By Steve Wittich
The 2020 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season got underway in St. Petersburg, Fla., but the teams and drivers were only able to complete one practice session before the COVID-19 pandemic brought things to a screeching halt.
After 117-days with no racing, the second rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires is ready to get back on track at one of America’s most iconic circuits.
The drivers will be fighting for an advancement scholarship that has been increased by 47% over the original 2020 value of $609,245.
Indy Pro 2000 at Road America
The Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires series will be visiting the 4.014-mile, 14-turn Road America natural terrain road course for the 17th and 18th times in 2020. The pair of Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of Road America Presented by Cooper Tires Honoring First Responders are scheduled for 15-laps or 50-minutes.
The middle rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder returned to the Elkhart Lake, Wisc. track in 2016 after a five-year hiatus. In three of the four years since the series return, the same driver has won both races in three of the four years.
Only twice has the pole-sitter failed to finish on the podium and the last time that happened was in 2007 when Marco DiLeo (Maxwell Racing) finished eighth.
Juncos Racing, with Conor Daly (2010), Victor Franzoni (2017), and Rasmus Lindh (2019) lead all teams with three pole starts at Road America. The Speedway, Ind. team also leads all teams with seven podium finishes at Road America.
David Malukas and BN Racing hold the qualifying track record with a lap timed at 119.8151 seconds set in 2018. The same team, with Toby Sowery at the wheel, also holds the race track record with a lap at 121.3306 seconds, set the same year.
Indy Pro 2000 winners at Road America
|2019 Race #2||Kyle Kirkwood||RP Motorsport|
|2019 Race #1||Kyle Kirkwood||RP Motorsport|
|2018 Race #2||David Malukas||BN Racing|
|2018 Race #1||David Malukas||BN Racing|
|2017 Race #2||Anthony Martin||Cape Motorsports|
|2017 Race #1||Victor Franzoni||Juncos Racing|
|2016 Race #2||Aaron Telitz||Team Pelfrey|
|2016 Race #1||Aaron Telitz||Team Pelfrey|
|2010||Conor Daly||Juncos Racing|
|2008||Peter Dempsey||Andersen Racing|
|2007||Ron White||Maxwell Racing|
|2006||Ron White||Ross Smith Racing|
|2005||James Hinchcliffe||AIM Autosport|
|2004||Michael McDowell||Star Race Cars|
|2003||Michael McDowell||Star Race Cars|
|2002||Guy Cosmo||Racers Edge Motorsports|
Win in the opener, win the championship?
Winning on the season-opening weekend of Indy Pro 2000 action is NOT a good indicator of who will end up claiming the advancement scholarship at the end of the year. Only seven eventual champions won at the first event of the year.
Eventual champions that won at the season opening event are:
Win at Road America, win the championship?
The eventual Indy Pro 2000 champion has won at Road America a total of six times, including Aaron Telitz, Victor Franzoni, and Kyle Kirkwood in three of the last four years. The other winners in Wisconsin that went on to win the championship are Guy Cosmo (2002), Michael McDowell (2004) and Conor Daly (2010).
Here are your team-by-team and driver-by-driver season previews. (in order of how they finished in the team standings last year)
The Speedway, Ind. based Juncos Racing, led by Argentinian race Ricardo Juncos, came within two points of winning their third straight Indy Pro 2000 driver’s championship. That would have been the fifth driver’s title on the middle rung of the Road To Indy, for the family-oriented team.
Conor Daly (2010), Spencer Pigot (2014), Victor Franzoni (2017), and Rinus VeeKay (2018) are the drivers that have won for Juncos Racing. Of note: three of those four are scheduled to make NTT INDYCAR® SERIES starts in 2020.
The team has a total of 45 Indy Pro 2000 wins and has won at least one race in 11 straight seasons.
Juncos Racing will head into the 2020 season looking for their fourth straight Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires team title with team returnee Sting Ray Robb and newcomers Artem Petrov and Nate Aranda.
Robb is returning to the same team for the first time in his Road To Indy career, and that continuity should allow him to fight for a title. Still only 18-years-old, this will be Robb’s fourth year in the series, and over his 45 races, he has two poles, seven podiums, and 19 top-five finishes.
