Our lede for Wednesday’s MRTI testing recap changed from “Rookie Cape Motorsports pilot leads all six USF2000 test sessions” to, “beat by just ‘that’ much, when MRTI $200K Scholarship Shootout winner Oliver Askew lost the top spot on the timesheet after a lap by Newman Wachs Racing rookie Rinus Van Kalmthout nudged him out by one-tenth of a second.

The 20 year-old Askew still ended up “winning” testing by laying down a quick lap of 1 minute 23.9142 seconds in this morning’s first session. Askew, who was only “testing” (wink, wink, nudge, nudge – expect a release soon) with Cape Motorsports this week, ended up as the only driver with a lap under 1 minute 24 seconds.

Oliver Askew, who was driving for Cape Motorsports topped the timesheet at USF2000 spring training at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“Going into yesterday, I just wanted to get a feel for the car again,” explained the Jupiter, Florida native.  “I didn’t want to go flat out right away, but we were quick right out of the box. The team is really good at making the right changes for us to learn, which is what we’ve been doing these two days. We haven’t gone out with the same car as the previous session. We picked right up where we left off yesterday and, at the end of the day, we were the only car in the top six that didn’t put new tires on. We’re all getting more knowledgeable about the new car with every change that we make. The Tatuus USF-17 is fantastic. The series has done a great job putting it together and making it user friendly. I didn’t expect the test to go this well so I’m extremely happy and very confident that we’ll be winning races this year.”

The top 10 on the combined timesheet (see below for entire timesheet) were Askew, Kaylen Frederick (Team Pelfrey), Rinus Van Kalmthout (Newman Wachs Racing), Andre Castro (Newman Wachs Racing), Robert Megennis (Team Pelfrey), Calvin Ming (Pabst Racing), Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport), Kyle Kirkwood (Benik), Dakota Dickerson (Newman Wachs Racing), and Ayla Agren (Team Pelfrey).

A trio of brand new USF-17 cars brake for Turn 6 at Homestead-Miami Speedway ((Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

One of the questions we had about the 2017 USF2000 season in our preview was: With five straight championships, will it be business as usual for Cape brothers, despite the brand new Mazda powered Tatuus USF-17?

Nothing is definitive until the checkered flag falls at Watkins Glen International on Labor Day weekend, but if early returns mean anything, expect to see a Cape Motorsports car at the sharp end of the grid in St. Petersburg.

“Obviously you never know where you are going to be, where you are going to stack up until everyone is together. We are very pleased with how it went,” explained team owner Nicolas Cape though a barely concealed cheeky grin. “Oliver (Askew) did a fantastic job, which we anticipated he would because he’s obviously a very talented young man. We’re very happy, we got to do our program and we stuck to it. We got to do our race runs in the last two sessions today and we did some qualifying simulations this morning. We made a lot of changes and ran through a bunch of different stuff, and I couldn’t be more pleased to be honest with you. Also, Ricky (Donison) struggled a little bit in the beginning of the test, but he came a long way towards the end of the day, so we’re really pleased with his progress and we think he’ll be really well at St. Pete.”

However, with seven drivers representing five teams within one second of Askew, expect the USF2000 title to be extremely entertaining.

The second question we had in our preview was:  Is this the year that a rookie can win the title?

The last time a rookie won the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda championship was in 2012 when Matthew Brabham just beat his Cape Motorsports teammate Spencer Pigot to the title.

If testing means anything, and that is always debatable, expect to see a few rookies fighting for the advancement scholarship for Pro Mazda.

Team Pelfrey sophomore Robert Megennis had the fifth quickest time of testing but was the quickest of the returning drivers. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

With rookies holding down the top four spots on the timesheet and six of the top 10 spots, the veterans have to be worried. We chatted with a number of veteran drivers (more on that in a breakout post), and while worried might be too strong of a word, there is definitely some concern.

Nineteen of 21 drivers turned their quickest laps during one of the three sessions today, with 12 of those drivers, including Askew, going fastest in today’s morning session.

The 21 drivers turned a total of 2,931 laps (6,477.5 miles) with Pabst Racing sophomore Lucas Kohl’s 170 circuits being the highest number of laps turned.

