By Steve Wittich

The bottom rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder begins their season on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla. for the sixth straight year.

The 2019 season is the 10th anniversary of the series rebirth under the leadership of Dan Andersen and Andersen Promotions. That season began with a Sage Karam victory in St. Petersburg.

Sage Karam is congratulated by Marco Andretti after winning the first USF2000 race since 2006. (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The first race of 2019 is the seventh time that the series will start their year on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit, surpassing the six openers at the Sebring International Raceway. It will be the 16th time that the USF2000 championship begins their season in the Sunshine State.

A total of seven different teams have won races on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit. Cape Motorsports leads all teams with seven.

Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship races winners on the Streets Of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Year Driver Team
2018 Race #2 Alex Baron Swan-RJB Motorsports
2018 Race #1 Kyle Kirkwood Cape Motorsports
2017 Race #2 Oliver Askew Cape Motorsports
2017 Race #1 Robert Megennis Team Pelfrey
2016 Race #2 Yufeng Luo Pabst Racing
2016 Race #1 Jordan Lloyd Pabst Racing
2015 Race #2 Jake Eidson Pabst Racing
2015 Race #1 Jake Eidson Pabst Racing
2014 Race #2 RC Enerson Team E
2014 Race #1 Victor Franzoni Afterburner Autosport
2013 Race #2 Scott Hargrove Cape Motorsports
2013 Race #1 Scott Hargrove Cape Motorsports
2012 Race #2 Spencer Pigot Cape Motorsports
2012 Race #1 Spencer Pigot Cape Motorsports
2011 Race #2 Petri Suvanto Cape Motorsports
2011 Race #1 Spencer Pigot Andretti Autosport
2010 Race #2 Sage Karam Andretti Autosport
2010 Race #1 Sage Karam Andretti Autosport

Winning the first race of the year is no guarantee of a championship

A baker’s dozen of the 31 champions won the first race of the season, including four times in nine seasons since the series was reborn in 2010. Last year’s champion Kyle Kirkwood was the first driver since 2013 to accomplish the feat.

1990 Vince Puleo
1991 Craig Taylor
1993 (SCCA) Ernest Skiles
1993 (USAC EAST) Chris Simmons
1998 David Besnard
2000 Aaron Justus
2002 Bryan Sellers
2005 Jay Howard
2006 J.R. Hildebrand
2010 Sage Karam
2012 Matthew Brabham
2013 Scott Hargrove
2018 Kyle Kirkwood

While winning the first race of the year, is no guarantee you’ll win the championship and scholarship, it is a solid indicator that you’ll have a good season. Since 2010, the winner of the season-opening race has an average championship finish of 2.8, and has finished no worse than sixth.

Does previous experience matter?

The 21 entries include seven veterans and 14 rookies.

In the four seasons before Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood’s championships in 2017 and 2018, the scholarship was the domain of veteran drivers.

The seven veterans combine for only 122 Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires starts, with Bruna Tomaselli’s 25 starts the most of the USF2000 field.

Race weekend basics

Each entry can utilize three new sets of Cooper Tire slicks as well as one set of used/scuffed tires from the test at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Race name #1: St Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen RacePark Race 1
Race name #2: St Petersburg Grand Prix Presented by Andersen Interior Contracting Race 2

Race #1 length: 20 laps or 40 minutes
Race #2 length: 25 laps or 40 minutes

Drivers failing to slow at least 15% in a timing sector with a local yellow will be subject to a two-place grid spot penalty 

Drivers who fail to heed the checkered flag at the end of a session will receive a two-grid spot penalty

Causing one red flag during a session will result in a driver losing their fastest lap

Causing a second red flag during the same session will wipe out all of drivers laps and they will be parked for the remainder of the session

Driver points are distributed as follows: 30 – 25 – 22 – 19 – 17 – 15 -14 – 13 – 12 – 11 – 10 – 9 – 8 – 7 – 6 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1 – an additional one point will be awarded to the pole sitter, to the driver who leads the most laps, and to the driver who turns the quickest race lap

Watch the 2018 races

Race #1

Race #2

Other notes

  • Drivers starting the NTT IndyCar Series in St. Petersburg, Fla. who raced on the lowest rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder include Colton Herta, Charlie Kimball, Spencer Pigot, and Zach Veach.
  • Alex Baron set the qualifying (72.2574 seconds) and race (72.2664) track records in 2018.
  • Six different teams occupied the six podiums spots in 2018. Those teams were Cape Motorsports, DEForce Racing, Exclusive Autosport, Newman Wachs Racing, Pabst Racing, and Swan-RJB Motorsports.
  • Legacy Autosport driver Alex Baron is the only previous winner in this year’s field.
  • The pair of pole sitters from 2018, Jose Sierra and Alex Baron, are both in this years field.
  • Cape Motorsports won five straight poles but is looking to start on the inside of row one for the first time since Scott Hargrove started on pole in the second race of 2013.
  • Only a pair of the previous 18 USF2000 races in St. Petersburg, Fla. have run caution free and the race averages 4.2 laps of caution. There has been a first lap caution a somewhat surprisingly low 39% (seven) of the races.
  • All 18 races have ended under green flag conditions.

2019 season preview

We appreciate newcomer Hunter McElrea summing up the USF2000 field perfectly for us, saying:

“It’s going to be a really stacked field. I’m really excited to get going. There is a lot of talent as you expect. There are a lot of champions from around the world, and all of them want to get to IndyCar. This is obviously the place you go when you want to start your career towards that goal. I’m really excited to get going.”

Here are your team-by-team and driver-by-driver previews.

Cape Motorsports

All roads to the year-end prize package for winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, worth over $389,000, go through the Cape Motorsports shop located only five-miles for the downtown St. Petersburg, Fla. street circuit.

The squad that is led by brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape has won eight straight drivers championships and 13 USF2000 drivers championships. The last driver that did not drive for the long-time team was Sage Karam, who won the championship with Andretti Autosport in 2010.

After running as a one-car team last year “The Capes” return to a more tradition three-car squad in 2019.

Darren Keane, a 19-year-old, is the most experienced of the trio of drivers, making 23 starts over the 2017 and 2018 USF2000 Seasons. The Deerfield Beach, Fla. native has one podium, three top-five finishes, and five top-tens.

The No. 2 from the Cape Motorsports stable piloted by veteran Darren Keane during testing on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The University of Florida engineering student was quick in off-season testing and most recently led the final series test before the season begins. That test at Homestead-Miami Speedway was also topped by a pair of Cape Motorsports championship-winning drivers in 2017 (Oliver Askew) and 2018 (Kyle Kirkwood).

“There’s pressure, but you can either crack under it or use it to your advantage,” said Keane, who started his season last with a podium in St. Petersburg, Fla. “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.”

Team USA Scholarship winner Braden Eves made a pair of USF2000 starts at the season finale in Portland, Ore. in 2018, finishing an impressive sixth in his series debut. The 19-year-old won once and stood on the podium in two partial seasons of F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda action.

The third member of the team, one of two 14-year-olds on the starting grid in St. Petersburg, is Reece Gold. The driver from Miami, Fla. won the $100,000 driver development award for winning the 2018 Lucas Oil Formula Car Championship Series. Gold, who will pilot the No. 3 won five races and finished on the podium 13-times in the premier open-wheel school in the United States.

Keane finished on the podium in the first race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in the 2018 championship opening event and should have an early edge on his teammates, who will both be making their first street course starts.

The team, who along with a series seven leading wins in their home race also leads all teams in poles (five), podiums (19) and laps led (134).

Pabst Racing

Pabst Racing has won the last two USF2000 team championships but is still looking for their first driver’s championship. They have been close, with three-second place finishes (Rasmus Lindh, Rinus VeeKay & Jake Eidson) in the last four seasons.

Second generation team owner Augie Pabst III has paired a couple of seasoned veterans with a pair of promising rookies in his quest to win the squads first driver’s championship.

Bruna Tomaselli, a 21-year-old who drove for Team Pelfrey in 2018, comes into the championship with extra motivation after being one of many drivers that were snubbed by the W-Series selection process. The Brazilian driver contested a partial USF2000 season in 2017, before completing the full season in 2018.

The second veteran on the team also went from a part-time 2017 schedule to full time in 2018. Colin Kaminsky, a second-generation racer from Homer Glen, Ill. had a solid second-half of a season last year moving into the top 10 in points with a string of consistent results.

The first of the talented pair of rookies is Hunter McElrea, who won the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout in December.

The 19-year old winner of the 2018 Australian Formula Ford series has ties to three countries with a deep open-wheel and Indy car history.

Hunter McElrea will pilot the Soul Red No. 22 for Pabst Racing (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

“I was born in Los Angeles,” explained McElrea. “I’m half-New Zealander and half-American, but I’ve lived in Australia for most of my life. My whole nationality is a little bit confusing, and there have been a few jokes about it.

“I left here when I was very young. To come back here is pretty cool. I wouldn’t say that I always saw myself coming back. It just naturally happened and IndyCar became my goal. One thing led to another, and it all fell into place. I’m glad that it all worked out. It’s really awesome to be here. I’m having so much fun on track, but also seeing all of the different cultures that I’m not used to off-track.”

In three seasons of Formula Ford action in Australia, the son of a team-owner has won an astonishing 34 times and stood on the podium 56 times in 94 races starts.

