By Tony DiZinno
The first rung on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has just one oval race on the schedule. But for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, the Freedom 75 back at Lucas Oil Raceway will be an important test in the championship battle.
Just outside Indianapolis in Brownsburg, Ind., the 0.686-mile oval will provide a change-up to the series after its first weekend of the year was on the streets of St. Petersburg, and its second was at the flowing, smooth Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Kirkwood vs. Baron, Round 3
American Kyle Kirkwood and Frenchman Alex Baron, the latter who also holds English citizenship, have emerged as the leading contenders for this year’s USF2000 championship.
They each have a pair of wins and one runner-up finish; it is only one result that separates Cape Motorsports’ lone driver and Swan-RJB Motorsports’ lone full-season driver thus far. Kirkwood has 106 points to Baron’s 93, but both drivers have a significant gap over third-placed Jose Sierra on 64.
Kirkwood, a past Team USA Scholarship recipient, is new to ovals entirely. Baron, meanwhile, only has two past oval starts in his MRTI career. He raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway itself in Indy Lights in 2014 and then made his first USF2000 start in several years with ArmsUp Motorsports at Iowa Speedway last July, where he finished fourth.
The Cape driver had his maiden oval test at Memphis Motorsports Park, a 0.75-mile D-shaped oval in Millington, Tenn. last week. Even without any experience, Kirkwood is optimistic given Cape’s short oval record (we’ll get to that in a bit).
“Going into it, Cape has always done very well at ovals, and they have some good setups,” Kirkwood told TSO Ladder. “I’ve never driven on an oval before, so this will be my first time. They have the series test here but that is just the day before. We’re doing a test at Memphis Monday and Tuesday, two days, so I’ll get to see what an oval is really like there.”
21 cars featuring a few drops, and an old friend back?
The USF2000 field drops by at least five cars from 26 to 21 for the Tatuus USF-17 Mazda’s second oval race (Iowa Speedway in 2017 was its debut). Yes, it’s a drop, but no, it’s nowhere near as bad as in 2016 when the field plunged from 27 cars to 12 for this race.
No-goes for this weekend is Jamie Caroline, the talented young Englishman who’s let a few results slip through his fingers this season at BN Racing, James Roe in the second Swan-RJB Motorsports car who impressed on debut in Indianapolis, and Team BENIK, with neither Sabre Cook nor Michael d’Orlando entered.
One old friend hopes to make a comeback, though. ArmsUp Motorsports has been working on pulling off the USF2000 equivalent of something Team Pelfrey did on multiple occasions in Pro Mazda, and that brings a past team driver and oval race winner back to a series for a Lucas Oil Raceway cameo. In Pelfrey’s case, it was Anders Krohn for consecutive years in 2013 and 2014. And in ArmsUp’s case this weekend, the hope is to run 2016 Pro Mazda champion Aaron Telitz for his USF2000 return for the first time in three years, since he last competed in the series in 2015.
Telitz has tested the Tatuus USF-17 car and PM-18 cars before and has worked to help Gregg and Brent Borland with the setup of the ArmsUp car. If he races, he’ll be a teammate to Mazda Motorsports scholarship recipient Keith Donegan.
He won his first race in his five-year Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires career at Lucas Oil Raceway with ArmsUp in 2014. Telitz finished third for Cape Motorsports in USF2000 in 2015, and fifth for Pelfrey in Pro Mazda at 2016 at Lucas Oil Raceway, so the 26-year-old has more starts at this track than the rest of the USF2000 field combined. Max Peichel was in ArmsUp’s second car at the Indianapolis road course, and the Minnesota teenager impressed by scoring the team’s first top-10 finish of the year in race two.
Oval notes among the field of 21 or 22
The only USF2000 driver with a past USF2000 start at Lucas Oil Raceway is Brazilian Lucas Kohl, who started and finished 10th for John Cummiskey Racing here in 2016.