Combined Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda timesheet:

1 3 Oliver Askew Cape Motorsports 1:23.9142 136
2 81 Kaylen Frederick Team Pelfrey 1:24.3181 143
3 38 Rinus Van Kalmthout Newman Wachs Racings 1:24.4653 142
4 37 Andre Castro Newman Wachs Racing 1:24.6664 134
5 80 Robert Megennis Team Pelfrey 1:24.6747 142
6 22 Calvin Ming Pabst Racing 1:24.7375 163
7 90 Parker Thompson Exclusive Autosport 1:24.8296 138
8 31 Kyle Kirkwood Benik 1:25.0495 133
9 36 Dakota Dickerson Newman Wachs Racing 1:25.0892 138
10 82 Ayla Agren Team Pelfrey 1:25.1130 147
11 9 Victor Franzoni ArmsUp Motorsports 1:25.1383 129
12 11 Kory Enders DEForce Racing 1:25.2600 140
13 23 Lucas Kohl Pabst Racing 1:25.3061 170
14 12 Moisés de la Vara DEForce Racing 1:25.3097 137
15 91 Luke Gabin Exclusive Autosport 1:25.5477 133
16 2 Ricky Donison Cape Motorsports 1:25.6420 142
17 34 Kris Wright John Cummiskey Racing 1:25.6730 161
18 7 Devin Wojcik ArmsUp Motorsports 1:26.9532 138
19 92 Dev Gore Exclusive Autosport 1:26.9352 72
20 20 Chandler Horton RJB Motorsports 1:27.6053 142
21 8 Bruna Tomaselli ArmsUp Motorsports 1:28.1298 151

After day that included a steep learning curve and some issues with his car’s brakes, reigning Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda champion Anthony Martin showed his true form by leading the combined Pro Mazda time sheet after six hours of track time on the 2.21 mile, 14-turn Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Anthony Martin and his Soul Red No. 8 led Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire testing on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo Courtesy of IndyCar)

Martin, who will be driving a Soul Red car this year, is only “testing” with Cape Motorsports (same wink, wink, nudge, nudge as Askew above) ended up with a quick lap time of 1 minute 23.6329 seconds. The Australian native was followed closely by Team Pelfrey trio of Carlos Cunha, Nikita Lastochkin and TJ Fischer, who were all within four-tenths of the top spot.

“The last couple of days have been a big learning curve. The first day didn’t go as planned for us but, like we always do, we bounced back and this second day has been very productive,” said the 21 year-old Martin.  “We’ve learned a lot about car setup and with my driving and, most importantly, we were quite fast. The biggest thing we worked on was driving, just getting me used to the car. I think the transition has gone well. This car has more power and more grip than the USF2000 car but it’s fun to learn. I’m a huge fan of the rotary engine so to have one of them strapped to the back side of me is quite awesome.”

“It was a very good test for me. Last week was my first time in this car and it’s very different to drive than the Formula 3 car,” explained Team Pelfrey rookie Cunha. “It has more power and I am still getting used to the tires and the difference in downforce. This year will be very challenging but I have two good teammates. I need to learn a lot – about the car and about the tracks. I’ve never driven on a street course before! This is an amazing championship and an amazing prize at the end of the year for the champion. I just need to believe in the team, in the car and, of course, I need to believe in myself, and I think we’ll have a good year.”

The first question that we asked about the 2017 Pro Mazda season in our preview was: Can anybody touch Team Pelfrey?

If testing is any indication, it appears that Cape Motorsports and Anthony Martin will be in the picture, but with the top four drivers covered by four-tenths of a second, we’ll need a few more events to make a final determination.

A pair of familiar yellow and black Team Pelfrey cars lead the World Speed Motorsports duo into Turn 6 on the 2.21 mile, 14-turn Homestead-Miami Speedway road course (Photo Courtesy of IndyCar)

The second question we asked in our preview was: Who emerges as the team leader at Team Pelfrey?

Like the first question, the jury is still out on that. Cunha, Lastochkin, and Fisher all turned laps within three-tenths of a second of one another. The intra-team battle at Team Pelfrey should provide race fans with some terrific entertainment.

All seven of the drivers turned their quickest laps during one of the three sessions today, with five of those drivers, including Martin, going fastest in today’s morning session.

The seven drivers turned a total of 1,147 laps (2,534.9 miles) with World Speed Motorsports veteran Bobby Eberle’s 177 circuits leading the way.