The team’s second rookie driver has also been a consistent winner in the “Formula Ford” ranks. Yuven Sundaramoorthy, who coincidentally was born in the team’s hometown of Oconomowoc, Wisc. won four times and finished on the podium fifteen times while finishing fourth and third in the F1600 Championship Series over the past two years.

Sundaramoorthy did make three starts at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in USF2000 last year, completing every lap and twice finishing in the top ten.

The 2019 event will be Tomaselli’s second trip to St. Petersburg and her seventh-place finish in the first race of the year is her career best.

The 19-year-old Kaminsky had one of his better finishes of the season at St. Pete last year, finishing sixth in the second race of the event.

The team won the last four races on the St. Petersburg, Fla. street circuit with venerable Van Diemen/Elan chassis, but has not been quite as dominant since the move to the USF-17. The team has three podiums in the four races the past two years after standing on the podium six times between the previous two years.

DEForce Racing

The David and Ernesto Martinez led team are starting their third full-time season as part of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

The Angleton, Texas-based team finished third in the USF2000 team points standings last year, and with a strong showing at the recent Homestead-Miami Speedway test are looking to put a driver near the top of the championship table.

Manuel Sulaiman, who led two test sessions and had the second quickest lap time at the Homestead-Miami Speedway test earlier this week, will be the lone USF2000 driver for the team at the season-opening event.

After a stand-out karting career in his home country of Mexico, the 18-year-old moved to the United Kingdom and has contested the last two seasons of the F4 British Championship.

The Puebla, Mexico native has won three of five races and currently leads the North and Central American Formula 4 Championship.

Sulaiman told TSO Ladder that his goal for the season was to, “Try to achieve good results, be consistent, win some races, and maybe win the championship.”

The team prepared quick cars for the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit last year. Jose Sierra started on the pole, and all three drivers started inside the top ten.

Exclusive Autosport

The Canadian team ended their second season of USF2000 action in fourth spot in the team and driver’s (Igor Fraga) championship and have made some significant changes to improve on that position.

The team moved to the Indianapolis, Ind. area and brought on Mirl Swan to manage the operation. Swan, crew chief for 2001 Indy Lights champions Dorricott Racing, was a successful racer before turning his attention to wrenching, engineering, and driver development.

The single car USF2000 team (for St. Pete) will feature returnee Manuel Cabrera. The 18-year-old Mexican driver made seven starts for the team in 2018, finishing in the top 10 in three of his last four starts.

Cabrera had a forgettable event last year, but the team has had a driver finish on the podium the last two years in St. Petersburg, Fla.

BN Racing

The Chicago Ridge, Ill. based BN Racing is starting their second season of USF2000 competition with a two-car assault at the season-opening event.

Anthony Famularo is a 16-year-old who contested a partial season in the Italian Formula 4 Championship last year. The Caracas, Venezuela native was incredibly consistent throughout the recent test at Homestead-Miami Speedway and a season of learning with few mistakes should be the goal.

Hoosier Zach Holden is a late signee for the team who has contested the first five USF2000 races in 2018 with DEForce Racing. Holden’s results did not match his pace, and it will be interesting to watch how the former karting standout performs in his second look at the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.

The 18-year-old won six races and stood on the podium 15 times on the way to a third-place finish in the 2017 F1600 Championship Series.

Holden had his best qualifying effort of fifth in the first race in St. Petersburg, Fla. last year his best finish (seventh) in the second race.

Newman Wachs Racing

Newman Wachs Racing was founded in 2006 by racer and entrepreneur Eddie Wachs along with racer and actor Paul Newman. The Mundelein, Illinois based team won the 2009 Atlantic Championship and are looking to get back to winning races with a strong driver line-up featuring youth and experience.

At 14-years-old, Nolan Siegel will be the youngest competitor on the Streets Of St. Petersburg. After success in shifter karts, the Tom Dyer mentored driver won the 2018 Sonoma Raceway Formula 3 Series, prompting a move to the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires to accelerate his learning.

The Newman Wachs Racing duo of Cameron Shields (No. 73) and Nolan Siegel (No. 36) work together during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway prior to the start of the 2019 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship season (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Joining the relatively inexperienced Siegel is Cameron Shields who has won 52 races in 154 starts in the highly competitive world of Australian open-wheel racing.

Shields, who hails from Toowoomba, Australia, the hometown of NTT IndyCar Series Team Penske driver Will Power, was persuaded to try racing in the U.S.A. by Power’s father, Bob.

Shield’s tested an Indy Pro 2000 car at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last September but decided that USF2000 would be a better level to start his American career. The 19-year-old ended up with the sixth quickest time during the recent test at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

New Teams

A total of four new teams with eight drivers will be on the grid when the season begins on the shores of Tampa Bay.

