For the first time since 2010, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda series will be visiting the ⅞ths of a mile Iowa Speedway oval. Sage Karam, who was driving for Andretti Autosport, started from pole and lead all 50 laps, on the way to his first oval victory. The 2017 Indianapolis 500 starter, made four other starts at the Rusty Wallace designed progressively banked oval; winning twice in Pro Mazda, once in Indy lights and finishing on the last step of the podium in his lone IndyCar start in 2015.

Sage Karam won the one and only USF2000 race held at Iowa Speedway to date. (Photo Courtesy of IndyCar – Shawn Gritzmacher)

What appeared to be a “Soul Red” runaway for Mazda Road to Indy $200K Scholarship Shootout winner Oliver Askew in the chase for his second consecutive scholarship chase, became a much more exciting affair after the series made a visit to the 14-Turn, 4.014-mile Road America road course two weeks ago.

After standing on the second and third step of the podium in four of his first starts, Rinus Van Kalmthout (Rinus VeeKay) had a break-out weekend in Wisconsin, winning both races, and scoring 63 out of a possible 66 points.

Askew, who was chasing VeeKay for the lead on the eighth lap of Friday’s first race, had a camber shim pop out of the left rear of his No. 3 as he was going through the high speed Kink at Road America. The 20-year-old did a remarkable job of holding onto the car and not hitting the concrete barriers that lined that portion of the track, and was able to limp his Mazda powered Tatuss back to pit road where the Cape Motorsports crew was able to institute a quick fix.  Despite getting back on track, the championship leader was only able to recover to a disappointing, and season worst 17th place finish.  Askew started the second race of the weekend on the outside of the front row, and ran a consistent race to finish on the bottom step of the podium.

Askew has seen what looked like a fairly safe 60 point lead trimmed to a not quite meager 24 points as the series heads to The Hawkeye State for their lone oval event of the year. TSO will be watching closely how Askew handles the slight setback, but it appears that he has the right mindset to get back on track.

“I haven’t been complacent,” Askew told TSO Ladder.  “I’m not coming into every weekend expecting to dominate. That’s not how my mentality should be. I just have to take every weekend as it comes. There are going to be tracks that we (Cape Motorsports) are quick, and tracks where we aren’t.”

Sunday’s Mazda Iowa 60 presented by Cooper Tires race, will be the 10th time that reborn series has held a race on an oval. In those nine previous oval events, a driver making their first career oval start, has won only three times. Patrick McKenna in 2010, Petri Suvanto in 2011 and Aaron Telitz in 2014, all won in their first oval efforts at Indianapolis Raceway Park in Clermont, Ind.

The two championship front runners are two of those 9 drivers who will be making their first ever oval start, and both understand that it’s going to be an eye-opening experience, but the duo also think that they are in capable hands and prepared heading into the event.

“That’s going to be a different animal for sure,” explained Askew when asked if he was ready for his first oval event.

“My coach Jonatan Jorge, and the guys at Cape Motorsports have a lot of experience with oval racing, so they are preparing me as much as they can, and giving me as much knowledge as they can, so I can go in well prepared. I’m going to be watching a lot of video, and working on the simulator.”

“Yeah, very excited. I did an oval test already, and I liked it very much. I was pretty quick on the oval,” said VeeKay who thinks he might have a secret weapon in fellow Dutchman Arie Luyendyk, who has seven wins (two at the Indianapolis 500, and 20 top fives on ovals.

“I hear they call him the oval specialist (Luyendyk), so I’m going to ask the oval specialist for some specific tips that he used, and hopefully I can use them and also go for the win at Iowa Speedway.”

If VeeKay has an edge over his rival, it might come from having more familiarity with the sustained speeds and g-forces that the drivers will be confronted with over the course of the 60 lap race on the Iowa Speedway banked oval. The 16 year-old second-generation driver has contested two rounds of the much higher powered and downforced 2017 BOSS GP Championship in a Judd 4.2L V10 powered Dallara GP2/08 Evo, winning once and finishing second two other times in the Open Class.

While not quite a two-man race for the championship yet, Kaylen Frederick and Parker Thompson, who are 71 and 81 points respectively behind Askew in third and fourth place will need to start winning races, and hoping the pair of front runners run into some trouble.

With two oval starts, Exclusive Autosport veteran Thompson is the most experienced oval driver among the 13 entries. The Canadian driver, who finished sixth and second in two oval starts at Indianapolis Raceway Park, will need to use all that experience to finish the weekend ahead of the three drivers ahead of him in the chase for the $400,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement scholarship and a seat in the 2018 Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire championship.

Fifteen year-old Frederick, will have an experienced crew led by Jonny Baker and Tom Knapp to draw knowledge from, and will also have sophomore Robert Megennis to lean-on.  Megennis, who has had a disappointing season since winning the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, was impressive in his oval debut as only a 16 year-old at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2016. Megennis finished in sixth, as the only rookie on the lead lap, and also ended up with the third quickest lap of the race.