Robb, who has improved each year in the series, holds the Indy Pro 2000 track records for the streets of St. Petersburg and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“My earliest memories are of wanting to drive something – anything fast – I had to be a race car driver,” said Robb, before St. Petersburg, in March. “There is no Plan B – I was born for this – my name is Sting Ray, after all! With Juncos, Road to Indy, and the amazing support of my fans, friends and family, I’m in hot pursuit of my dream. I’m super excited to be returning to Juncos for the 2020 season. We worked hard last year, with lots of progression throughout the season, capping it off on a high note with two poles.
“I’m looking forward to carrying that momentum to this season and working with the Juncos crew again. I’m stoked to be once again racing through the streets of St. Petersburg – street races are very demanding with no room for mistakes and no forgiving corners… that must be why I love it! The fans and crowd at St. Pete are fantastic, can’t wait to get back out there.”
Robb led the last two sessions at the recent Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course open test and ended up as the second quickest driver on the combined timesheet.
Petrov started the final five races of the 2019 season with RP Motorsport, showing that he has the pace to be competitive. The native of St. Petersburg, Russia, spent the 2016 and 2017 season racing in the Italian, Russian (SMP) and German (ADAC) Formula 4 series, where he won three times. In 2018, the 20-year-old made a move to the FIA Formula 3 European Championship.
Petrov qualified in the first three rows in all of his Indy Pro 2000 races, proving quickly that the Russian had the pace to fight at the front of the grid. However, a pair of first-lap mistakes resulted in some disappointing finishes.
Nate Aranda, a 19-year-old from Albuquerque, NM, and a Lucas Oil Formula Car Championship race winner, will be behind the wheel of the team’s third PM-18.
TSO Ladder quick thought(s)
- Ricardo Juncos and technical director Ernesto ‘Ernie’ Gonella are known for the ability to develop drivers and turn them into winners. For Robb and Petrov, the raw talent is there, and it’s just a matter of when not if they’ll start winning races.
Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 travel situation, RP Motorsport will be taking the season off.
The Canadian team, owned by Michael Duncalfe, is about to embark on their third season in the Indy Pro 2000. Over the course of the past two years, Exclusive Autosport has put together an impressive team resume, including five wins, four poles, and 26 top-five finishes.
Braden Eves will be joining the Brownsburg, Ind .based team, driving the No. 1 (TSO Note: Steve loves this) PM-18 in the new grey and blue scholarship winning livery as the reigning Cooper Tires USF2000 Champion.
The 21-year-old Meyer-Shank Racing affiliated driver won six USF2000 races last year, including a gutsy must-win performance in the final race of the season at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in September. Eves was also one of three USF2000 drivers to complete all 352 laps during the 2019 USF2000 campaign.
“I’m super excited to be heading to a race weekend,” said Eves. “We’ve had our time away, and now we’re back into race mode. This is a very competitive field, so it’s going to be difficult, just like it was for me last year. Hunter McElrea was extremely good all last year, so to win the title in a do-or-die moment was huge, and that’s what it’s going to take again this season. But having done that was such a confidence boost, and with all the testing we’ve had and the pace we’ve shown, we’re in an even better position than we were last year, so we just have to get the job done. I know Exclusive Autosport is up to the task.”
Eves took part in the recent open test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course but had an issue with his transponder. Our spies at the track told us that he was among the quickest drivers at the test.
He also led the lone practice session in St. Petersburg, Fla. by an impressive half-second.
TSO Ladder quick thought(s)
- It probably surprised a few people when Eves didn’t follow Kirkwood’s lead and sign with RP Motorsport (which looks even better in hindsight), but sometimes it’s about feeling comfortable. With his results in testing, it appears that Eves made a wise decision. We will be watching if being a one-car team has an impact on their ability to improve the car throughout the weekend.
Angleton, Texas-based DEForce Racing will field the largest squad on the Indy Pro 2000 grid with four drivers. The David and Ernesto Martinez led team made their Road To Indy debut with Indy Pro 2000 entries for current drivers Kory Enders and Moisés de la Vara at the 2016 season finale.
Enders and de la Vara will be joined by Road To Indy veteran Parker Thompson and USF2000 grad Manuel Sulaiman.
All of Enders 47 career Road To Indy starts have been with DEForce Racing. The 22-year-old who lives in Sugarland, Texas, finished the 2019 season with some good momentum, with two podiums in the final three events.
Mexican born and Texas-based, de la Vara, like his teammate Enders has made all 36 of his Road To Indy starts with the same team.
With 78 career Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires starts under his belt, it’s hard to believe that veteran Parker Thompson is still only 22-years-old.