Series veterans Baron (Swan-RJB), Kohl, Calvin Ming and Kaylen Frederick (Pabst Racing) and Kory Enders (DEForce Racing) all have Iowa Speedway starts on their record last year. Baron, as noted earlier, was fourth there last year. Ming was third, Frederick sixth, Kohl seventh and Enders 11th. While Darren Keane (Newman Wachs Racing), Colin Kaminsky (DEForce Racing) and Bruna Tomaselli (Team Pelfrey) raced most of the 2017 USF2000 season, they did not race at Iowa.
That leaves most of the rest of the field set to make their oval debuts in the MRTI this weekend at Lucas Oil Raceway.
Two sets of fascinating points gaps
Kirkwood leads Jose Sierra, of DEForce Racing, in third place by 42 points (106-64). The young Mexican then leads a quartet of drivers tied for 17th – Bruna Tomaselli, Manuel Cabrera, Kaylen Frederick and Kyle Dupell – by 40 points (64-24).
USF2000 this year is that close, where there is potential for that much movement among 18 drivers depending on how Friday’s race goes.
And with more points on the line this weekend, we’d expect the standings – which are below – to change massively.
1 Kyle Kirkwood 106
2 Alex Baron 93
3 Jose Sierra 64
4 Igor Fraga 55
5 Julian van der Watt 54
6 Darren Keane 51
7 Calvin Ming 49
8 Lucas Kohl 45
9 Kory Enders 45
10 Rasmus Lindh 41
11 Jamie Caroline 40
12 Colin Kaminsky 33
13 Zach Holden 27
14 James Roe 26
15 Keith Donegan 26
16 Mathias Soler-Obel 25
17 Bruna Tomaselli 24
18 Manuel Cabrera 24
19 Kaylen Frederick 24
20 Kyle Dupell 24
21 Sabre Cook 18
22 Max Peichel 15
23 Russell McDonough 14
24 Michael d’Orlando 13
25 David Osborne 13
26 Oscar DeLuzuriaga 12
27 Jayson Clunie 5
Past Lucas Oil Raceway history
Cape had a relative two-year “dry spell” in-between wins here in 2013 and 2016. The last time USF2000 raced here in 2016, Anthony Martin beat Parker Thompson for a Cape 1-2.
In the intervening years, Jake Eidson won for Pabst Racing in 2015, and Aaron Telitz took his maiden Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires victory for ArmsUp Motorsports in 2014.
Telitz’s win in 2014 ended Cape’s four-year win streak. Neil Alberico took the 2013 win here for Cape, Spencer Pigot beat Matty Brabham in a memorable duel here between Cape teammates in 2012, while Petri Suvanto won for Cape in 2011 and Patrick McKenna won for Cape in 2010.
And about the extra points…
With Lucas Oil Raceway serving as the only oval weekend on the USF2000 schedule, Andersen Promotions has worked to strengthen its importance and reduce the chances of drivers not running the ovals by increasing the points. In previous years, the car count has tended to drop for the Lucas Oil Raceway event.
A win Friday will be worth 45 points rather than 30, second place 38 rather than 25, third place 33 rather than 22, and so on and so forth. Here is the oval points table, below.
One additional point is awarded for pole position and most laps led
With a 22-car grid, there’s a net swing north of 40 points between first and last, so the points standings could be jumbled.
Before on-track running on Thursday, the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has an Oval Clinic from 8:20 to 10, then three groups of 20 minutes each for Cooper meetings starting at 10:15 a.m. going to 12:05 p.m.
Thursday, May 24
|12:00 PM – 12:30 PM||USF2000 Testing #1 (Session 1, Includes Rookie Observation)|
|12:30 PM – 1 PM||USF2000 Testing #1 (Session 2, Includes Rookie Observation)|
|3:15 PM – 4:15 PM||USF2000 Testing #2 (Includes Rookie Observation)|
|5:45 PM – 6:45 PM||USF2000 Practice|
Friday, May 25
|2:30 PM – 3 PM||USF2000 Qualifying|
|6:05 PM – 6:45 PM||USF2000 Race (Freedom 75)|