season-long battle for supremacy have characterized the opening three weekends of USF2000 competition in 2023. Four talented young drivers – Lochie Hughes, from the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, Jay Howard Driver Development teammate Evagoras Papasavvas, from Loveland, Ohio, Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing), from Gulfport, Fla., and Simon Sikes (Pabst Racing), from Augusta, Ga. – emerged as the leading contenders following the first event on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
A few weeks later on the permanent road course a hundred miles or so to the east at Sebring International Raceway, Hughes and Sikes shared the victory spoils to put some distance in the points table between themselves and their pursuers, only for Johnson to work his way back into the conversation recently at Indianapolis with two pole positions and a trio of podium finishes.
Of the four, only Sikes has prior experience on the challenging oval – an eighth-place finish in 2022. But with the previously dominant Cape Motorsports team absent from the field this season, having stepped up to INDY NXT after winning eight times at IRP since 2010, the door is wide open this year.
The stakes are high, with a Discount Tire Driver Advancement Scholarship valued at over $433,000 up for grabs. Hughes currently holds a relatively slender 14-point edge over Sikes, 185-171, with 14-year-old Johnson not far adrift on 144.
In common with USF Pro 2000, additional points will be on offer for this round, with 45 available to the winner – a 50-percent bonus compared to the remainder of the season. As usual, single points also will be awarded for pole position, fastest race lap and leading most laps.
The event format for the USF2000 competitors closely mirrors that of the USF Pro 2000 contingent with two 45-minute test sessions on Thursday preceding qualifying at 4:45 p.m. and then a brief 15-minute warmup on Friday afternoon prior to the start at 8:30 p.m.