Combined Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire timesheet:

1 8 Anthony Martin Cape Motorsports 1:23.6329 150
2 81 Carlos Cunha Team Pelfrey 1:23.7299 141
3 80 Nikita Lastochkin Team Pelfrey 1:23.7980 155
4 82 TJ Fischer Team Pelfrey 1:24.0550 165
5 14 Sting Ray Robb World Speed Motorsports 1:25.4694 173
6 13 Bobby Eberle World Speed Motorsports 1:25.6393 177
7 5 Jeff Green Green Racing 1:26.7837 186

It wasn’t just the first two rungs of the MRTI ladder that were busy today, the 15 Indy Lights drivers entered for Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by Cooper Tires were going through a road course of their own. Beginning with official portraits, moving onto interviews with Road To Indy TV and NBC Sports Network, and ending with a social media tutorial by Cooper Tire and Mazda, the drivers were sure kept busy on one of their off days. After the day long process to switch their Mazda powered Dallaras from oval to road course trim, the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tire teams and drivers will have a total of 6.5 hours of track time on the 2.21 mile, 14-turn Homestead-Miami Speedway road course.

Some flavor:

Patrick asked me to add a little more “flavor” to my TSO Ladder writing. I agree with him, and it’s something I’ve been meaning to do more of. So, here it goes…

When I searched for flights to come to the MRTI testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, my search yielded a very inexpensive flight to Fort Myers, Florida. I’m staying in Florida through the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (more on my other adventures, including two days at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, later next week) and am flying out of Tampa on the Sunday evening after the Grand Prix.

My flight arrived in the late afternoon and by the time I picked up my rental car (an upgrade to a Mustang, so no complaints) it was already dark. When I mapped the drive from Fort Myers to my accommodations in Florida City, the non-toll route was only 10 minutes longer, and since I’m proudly “frugal,” I clicked “go” on that route. Likely not my best choice, as the Tamiami Trail is a two-lane road through the heart of The Everglades. Thankfully there was very little traffic, which made the close to three-hour drive stress-free, but unfortunately, the highway is so dark and remote, they lower the night-time speed limit to 45mph. There are plenty of signs showing wilderness crossing the road, and I believe I did have an encounter with a small reptile. Sorry!

I arrived at my accommodations, an older, but clean, well-kept and completely remodeled motel, and tried to get right to sleep. That didn’t happen, and likely had a lot to do with the giant 44oz Mountain Dew I consumed in an effort to stay awake way past my bed-time. I finally fell asleep only to have my alarm go off a few hours later. It was time to head to a race track for the first time this year!!!

This is actually my first trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway, so it took me a little while to find the gate that I needed to enter, but once I did, I got set up in the media center and got to work.

A couple of things about Homestead-Miami Speedway immediately stand out. First, the majority of the structures and buildings are of the Art Deco style and color, similar to what you would find in nearby Miami Beach, Florida. Second, constantly seeing 482d Fighter Wing Air Reserve F-16’s from Homestead Air Reserve Base fly directly overhead is very cool and unique.

Monday night featured a meet-and-greet between the MRTI drivers, team members, series staff and me (the lone media member present). This is the second year that this event has taken place and it’s a great way to catch-up with old friends and get acquainted with new faces.

Even though we had a mild winter so far in Indianapolis, Indiana, the shock of the 80+ F temperatures and high humidity was quite a shock. I returned my hotel, decided to cool off with a quick dip in the pool and hit the hay really early.

On Tuesday morning, my alarm went off early and this time, I had no problem getting going. Since it was “Fat Tuesday”, and I resemble that descriptor, I headed to the nearest Publix grocery store in search of a Paczki. My Dad was in the bakery business and sold donuts to Publix, so I knew I would find my fix. I was not disappointed.

Soriano Brothers Cuban restaurant in Homestead, Florida. (Photo Courtesy of Steve Wittich)

After another hot and humid day at the track on Tuesday, I was ready for a good local dinner. I found my self in the mood for Cuban, and after a little bit of research online, I found Soriano Brothers. The open-air restaurant did not disappoint. The food options were endless, but mainly centered around pork. I chose to go with Masas De Peurcos Fritas (marinated pork that has been broiled in water and oil (so essentially fried), Arroz Congri (rice and black beans) and plantains. The pork was extremely flavorful and a great combination of sweet and heat, the portion was enormous (I’ll be eating it again tomorrow night), and it was extremely flavorful. I would definitely go back.

My fantastic meal of Masas De Peurcos Fritas, Arroz Congri, and plantains. It was enough to feed an entire family. (Photo courtesy of Steve Wittich)

Now I’m hungry again…