For the eighth straight year, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda Series visits the 1.8-mile, 14 Turn, Streets Of St. Petersburg street circuit early in the chase for the nearly $400,000 Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship prize package.

After seven years of competition featuring a Mazda powered, Van Diemen based chassis, the first step of the Mazda Road To Indy presented by Cooper Tire ladder debuts a brand new Tatuss chassis featuring the familiar Mazda MZR 2-Liter powerplant, and reliable Cooper Tires.

The USF-17 begins with Tatuus manufactured full carbon composite and aluminum honeycomb monocoque that meats current FIA F4 standards and adds:

  • a proven 170hp Mazda MZR 2.0 liter engine built by Elite Engines
  • an adjustable twin element rear wing
  • 13×8 (front) and 13 x10 (rear) wheels
  • PFC Formula 3 quality brakes with driver adjustable brake bias
  • upgraded Cosworth electronics package including ECU, GCU and data logger
  • three way adjustable Dynamic dampers with Hyperco springs (six spring rates available)
  • upgraded uprights for oval racing
  • ride-height, camber, toe adjustment, roll center, anti-squat and anti-dive adjustments on the rear axle and ride-height, camber and toe adjustment available on the front axle.

The entry list for the two St. Petersburg races features 21 announced drivers (and one To Be Announced Driver), born in 10 different counties representing 11 different teams.

Team and driver previews

With six straight and ten overall USF2000 drivers championships Cape Motorsports will look to continue their dominance with their first all-rookie line-up since Petri Suvanto and Shannon MacIntosh drove for the team in 2011. Ricky Donison will pilot the No. 2 machine, and Oliver Askew will be at the wheel of the Soul Red Mazda Motorsports/MC Racing sponsored No. 3. It’s been since 2013 that a driver from the St. Petersburg, Fla. team’s stable has stood on the top step of the podium in their hometown race, so they will be looking to start the season on a positive note.

Donison, who races with support from JK Tyres, is the first Indian backed driver in the MRTI since Armaan Ebrahim, who was also sponsored by the Indian tire manufacturer, made five starts for Fan Force United during the 2012 Indy Lights campaign. The 18 year-old has won numerous karting championships in his home country, but has limited experience in cars. The Bangalore, India native proved to be a quick study during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, ending the two days of testing ahead of other experienced drivers.

The 20 year-old Askew couldn’t have asked for a better start to his MRTI career, leading five of six test session at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week and ending the test four-tenths of a second ahead of his closest completion. Askew, the winner of the MRTI $200K Scholarship Shootout had a standout karting career, but does have limited starts in cars. However, if the skill that the Jupiter, Fla. native displayed in the United Kingdom while representing Team USA Scholarship at the Walter Hayes Trophy and Formula Ford Festival (two wins and five podiums in six races), carries over to the USF2000 Championship, Askew should be one of the favorites to win the $369,000 Mazda scholarship package to take to the Pro Mazda presented by Cooper Tire Championship.

After winning the MRTI $200K Scholarship Shootout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in December, Oliver Askew has chosen to contest the 2017 USF2000 season with Cape Motorsports (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

“I couldn’t be more excited to start my first season in car racing and to start my first street race,” explained Askew. “It’s going to be so cool to be in the same paddock as the Verizon IndyCar Series. There will be a lot of buzz, but I must keep my head down and keep focusing on what’s important.”

ArmsUp Motorsports, along with Cape Motorsports and Pabst Racing, are one of only three active teams that has taken part in each one of the seven seasons since the USF2000 Championship was revived by Andersen Promotions in 2010. The Gregg Borland owned and John Walko engineered team will hope to get a handle on the Mazda powered Tatuus USF-17 with rookies Devin Wojcik in No. 7 ArmsUp Motorsports Mazda/Tatuus. Bruna Tomaselli will piloting the No. 8 Bruna&Bia sponsored ArmsUp Motorsports National Class Van Diemen chassis. The No. 9 USF-17 is listed on the entry list with the diver to be announced.

Wojcik won’t be coming into his MRTI experience completely blind. The 16 year-old took part in the two USF2000 races at Road America in June, finishing 14th and 16th in 24 car fields. Also included on the Fayetteville, N.Y. natives CV is two seasons of Skip Barber Racing Series Competition.

After a successful karting career, 18 year-old Tomaselli, a native of Caibi, Brazil, amassed five podiums and a fourth (2016) and seventh (2015) place finish in two seasons of Fórmula 4 Sudamericana Championship competition.

Brazilian Bruna Tomaselli will be the only National Class entry for the season opening USF2000 event in St. Petersburg (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Both ArmsUp Motorsports drivers will be in learning mode, and Borland and Walko should be the patient and effective tutors the two young drivers will need to survive their first forays into the MRTI.

Ernesto Martinez, an experienced team owner, and David Martinez, a former IndyCar driver and respected driver development coach pooled their respective knowledge to form DEForce Racing in order to take part in the USF2000 Championship. The team which is based at MSR Houston in Angleton, Texas will a pair of rookies behind the wheel of their pair stunning blue and white Mazda powered Tatuus machines. Kory Enders will pilot the MBSugarland/Caliber Collision/McLaren Houston No. 11 and Moisés de la Vara will pilot the No. 12 that is sponsored by UAG/Isla Navidad.

The No. 11 DEForce Racing machine of Kory Enders gets serviced on pit road during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)


The pair of 19 year-olds both took part in the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca round of Pro Mazda competition that closed out the 2016 season, and both drivers have recent seat time, so they won’t have to worry about knocking off the race rust.

Enders, who lives in Sugarland, Texas recently took part in the 2017 version of the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand with fellow MRTI competitors Shelby Blackstock, and Nikita Lastochkin.

de la Vara, from Guadalajara, Mexico, has extensive Formula 4 experience in the Mexican based NACAM Formula 4 Championship and F4 United States Championship Powered by Honda. de la Vara has a total of two wins (including the last NACAM Formula 4 Championship at Autodromo Intetnacional de Cancun) and three podiums across two-and-a-half seasons of competition in the popular global entry level category.

Rookie Chandler Horton will pilot the Menards/Metalloid Firearms and Sports No. 20 of the Sturgis, Mich. based RJB Motorsports.

Horton, who is a college freshman and member of the Division I cycling team at Marion University in Indianapolis will be making his debut in USF2000, but the successful karter does have race experience in Formula Ford at the Sports Car Club of America level. While Horton does lack race experience on the circuits he will see in USF2000 this year, the son of INDYCAR Director Of Engineering won’t be totally blind. The Zionsville, Ind. resident was part of the pace-car team that delivered V.I.P. rides at many of the same tracks he’ll race on this season. Although Horton has spent most of his life around the Verizon IndyCar Series, the 19 year-old will need to spend the 2017 season learning what to expect on MRTI weekends, and look to complete as many laps as possible to continue to improve his pace as the season progresses.

With drivers Jake Eidson in 2015 and Jordan Lloyd in 2016, Pabst Racing team owner Augie Pabst and engineer Tonis Kasemats have come “oh so close” to dethroning Cape Motorsports from the top of the USF2000 Championship. The Oconomowoc, Wis. team enters the 2017 season with a potent United Nations trio of sophomore Brazilian Lucas Kohl (Belko Trading sponsored No. 23), rookie Dutchman Rinus Van Kalmthout (Jumbo Supermarkets The Netherlands/Total sponsored No. 21), and rookie Guyanese pilot Calvin Ming (Mings Products and Services(MPS)/APAN sponsored No. 22).

Kohl, who is mentored and coached by former Formula 1 and Indy Car driver Roberto Moreno, spent his rookie season at John Cummiskey Racing. The 18 year-old, who won the Formula Junior Championship in his native Brazil, finished his rookie USF2000 season with seven top 10s and a 12th place championship finish. Kohl finished test at Homestead-Miami Speedway last week, and ended the two-day test with only the 13th quickest lap. Kohl will have to make an improvement in his overall pace, if he wants to move closer to the pointy end of the USF2000 grid.

Van Kalmthout, who originally signed with the Benik/Carlin team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway last May, became a free-agent when Benik and Carlin had a parting of the ways during the off-season. The 16 year-old finished last weeks test at Homestead-Miami Speedway leading the final session and scoring the third quickest time overall while testing for Newman Wachs Racing, but ended up signing with Pabst Racing, who he tested with just before the Homestead-Miami Speedway test. This will be the Hoofddorp, Netherlands natives first foray into cars after finishing in the top-three of some of the top karting championships in the world over the past two years. If Van Kalmthout, who names fellow Dutchman and two time Indianapolis 500 winner Arie Luyendyk as a hero, can learn race craft quickly, he could be in contention for the championship when it arrives at Watkins Glen International in Upstate New York on Labor Day Weekend.

Ming, who impressed with consistent pace at last week’s Homestead-Miami Speedway test, ended the two-day event with the sixth quickest lap. The 20 year-old may be making his MRTI debut, but has plenty of successful seat time in cars. The driver from Guyana had three wins, and 11 podiums to finish fourth in the 2016 F1600 Formula F Championship Series Championship while driving for Team Pelfrey, and currently leads the 2016-2017 FIA Fórmula 4 Nacam Championship through 14 of 24 rounds. The sophomore Florida International University Civil Engineering major has shown the pace in testing and race craft in previous series to serve as sleeper for podiums in the 2017 USF2000 Championship.

The carbon fibre black No. 22 Mazda/Tatuss of Calvin Ming from the Pabst Racing stable during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

The No. 27 Mazda/Tatuss from the Kaminsky Racing will be piloted by Homer Glen, Ill. native and high-school varsity goalie Colin Kaminsky. Kaminsky, who is the son of Pro Mazda regular Bob Kaminsky, will be a MRTI rookie, but did test the USF-17 at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October 2016, and also has substantial seat time in a number of Sports Car Club of America divisions.

Benik, better known for their karting exploits in Europe and the U.S.A., will making their first foray into formula car racing on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla. based team will have Kyle Kirkwood at the wheel of their No. 31 Mazda powered Tatuus.

After an exceptional career in karts, Kirkwood made his first race start in cars in the F1600 Formula F Championship Series, and promptly won that race on the Road Atlanta road course. Kirkwood, from Jupiter, Fla., has been long time friends with Cape Motorsports rookie Askew, and was also chosen as a Team U.S.A. Scholarship winner in 2016, representing the Stars and Stripes in the United Kingdom. The 19 year-old does have more experience in cars than his friend Askew, wining once and finishing on the podium nine times on the way to a third place championship finish in the inaugural season of the F4 United States Championship Powered by Honda. If Benik has a solid handle on the car, and if Kirkwood’s eighth quickest time during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway means anything, they are close to being very competitive, and don’t be surprised to see the talented Kirkwood regularly fighting for top fives.

For the fourth straight season, John Cummiskey Racing will field a car in the USF2000 championship. Kris Wright will pilot the PPG Paints/American Financial/Wright Automotive sponsored No. 34 for the Brownsburg, Ind. based team that is owned and run by John Cummiskey, a former team manger for Dragon Racing and chief mechanic for Team Penske and Team Green Racing.

Wright, a 22 year-old who started his racing career in the Skip Barber Racing Series has spent the past two years racing in the Pirelli World Challenge. The Pittsburgh, Pa. native had one podium while driving a Kia Forte Koup in the TCA class in 2015, continued in TCA in 2016, but also added a ST program in a Porsche Cayman.

After a seven season absence from the American Open Wheel ladder, Newman Wachs Racing is returning to competition with a two car assault on the 2017 USF2000 Championship. The Chicago area team was founded by Paul Newman and Eddie Wachs in 2006 and over the course of the next four years, the team came home with one Atlantic Championship title with John Edwards in 2009, and had a total of 10 wins and 22 podiums. The Mundelein, Ill. based team which is managed by long-time Newman Wachs Racing employee Brian Halahan and engineered by Alan O’Leary, will field the Team USA Scholarship/Mazda Motorsports sponsored No. 36 for USF2000 sophomore Dakota Dickerson and the No. 37 entry for series rookie Andre Castro.

Hailing from San Diego, Dickerson, who received a $200,000 Mazda Scholarship for winning the 2015 Skip Barber Championship Shootout in 2015, was the USF2000 Rookie Of The Year runner-up at the conclusion of the 2016 season. The 20 year-old spent the majority of last season as a one car entry with Afterburner Autosport, a difficult proposition for a rookie, but the dedicated youngster still managed to finish in the top 10 on 10 occasions, including the final eight races of the season. The pace Dickerson exhibited in the second-half of the 2016 season, combined with the strong Newman Wachs Racing technical department, and a push from rapid teammate Castro, should see the former Team U.S.A Scholarship winner contending for podiums and the season championship.

Castro, who was born in New York City to Colombian parents is coming off a successful test at Homestead-Miami Speedway that saw him turn in the fourth quickest lap time among the 21 drivers entered. After a successful 11 year karting career, the 18 year-old made his debut in cars in 2016, amassing three wins, six poles, and ten podiums in the Skip Barber Championship Series. Don’t be surprised to see Castro near the pointy end of the field during the 2017 USF2000 season.

Newman Wachs Racing rookie Andre Castro will be looking to continue with the pace he had during testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Team Pelfrey is entering their third season of USF2000 competition still looking for their first victory. The Indianapolis based team who has won three of the last five Pro Mazda Championships, enters the 2017 USF2000 season with it’s strongest line-up yet. Veteran Ayla Agren will pilot the Energima sponsored No. 82, 2016 USF2000 Rookie of the Year Robert Megennis will be at the wheel of the Palo Alto Networks sponsored No. 80, and rapid rookie Kaylen Frederick will drive the Pilot ONE Racing sponsored No. 81.

After a partial USF2000 season with John Cummiskey Racing in 2016, Agren will be “coming home” to Team Pelfrey, the team she drove for while capturing the 2014 F1600 Formula F Championship Series title, and also made her USF2000 debut with in 2015. With only one DNF and top 10 finishes in 20 of her 28 USF2000 race starts, race craft and consistency has been the name of the game for the 23 year-old in her first two MRTI seasons.  With the move back to a familiar team and Team Pelfrey’s increased pace so far in testing, the Baerum, Norway native is poised to have a break-out year in 2017.

In her third season of Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda competition, Ayla Agren has her eyes set on the championship (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Megennis, who just turned 17 years old earlier this week, turned the fifth fastest overall lap and was the quickest veteran driver during the recent USF2000 test at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The competitive fencer from New York, N.Y.  spent a large portion of the his rookie USF2000 season as the lone USF2000 entry for Team Pelfrey, and impressively was still able to collect two podiums and 13 top 10 finishes on the way to USF2000 Rookie of the Year honors. During the 16 race 2016 USF2000 season, Megennis gained a total 56 spots (an average of 3.5 spots per race) from his qualifying position, and with improved qualifying efforts that should come from having teammates, expect Megennis to be fighting for the Mazda Advancement scholarship in 2017.

With the second quickest lap time in testing last week at Homestead-Miami Speedway, 14 year-old rookie Frederick served notice to the rest of the USF2000 field that he plans run near the front of the field from the drop of the green flag in St. Petersburg. The Potomac, Md. native finished the 2016 F1600 Formula F Championship Series season in seventh place despite missing the first six race due to age restrictions, scoring one win, two poles and four podiums.

With over a dozen F1600 championships in Canada (and one in the USA), Exclusive Autosport has become the standard bearer for F1600 teams in North America. In 2017, the Michael Duncalfe owned that will base it’s USF2000 program out of Palmetto, Fla., will field a three car effort for 2016 USF2000 vice-champion and third year driver Parker Thompson, fellow third-year driver Luke Gabin, who finished fifth in 2016 USF2000 Championship and rookie Dev Gore. Thompson will pilot the Exclusive Autosport/openhwy sponsored No. 91 Mazda/Tatuss. The Exclusive Autosport/AER sponsored No. 91 will be driven by Gabin. Dev Gore will be behind the wheel of the Exclusive Autosport/AER sponsored No. 92.

Thompson, who just turned 19 years-old, made his USF2000 debut straight out of karting with JDC Motorsports in 2015, before moving to Cape Motorsports in 2016. In 32 career MRTI starts, Thompson has collected four wins, three poles, 12 podiums, 25 top 10s, and seven quickest race laps. The Red Deer, Alberta, Canada native and first Canadian to make it to the podium at the prestigious Rotax Max Challenge Grand Finals, spends his time away from the race track educating high-school students about the dangers of distracted driving. Over the past two years, Thompson, and Drive To Stay Alive, a program he founded in 2014, has visited over 100 High Schools across North America, and explained the dangers of distracted driving to over 100,000 students. Thompson enters the 2017 USF2000 season as one of the favorites, but will have some tough competition from a number of different fronts, if the Exclusive Autosport team and driver can’t come to grips with the new Mazda powered Tatuus USF-17.

In 2013, Gabin travelled to the U.S.A from Perth, Australia. to take part in the Skip Barber Karting Shootout and he has been here ever since. Gabin won that shootout, and the following season Gabin won the $200,000 MAZDASPEED scholarship to advance to USF2000 by winning the Skip Barber Championship Shootout. In 2015, the 21 year-old finished his rookie USF2000 season in sixth place while driving for Team Pelfrey, and in 2016, Gabin and the underfunded JAY Motorsports team punched well above their weight, finishing the year in fifth place and collecting four podiums and 12 top 10 finishes along the way. Like Thompson, Gabin will have to come to grips with the new USF-17, but like his fellow third year teammate, should be able to contend for the Mazda Motorsports Advancement Scholarship.

Gore, the winner of the 2016 DD2 National Championship and the Rotax DD2 US Open Championship, will be making his first start in cars at St. Petersburg this weekend. The 19 year-old will have a steep learning curve in 2017, but with a championship winning team and experienced teammates, the Oklahoma City native has the perfect opportunity to learn and succeed.


Some notes and questions about the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda season

Will 2017 be the year of a Sophomore (and Junior) slump?

If you look at the last number of USF2000 seasons, picking one of the six veteran drivers entered for  in the season opening Hi-Tide Boat Lifts Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg would be a smart bet.

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.

The last time a rookie driver won a Cooper Tires USF2000 Powered by Mazda race was in 2014, when Jake Eidson, Aaron Telitz and Victor Franzoni all won races.

However, all that past history involved the venerable Van Diemen F2000 car, a chassis that had been in service for over a decade.

If testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway is any indication, the Mazda powered, Cooper Tire shod Tatuus USF-17 could shake things, at least early in the season.

The USF-17 features 50% less downforce, combined with more mechanical grip, which places the car somewhere between an F1600 machine and the Van Diemen F2000 car.

The majority of the veteran drivers were certainly concerned with “re-training” themselves for the new car.

“The Van Diemans drove completely different, you broke as late as you could, you rolled center, you rolled speed across the center and you got on the throttle as hard as you could and these cars are completely different,” explained third year Exclusive Autosport driver Parker Thompson. “They are more about how early you can get on the throttle and how much speed you can roll and it’s kind of a balance between that. The combination of less aero and more mechanical grip it gives us third year drivers definitely a head-ache sometimes in setting up the car.”

Parker Thompson will be looking to come to grips with the new Mazda/Tatuss USF-17 (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Thompson was certainly not alone in his assessment.

“The aero difference, last year we could depend on the aero and that really effected how you drove the car,” echoed Newman Wachs Racing sophomore Dakota Dickerson. “You could really throw it into the corner and the aero would slow you down and keep the rear-end secure and this year with the lack of aero but increased mechanical grip you really have to change the way you have to enter the corner. Braking is quite a bit a different, and getting on power is quite a bit different, so on a track like this (Homestead-Miami Speedway road course) with all the small hairpins it’s really different.”

Robert Megennis, the 2016 USF2000 Rookie of the Year had similar thoughts about the differences between the 2016 and 2017 equipment, but was a little more upbeat about it. Megennis was the quickest of the six veterans in recent testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

They are two completely different cars. It’s hard to pick a biggest difference,” said Team Pelfrey’s Megennis, when asked to explain the biggest difference between the Van Dieman and the Tatuus. “The tires are a lot bigger and a lot better. There is a lot less downforce on the car, so that makes it different to drive. The gearbox is different, the engine is upgraded so there is now six gears, it goes faster in a straight line. It’s a carbon monocoque, instead of a tube frame so it rotates differently through the corner, every single thing is different. Everything is so much better and it’s so much more fun to drive.

There are smaller differences, but it’s still a similar technique, so I feel like I’ve taken to it rather well and I’ve figured out quite quickly. It’s just a better car, much more fun to drive.”

Top USF2000 rookie in 2016, Robert Megennis was certainly more upbeat about learning the new USF-17 compared to his fellow series veterans (Photo courtesy of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography)

Record breaker??

If early testing is any indication, don’t be surprised to see the USF2000 race and qualifying records broken by the Mazda powered Tatuus USF-17. Matthew Brabham of Cape Motorsports owns the race and overall track record on the 1.8-Mile, 14-Turn Street Circuit with a lap of 1 minute, 13.064 seconds that was set during the 2012 event. The fastest qualifying lap of 1 minute, 13.284 seconds was also set in 2012 by Brabham’s Cape Motorsports teammate Spencer Pigot.

Can success early in the season on the streets of St. Petersburg foreshadow a championship?

Scott Hargrove, the 2013 USF2000 Champion, was the last season long title holder to win a race on the shores of Tampa Bay. Petri Suvanto (2011) and Sage Karam (2010) are the other two winners on the Streets of St. Petersburg that have gone on to claim the coveted Mazda Motorsports Scholarship.

USF2000 race winners on the Streets of St. Petersburg

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 Racing
2014 Race #1 Vitor Franzoni Afterburner Autosport
2013 Race #2 Scott Hargrove Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2013 Race #1 Scott Hargrove Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2012 Race #2 Spencer Pigot Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2012 Race #1 Spencer Pigot Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2011 Race #2 Petri Suvanto Cape Motorsports with /WTR
2011 Race #1 Spencer Pigot Andretti Autosport
2010 Race #2 Sage Karam Andretti Autosport
2010 Race #1 Sage Karam Andretti Autosport

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