By Steve Wittich
Welcome to the third and final installment of our 2021 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires preview. An extensive look at every driver and team entered in the Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Cooper Tires season opening doubleheader.
You can read part #1 of our preview here –> The Anatomy of a Champion.
You can read part #2 of our preview here –> