By Steve Wittich

There have been two constants since Dan Andersen started the reimagined Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship in 2010. The first of those is the presence and support of Cooper Tires, and the second is a race on the Streets Of St. Petersburg.

TSO note: A quick thank you to Cooper Tires, for coming back for another season as the presenting sponsor of TSO Ladder. If you need tires, get some Cooper Tires. I love having them on my truck and wife’s car.

Friday’s 20 lap or 40 minute USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark and Saturday’s 20 lap or 40 minute USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires will be the 21st, and 22nd USF2000 races held on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.

The 2020 season opener marks the eighth year that St. Petersburg has played host to the first race of the season. It will be the 18th time that the USF2000 season has got underway in the sunshine state. Other Florida tracks to host season openers include Homestead-Miami Speedway, Sebring International Raceway, and Walt Disney World Speedway.

Previous USF2000 winners in St. Petersburg, Fla.

2019 Race #2 Braden Eves Cape Motorsports
2019 Race #1 Braden Eves Cape Motorsports
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

Current NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay celebrate with 2017 St. Pete race winner Robert Megennis, a current Indy Lights sophomore (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

Win the opener, win the championship?

It certainly doesn’t hurt to win at the first race of the season, but it’s not the end of the world if a driver doesn’t make it to victory lane. The eventual champion won the first race of the season in 14 out of 33 seasons. That does include the last two USF2000 champions, Braden Eves (2019) and Kyle Kirkwood (2018). It does not include 2017 champion and current NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Oliver Askew.

Staying out of trouble – early AND often

There have been 20 USF2000 races on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit, and only twice has a race gone caution-free in ‘St. Pete.’

Last year, the pair of races combined for 13 laps ran under caution with a total of six total yellow flag periods—the average USF2000 race in ‘St. Pete’ has 1.5 cautions, and 4.4 laps run under caution.

Half of the 18 races with a caution period, had a caution on the first lap, and most of those occurred in Turn 1.

It’s cliche, but the legendary Juan Manuel Fangio nailed it when he said, “to finish first, you must first finish.” It’s the first race weekend of the season; you’ll want to make sure you finish.

Start up front, finish up front.

The average starting position of the winner in St. Petersburg, Fla. is 1.4, and the victor has started on the front row in 19 of 20 races. The only time a non-front row starter won? Yufeng Luo won for Pabst Racing starting on the inside of the front row in 2016.

Home town dominance

Sort of. Up until last month, Cape Motorsports called St. Petersburg, Fla. home, but have recently moved to a shop in Brownsburg, Ind.

The team leads all categories in the 20 USF2000 races in St. Pete.

Six different drivers (Oliver Askew, Braden Eves, Scott Hargrove, Kyle Kirkwood, Spencer Pigot, Petri Suvanto) have nine wins.

Six different drivers (Matthew Brabham, Braden Eves, Scott Hargrove, Darren Keane, Spencer Pigot, Petri Suvanto) have started from the pole in seven races.

A dozen different drivers (Oliver Askew, Matthew Brabham, Jake Eidson, Braden Eves, Josh Fielding, Scott Hargrove, Kyle Kirkwood, Nico Jamin, Patrick McKenna, Spencer Pigot, Petri Suvanto, Aaron Telitz) have stood on the podium a total of 21 times. The next closest team is Pabst Racing, who have 12 podiums in St. Pete.

Seven different drivers (Oliver Askew, Braden Eves, Scott Hargrove, Darren Keane, Kyle Kirkwood, Spencer Pigot, Petri Suvanto) have led 175 of the possible 409 laps in the 20 previous USF2000 races.

And now, here is our team-by-team and driver-by-driver preview of the 2020 USF2000 season.

Pabst Racing

Pabst Racing has won the last three USF2000 team championships but is still looking for their first driver’s championship. They have been close though, taking home a quartet second place championship finishes (Hunter McElrea, Rasmus Lindh, Rinus VeeKay & Jake Eidson) in the last five seasons.

Augie Pabst, a second-generation team owner, has assembled an impressive team of three sophomores in an attempt to wrest the driver’s championship away from Cape Motorsports.

Note from TSO Ladder: This is one of the most heated and fun to watch rivalries from weekend-to-weekend. Both teams know who their competition is and badly want to win.

The lone returnee to the Wisconsin based team is Badger state born Yuven Sundaramoorthy. The high school senior was one of only three drivers to complete all 352 laps in 2019 and collected five top tens on the way to a 12th place championship finish.

The 17-year-old spent the off-season racing in the MRF Challenge Formula 2000 Championship, where he won twice and finished on the podium four times.

Sundaramoorthy made three USF2000 starts at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2018, and that was where he had his best race weekend in 2019, so don’t be surprised to see him be near the pointy end of the grid as he returns to events for the second time.

“Confidence is key in this series, and with a solid year under my belt, I’m excited to return with Pabst Racing and tackle 2020,” said Sundaramoorthy. “I developed some good chemistry with the crew, and I tried to absorb learnings at each racetrack. Even in this recent October test at IMS, I could feel so many improvements. I know it’s going to be a successful year.

Second generation pilot Eduardo Barrichello confirmed that he would be joining the Oconomowoc, Wisc. based team. The 18-year-old spent the 2018 USF2000 season with two different teams where he finished in the top 10 on seven occasions. The Brazilian who calls Orlando, Fla. home, spent the 2018 season in the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda championship.

Barrichello led three of the five sessions and ended up second on the combined timesheet during the recent two-day test held on the Homestead-Miami Speedway road course. With increased pace, comes increased expectations.

“I had no expectations going into St. Pete last year, but this year I’m more relaxed,” Barichello said. “I know what I need to do to get it right, and with experience comes confidence. Street courses are special because you have to get the car to the limit, but you can’t get it wrong. It’s hard to get that perfect lap because you’re trying to avoid the walls, but I enjoy that! And it’s great to be so close to IndyCar – it’s an extra boost because we all want to be there. It’s great motivation.”

Before his rookie Road To Indy campaign, Matthew Round-Garrido was well known to Formula Ford fans in the United Kingdom. The oldest of the Pabst Racing trio at 19, Round-Garrido spent three years in the popular category, finishing 3rd in the hotly contested 2018 Avon Tyres National Formula Ford Championship.

The mechanical issue meant that the native of Stourbridge in the United Kingdom got off to a forgettable start to his rookie season, where he raced in two series and for two different teams. The highlight of his season split across USF2000, and Indy Pro 2000 was a podium finish in Toronto.

Pabst Racing team-owner Augie Pabst at the Portland International Raceway (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

What TSO Ladder is watching

1) It will be interesting to see how the addition of an Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires program impacts the team’s successful USF2000 program.

2) Last year’s four-driver USF2000 squad had a chemistry that was fun to watch from the outside. All four drivers were clearly having fun and equated to fun results on track. Will the 2020 trio be able to replicate the on and off-track chemistry?

Cape Motorsports

Until proven otherwise, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship drivers championship runs through Cape Motorsports. The team, founded and run by brothers Nicholas and Dominic Cape, has won a baker’s dozen USF2000 driver’s championships, including the last nine in a row.

The team that made a move from St. Petersburg, Fla. to Brownsburg, Ind. during the off-season, will once again run a quartet of cars. A trio of veteran drivers, Michael d’Orlando, Kyle Dupell, and Reece Gold, will be joined by rookie Josh Green.

Gold, still only 15-year-old, returns to the team for a second straight season. The Floridian, who was the 2018 Lucas Oil Formula Car Series, finished the 2019 USF2000 season in 10th place. Gold was one of only three drivers to complete all 352 laps year, had eight top 10 finishes. If Gold can improve his qualifying pace, his consistency should allow him to be in championship contention.

“I’m super happy to be back with Cape for 2020,” Gold offered. “With the team having just won another championship, I am feeling ready to give it my all this year and try to continue that success. After a lot of learning in my rookie year, I feel that I can fight for wins and podiums this season. Thank you to Cape Motorsports and to my sponsor – The Ticket Clinic – for their continued support.”

At 21-years-old, Kyle Dupell is the eldest and most experienced of the Cape Motorsports quartet, making 18 USF2000 starts during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. The Oregonian finished 15th in his rookie season, a full-campaign with Team Pelfrey that included four top 10 finishes. Duppel returned to USF2000 action with Newman Wachs Racing for the final four races of the 2019 season.

Michael d’Orlando returns to USF2000 competition after a partial season of F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda action that saw the 18-year-old nab five top 10 finishes, including a trip to the podium at Circuit of The Americas in the final race of the year. The Hartsdale, New York native, took part in nine USF2000 races with Team Benik.