The title is likely out of the question for the Megennis, but a top three championship finish is still in the picture for the New York, New York native – if he can finish the last seven races of the year strongly.

Rick Donison, Askew’s Cape Motorsports teammate, and Calvin Ming & Lucas Kohl, Veejay’s Pabst Racing teammates all have the opportunity to play an important role in the driver and team championships (see below for an update on the team championship).

All three drivers have shown that they have the pace to finish on the podium, and in the process steal valuable points from Askew and VeeKay. Don’t be surprised to see the teammate of that trio of driver(s) that finds consistency first collecting the big prize at the end of the season.

The DEForce Racing duo of Kory Enders, and Moisés de la Vara both have the opportunity to finish in the top 10 in points. An impressive feat for a pair of rookies with a brand new team. The team and drivers received help during oval testing from the experienced Peter Dempsey, and will be looking for finishes in the top half of the field to help get the final portion of the season started on the right foot.

It appears that the switch to kickstart stand-out karter Dev Gore’s season was turned to the ON position at Road America. The 19 year-old had improved pace in both qualifying and both races, and his 12th and 11th place finishes were the best of his season.

Rumors regarding a return to the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire (MRTI) by talented young Frenchman Alex Baron began circulating just before the season opener in St. Petersburg, but it took until this weekend’s race at Iowa Speedway to come to fruition. The 22 year-old who’s last MRTI race was an Indy Lights victory in Toronto with Belardi Auto Racing in 2014, will return to America with ArmsUp Motorsports’ USF2000 program. In a dozen starts between USF2000 and Indy Lights the 2012 French F4 Champion has three wins, two poles and six podiums, but he has been out of the car for two seasons while trying to put together an opportunity to return to the U.S.A.

Baron will team with John Walko, the experienced Arms Up engineer who was able to guide Victor Franzoni to third in the USF2000 championship in 2016. Walko also helped Aaron Telitz win in his first USF2000 oval race at Indianapolis Raceway Park in 2014.

22 year-old Frenchman Alex Baron will rejoin the MRTI for the USF2000 race at Iowa Speedway. His last appearance in North America was an Indy Lights victory in Toronto in 2014. (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Baron should help the Brent Borland led team to move their USF2000 program forward, and will be able to serve as a mentor to current Devin Wojcik. The 17 year-old Wojcik is coming off his best USF2000 weekend of the year at Road America, scoring two top tens, and moving from up two spots in the points standings. Don’t be surprised if the up-state New Yorker, who has shown steady progress so far in 2017, takes that next step forward with under the tutelage of the more experienced Baron.

The USF2000 teams have all done some oval testing with their drivers. The two most popular locations were the fairly flat 0.686 mile oval at Indianapolis Raceway Park, and the moderately banked 0.75 mile oval at Memphis International Raceway.

But, a very big but, the foot-to-floor variably banked Iowa Speedway should be a completely new experience for every single one of these drivers.

The driver that most quickly comes to grips with the constant speed, while learning not to slide their Cooper Tire slicks, will be the driver that visits victory lane on Sunday afternoon.

The drivers will get their first look at the ⅞ths of mile Iowa Speedway during a three-hour promoter test session on Friday afternoon. Make sure to check back on Friday evening for our full report on that session.

On Saturday, the drivers will have an autograph session at 2:45pm in the Verizon IndyCar Series Fan Village before taking to the track for a 45-minute practice session at 4:30pm. Qualifying for the 60 lap race is at 9:15am on Sunday, and the green flag for the Mazda Iowa 60 Presented by Cooper Tires flies at 1:05pm.

Team championship battle heats up

While the driver’s championship has tightened up, the team championship also bears watching. The last five consecutive prizes handed out for the top USF2000 team at the annual awards banquet have gone to Cape Motorsports, and the St. Petersburg, Fla. based team entered the Road America weekend with a 23 point advantage over Team Pelfrey and a 31 point gap to third place Pabst Racing.

However, after winning twice and snagging four of the six trophies on offer at their “home” race, Pabst Racing heads to Iowa Speedway with a 30 point lead over friendly rivals Cape Motorsports, and a 37 point lead over third place Team Pelfrey.

No, their isn’t “huge bucks” on the line (it was $4,000 last year), but their always pride, and more importantly bragging rights to help you sell your team to potential drivers. Definitely a fun side battle to watch over the last seven races of the season.

Also, a quick shoutout to Exclusive Autosport. The Saskatoon, Saskatchewan based team that is lead by Michael and Kimberly Duncalfe currently sits fourth in the team championship, and is the highest placed of the four “new for 2017” teams.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda Team Points Thru Road America

1 Pabst Racing 200
2 Cape Motorsports 170
3 Team Pelfrey 163
4 Exclusive Autosport 117
5 Newman Wachs Racing 67
6 DEForce Racing 47
7 John Cummiskey Racing 34
8 RJB Motorsports 32
9 ArmsUp Motorsports 31
10 Benik 26


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