“PT” made his Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires debut with JDC Motorsports in 2015, and across five seasons has finished 5th (USF2000 2015), 2nd (USF2000 2016), 3rd (USF2000 2017), 2nd (Indy Pro 2000 2018) and 3rd (Indy Pro 2000 2019) in those championships.
Thompson’s impressive career numbers in his 78 starts include 12 wins, 12 poles, 32 podiums, 53 top fives, 17 races led, and 14 races with the quickest lap.
Rounding out the DEForce Racing foursome is 2018-2019 FIA Formula 4 NACAM champion, Sulaiman. The Mexico City, Mexico native, grabbed two podiums on the way to a sixth-place USF2000 championship finish in 2019.
Thompson and Sulaiman finished the recent Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course test with the 3rd and 4th quickest lap times.
TSO Ladder quick thought(s)
- The team has brought in driver coach Jonatan Jorge to work with the team. The former driver has recently worked with Kyle Kirkwood, Rinus VeeKay, and Oliver Askew. How Thompson responds to “JJ” is something we’ll be watching closely.
- Can Enders, de la Vara, and Sulaiman find consistency? All three have all shown at various times that they have the pace to be regulars on the podium, but will need to be more steady from race to race, and lap to lap.
If you are looking for the team having the most fun at the track, just find team owner Brendan Puderbach, driver Charles Finelli, super mechanic Jim Locke, and Tiny Tim, the best pit cart in any racing paddock.
Finelli is an experienced racer, who is back for another season of Indy Pro 2000 action.
To learn a little more about the Fatboys, watch this documentary by David Porteous.
TSO Ladder quick thought(s)
- It’s clear that this group always has fun at the track, but they can also be serious racers, and it would be great to see them add a second car for a younger driver.
Turn 3 Motorsport
The Peter Dempsey led Turn 3 Motorsport made their Indy Pro 2000 debut halfway through the 2020 season with an entry for 2019 Radical Cup Champion Antoine Comeau.
Comeau, a Canadian based in Chicago, Ill. will be back for a full season and will be joined by Indy Lights refugee Danial Frost.
Comeau got up to speed quickly for his first time in an open-wheel car, finishing in three of his seven starts in the top ten.
Frost, who was set to contest the 2020 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires season with Andretti Autosport returns to take another shot at the Indy Pro 2000 title.
The Singaporean won Indy Pro 2000 races at Lucas Oil Raceway on the Streets of Exhibition last year. Still only 18-years-old, Frost finished the season with six podiums and a fifth-place championship placing.
TSO Ladder quick thought(s)
- The addition of Frost should help push Comeau forward by allowing him to see the data from a quicker driver.
- If he takes it, Frost has an opportunity to improve every part of his craft by learning from Dempsey.
BNRacing w/Team Benik
Two prominent names, in the karting world, Nick Mitchell & Bryn Nuttall, have joined forces to form BN Racing with Team Benik to field cars for Sabre Cook and Jacob Loomis.
Cook was busy in 2019. Off-track, she won the Infiniti Engineering Academy US engineering award that included a year-long placement with the Renault Formula One team.
On-track the 26-year-old was one of 20 drivers chosen to take part in the inaugural season of the W Series. Cook had three top-ten finishes, which equates to a 12th place finish and a return trip to the series in 2020.
With the cancellation of the 2020 W-Series, it would be great to see Cook contest the whole Indy Pro 2000 season.
Before her move to cars in 2017, the Golden, Colorado resident was a stand-out in the ultra-competitive shifter-kart category.
Loomis made four Indy Pro 2000 starts in 2019 with his family team. That included an impressive sixth-place finish at Road America.
The 20-year-old Texan moved from karts to cars in 2016 and has four podium finishes across the 2017 and 2018 F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda seasons.
The team missed the recent test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, but the drivers should have quick cars this weekend. Nuttall, with David Malukas, won a pair of Indy Pro 2000 races at Road America in 2018.
What TSO Ladder is watching.
- Cook only got better as the W-Series got deeper into their season, and the higher horsepower Indy Pro 2000 car should better match her background in shifter-karts.
Andretti Steinbrenner Racing
Devlin DeFrancesco will be joining with Andretti Steinbrenner Racing to contest the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 season. For all three, it’s some type of return.
For Andretti, it’s a return to Indy Pro 2000, where they won 25-races and one championship between 2011 and 2015.