The final member of the Cape Motorsports squad is Team USA Scholarship winner Josh Green. Before taking part in the USF2000 event at Portland International Raceway last year, Green completed a full season of F1600 Championship Series action. The 17-year-old had eight wins, five poles, and 18 podiums on the way to a second-place championship finish.

“I’m extremely excited to join Cape Motorsports for the 2020 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship,” said Green. “The team has an enormous pedigree, and, after testing with them earlier this year, I’m super excited to continue working with them and get my head down for the 2020 championship. I’m extremely lucky to have had so many things come my way over the course of this last year, and I’m hugely thankful for all the opportunities that have been given to me. Being given a chance to work with such a prestigious team as Cape Motorsports is a huge honor.”

TSO Ladder quick thought

All four drivers showed some pace in the open test at Homestead-Miami Speedway and if that is any indication of what to expect this season. The inner squad battle to determine who the team number one is could take the whole season.

Jay Howard Driver Development

The second four-car team on the grid, Jay Howard Driver Development, finished an impressive rookie USF2000 campaign with three wins, one pole, seven podiums, and 15 top-ten finishes.

Returnee Christian Rasmussen finished third in the championship, but was most impressive in the second half of the season, outscoring all other drivers in the final four events (eight races) of the year.

“We have just been running our own show, to be honest,” said Rasmussen after finishing testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway with the fourth quickest time. “We haven’t been that focused on lap time; we’ve just been doing our prep for St. Pete. We are 100 percent focused on next weekend – there are no points awarded for testing. I think we’ll be very competitive next weekend and that was the main goal for this weekend. I definitely feel more confident this year going into St. Pete. I had the fastest lap last year, so I’m looking forward to getting back there and competing for the top spot. I love the street circuits, and I love coming to Florida – it’s cold back home!”

Christian Rasmussen and team-owner Jay Howard celebrate after a win at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (Photo Courtesy Of Andersen Promotions)

The second Jay Howard Driver Development driver is another returnee and is also named Christian. At 6’ 4”, Christian Bogle is the tallest Road To Indy driver, and is planning on another busy season of racing. The 19-year-old competed in both the USF2000 championship and F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda, with a pair of race wins in the latter series.

The driver from Louisiana was new to racing in 2018 and is once again planning a joint USF2000 and F4 program, with some Indy Lights testing thrown in to help his development.

The third sophomore to join the team is Nolan Siegel, who spent the 2019 USF2000 season with Newman Wachs Racing. The former stand-out karter, who is still only 15-years-old will look to build on a successful test at Homestead-Miami Speedway where he ended up with the seventh quickest time, less than one-tenth off championship favorite and teammate Rasmussen.

Rounding out the team is another 19-year-old and native Hoosier. Wyatt Brichacek made his USF2000 debut in the finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September. His move to the Road To Indy comes after two seasons of F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda competition and a season spent in the Lucas Oil Formula Car Series.

What TSO Ladder is watching

1) We’re curious to see how Rasmussen reacts to being the clear championship favorite to start the season.

2) While Rasmussen is the clear leader at the team, it will be fascinating to see which of the other three drivers becomes Rasmussen’s wingman.

DEForce Racing

The D and E in DEForce Racing are David and Ernesto Martinez, who founded the team in 2016.

David is a former Indy car driver, who finished in the top 10 in three of his four starts. Ernesto was stand-out karter, team manager in is known for his ability to develop drivers.

In addition to a four-car Indy Pro 2000 effort, the Angleton, Texas-based team has entered a pair of drivers in the lowest rung on the Road To Indy ladder. Last year, a trio of drivers combined for two podiums, and ten top-five finishes.

Despite being only 16-years-old, Francisco Porto, who is better known as Kiko, has made 31 F4 starts in North America, including three wins and eight podiums on the way to a second-place finish in the 2019 F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda title chase.

Porto was the ninth quickest driver during the recent USF2000 testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Mathias Ramirez, who is one of the best shifter kart pilots in the U.S.A., is making the jump to cars. The pair of races in his home state of Florida will be the first race in cars for the 18-year-old.

What TSO Ladder is watching

Given their past success, it’s clear that both drivers have plenty of talent. How quickly they adapt to USF2000 will determine their ceilings during their rookie seasons.