Two teams have ties to the series. Legacy Autosport has it’s rooted in RJB Motorsports, while Team E-JAY unites former USF2000 team owners Neil Enerson and Jay Green.

The other pair of new teams have migrated to the series from the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda.

Legacy Autosport

The Legacy in Legacy Autosport begins with three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Louis Meyer and carries through his grandson Louis “Butch” Meyer and great-grandson Louis “Mike” Meyer. Butch and Mike bring decades of racing experience to their new team that includes a pair of experienced Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires drivers.

The first signee for the team was Alex Baron. The Frenchman has four wins, three poles, six podiums and six fastest laps of the race in only 15 starts. Baron was second in points when his 2018 season came to an abrupt end.

The 24-year-old was the only driver not named Kyle Kirkwood to win a Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship race in 2018 and will be gunning for the championship.

“Of course the main goal is to win the championship,” said the experienced Baron. “We will have to work hard in order to achieve this goal. We have all the tools to thrive. It just a case of using them correctly.”

Recently, the team added Jose Sierra to the squad. Despite being only 19-year-old, the Mexican driver has extensive experience that includes: two years of French Formula 4, two years of the North and Central American Formula 4 Championship where he finished second both times.

Well everyone has the same goal, win,” said Sierra when asked what his goal for the season is. “I’m sure the team is doing everything to have the best car out on the track. I’m looking forward to the future and grow together with Legacy Autosport.”

Both drivers had success at the season-opening event last year. Sierra started on the pole and finished second in the first race of the season, while Baron won the second race from pole and set the quickest race lap in both races.

The duo is excited to work with another experienced driver with Baron saying:

“Obviously, it will help. Jose was able to run the full championship last year so it will be great to have his feedback on races that I wasn’t able to attend. I also have experience, but until this year I wasn’t able to complete a full season since my return in 2017 after a three-year halt. It would be naive of me to underestimate rookies, the Road to Indy ladder is always filled with talented drivers, so experienced or not, we will have to be on top of our game.”

Sierra added:

“It’s great! We can grow and develop the car better, and we are two drivers that work hard to make this possible.”

Team E-JAY

The combination of Neil Enerson (Team E) and Jay Green (JAY Motorsports) melds together a pair of race winning USF2000 team owners to provide a car for newcomer Nate Aranda.

Aranda is a graduate of the Lucas Oil Formula Car Championship Series winning one race and finishing on the podium in four races during the 2018 season.

Christophe Boisclair, who engineered Igor Fraga to fourth in 2018 and Parker Thompson to third with Exclusive Autosport, will head the team’s technical department.

Jay Howard Driver Development

Jay Howard is the first of two Indy car drivers that have added USF2000 to a pedigree that began with F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda.

Jay Howard Driver Development enters their first year in the Road To Indy as a three-car team for rookie drivers Matthew Round-Garrido, Christian Rasmussen and Christian Bogle.

The trio of drivers may be rookies in USF2000, but all three are experienced drivers.

Round-Garrido, from Stourbridge, England has won six Formula Ford races over the past two seasons, finishing third in the most recent edition of the Avon Tyres National Formula Ford Championship.

A successful career in European karting led Christian Rasmussen into formula cars in 2016, where he finished second in the Formula Ford Denmark Championship. After a third-place finish in the F4 Danish Championship, the 19-year-old made a move to the United States to partner with Jay Howard Driver Development in the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda.

The Copenhagen, Denmark native won five times, stood on the podium eight times and collected four fastest race laps on the way to a third-place finish.

Team owner Howard won nine of 12 races and the 2005 USF2000 Championship.

“It’s great to have Jay,” explained Rasmussen when asked about working with team owner that has won the championship. “I worked with him last year as well. He’s a great teacher and gives me all the small tips and tricks for going fast on the track. I really enjoy working with him.”

Christian Bogle, who will be spending his second season with Jay Howard Driver Development, is planning on contesting the USF2000 and US F4 series to gain as much seat time as possible.

Miller Vinatieri Motorsports

Last, but certainly not least is the second team owned by a former Indy car driver to make the jump from the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship.

The team co-owned by three-time Indianapolis 500 starter, Dr. Jack Miller and Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri will field a team with a pair of second-generation drivers.

Despite being only 15-years-old, Jack William Miller already has two years of F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda experience. The Indianapolis, Ind. born pilot finished the recent Homestead-Miami Speedway test with third quickest lap in the final session.

Sao Paulo, Brazil-born Eduardo Barrichello heads into the season on a positive note. The 17-year-old had the fifth quickest lap overall and topped the timesheet in the final session of the recent test at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

“Obviously, I’m a race car driver, and I want to win as many races as I can,” said Barrichello. “But, I’m a rookie. I’ve never been to St. Petersburg, so I don’t know what to expect, so I hope it goes well.”

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