For Steinbrenner, it’s a return to the Road To Indy, where he teamed with Colton Herta to win six races across a pair of Indy Lights seasons.
Canadian DeFrancesco’s a return to North America after spending the last nine years racing in Europe.
The 20-year-old from Toronto scored wins in the F4 British Championship, the Euroformula Open Championship, and Spanish Formula 3 Championship.
“I’ve had an incredible time racing in Europe over the past nine years but I’m really looking forward to coming home to North America and racing with Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport,” said DeFrancesco. “My season in Asian Formula 3 was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ability to travel to and from Europe for the rest of 2020 is very much up in the air.
“We have been talking about the possibility of coming back to race in North America and those plans have now been brought forward. I’m very appreciative of the opportunity from Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport.
“I can’t wait to get started and be back on track. I’ve been doing a lot of virtual racing with my sponsor Allinsports in The Race All-Star Series but I can’t wait to be back on track for real.”
“My goal and ambition is to eventually follow the ‘Road to Indy’ and compete in the NTT IndyCar series but I know I have a lot to learn and many steps to take prior to that.
“The car will be new for me, many of the tracks are new and of course the team is new for me as well. However, I know what they have achieved in the past and I’m fully aware of what an amazing opportunity I have ahead of me. I am extremely grateful.”
DeFrancesco, who also has experience in GP3 and the FIA Formula 3 Championship, got his first taste of the PM-18 in the recent open test at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. He ended up with the fifth quickest lap.
What TSO Ladder is watching.
- I’ve said it before, and I’ll repeat it. Results, especially for Americans and Canadians, in Europe don’t always indicate pace. Also, the disparity between teams in Europe is much bigger, and DeFrancesco spent the past two seasons with mid-level teams. This opportunity with Andretti Steinbrenner Racing should be his best chance to show his pace since 2017 when he finished third in the Euroformula Open Championship while driving for Carlin.
Last but not least is Pabst Racing. The USF2000 stalwart is making a move up the Road To Indy ladder with a pair of familiar drivers. Hunter McElrea and Colin Kaminsky, who both drove for the team in USF2000, will be behind the wheels of the team’s PM-18s.
McElrea, an American born Kiwi, who calls Australia home, missed out on the USF2000 championship by a slim five-point margin.
The 20-year-old won four races, including one at Road America, started on five poles, and stood on 12 podiums in his first season of racing in the United States.
“This race (Road America) last year was a turning point for me, with my first win, so to start the season here is very cool,” said McElrea. “We’ve had really good tests as well, so it gives us a great deal of confidence going into the weekend, especially since it’s the team’s home track. Because of the extra time we’ve had, I feel that the team and I are even more prepared than we were at the start of the year, so I’m ready to get the season started.”
Kaminsky, who began his racing career in the SCCA, has made 38 USF2000 starts across three seasons, but made a big leap forward in 2019.
The 21-year-old won three poles and grabbed six podiums on the way to fourth place (tied for third in points) championship finish.
The dynamic Pabst Racing duo will be joined at Road America by Kaminsky’s dad, Bob. The Illinois native is an Indy Pro 2000 stalwart and has many laps logged on the 4.014-mile, 14-turn natural terrain road course.
What TSO Ladder is watching.
- McElrea and Kaminsky’s relationship is more like brothers than teammates, and that unique relationship has brought out the best in each driver. The two were quick in the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at IMS last fall, and all indications are that they have been quick in private testing.
- Usually, when a team moves to a new category, it can take a season to work out the kinks. With an experienced group, including team owner Augie Pabst, and engineer Tonis Kasemets, it would be surprising if the Oconomowoc, Wisc. based team missed a beat.
Don’t miss any of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires action:
- download the Road To Indy TV app from the Apple App Store or on Google Play to get video, audio, timing & scoring, news from TSO Ladder and much more – you can also get Road To Indy TV via Apple TV, Amazon Video, Roku or Microsoft Xbox One
- live timing – Road To Indy TV – Indy Lights – Pro Mazda – USF2000 – IndyCar Race Control
- on twitter – TSO Ladder – Team Cooper Tire – Road To Indy TV – Indy Lights – Indy Pro 2000 – USF2000
- on all social media channels via the #TeamCooperTire and #RoadToIndy hashtags
Note – Unfortunately due to split Road To Indy and INDYCAR schedule there will be no video this weekend. However, you will be able to listen to Rob Howden’s call.