Legacy Autosport

Last year, Legacy Autosport ran a total of six different drivers in their two USF-17s and, despite the rotating amongst the seats, had solid results, with the sextet combining for two podiums and a dozen top-ten finishes. The team added experienced NTT INDYCAR SERIES engineer Matt Curry to help move the program forward this year.

Returning to the series after missing the last three events is Cameron Shields. The Aussie, who is mentored by Will Power, won the Freedom 75 on the Lucas Oil Raceway oval last May.

When his season ended, the 19-year-old from Toowoomba, Australia, was seventh in points with a win, two podiums and five top-ten finishes in nine starts.

Shields was the quickest driver in the final test session at Homestead-Miami Speedway and ended the two-days of testing fifth on the combined timesheet.

High school freshman Ayrton Ori returns to Legacy Autosport after contesting the final four races of the 2019 USF2000 season with the team. The native of Orlando, Florida, has extensive experience in F1600 machinery.

What TSO Ladder is watching

It was clear that Shields was dejected after his rookie season came to a premature end. However, Shields kept coming to the race track, and through hard work, was able to put together a deal for this season. In a year that should have a wide-open battle for the advancement scholarship, TSO Ladder will be watching to see if the perseverance Shields has shown off the track translates to the same fire on the track.

Miller Vinatieri Motorsports

Back for a second year of action is Miller Vinatieri Motorsports and lead driver Jack William Miller.

The team owned by former Indy car driver Jack Miller and NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri will run a pair of cars for the second straight season.

A native Hoosier, Miller, is still only 16-years-old and will be starting his fourth season in formula cars. His rookie season of USF2000 action followed a season and a half of the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda competition.

Pairing with Miller will be Max Kaeser, a fellow 16-year-old who resides in Keystone Colo. Kaeser tested with the team at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last fall after two seasons of SCCA Formula F competition.

“I think we have achievable goals set for 2020 and will reset them halfway through the year,” said team co-owner Jack Miller. “We have a new engineering program for this season and think we are on a good path. The goal is to, of course, win, but if not, we want to put ourselves in the best possible position for solid results.”

What TSO Ladder is watching

After four DNFs and an avoidable contact penalty in his first five races, Miller settled in and finished nine of the last ten laps. “JWM” clearly has the pace but needed to slow down to speed up. That mission was accomplished in the final two-thirds of the season, and TSO Ladder will be watching to see if the pace comes back with the improved race-craft.

Exclusive Autosport

Last but certainly not least. (I went by the 2019 team standings)

After three wins, nine podiums, and a third (Parker Thompson in 2017) and fourth (Igor Fraga in 2018) place championship finishes, Exclusive Autosport only took part in the first five rounds of the 2019 championship with a single driver.

This year, the Canadian team with a shop in Brownsburg, Ind. is back on the grid in a big way, signing a roster of three potential race-winning drivers.

In what we hope becomes a tradition, Prescott Campbell will be carrying the No. 1 as the Lucas Oil Formula Car Series champion. The 19-year-old Campbell was able to win the hotly contested championship despite missing a round with a broken leg sustained in a karting mishap.

Campbell, a 19-year-old Californian who is pursing a motorsport engineering degree at Oxford-Brookes University, was the fastest driver during the recent test at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but understand that he has a lot to learn.

“This is a big confidence booster going into St. Pete,” Campbell explained. “Coming into this Spring Training test, I didn’t know what to expect from myself compared to my competitors. It’s the first time we’ve tested against the full grid. I think I surpassed my expectations and some other expectations as well.

“There will be a lot to learn next weekend, but, of course, the goal will be to keep the car clean. It’s a great opportunity to perform in front of a crowd, and it will be great to be part of such a huge event.”

A second 19-year-old Californian, Christian Brooks, will hope to duplicate his previous career success. A stand-out karter with multiple marquee wins, Brooks made a move into formula cars last year. He collected a pair of wins and eight podiums on the way to a third-place finish in the 2019 F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda.

Returning to the team for a third season is a third 19-year-old. The Mexican driver has shown flashes of speed in his previous 12 USF2000 starts, including running in the top three at the Freedom 75 before being taken out by another driver.

What TSO Ladder is watching

What is the ceiling for the team that has a talented Campbell and Brooks on board, a pedigree of winning races in USF2000, and a successful final test at Homestead-Miami Speedway? Can the Canadian squad join Pabst Racing and Cape Motorsports as championship contenders?

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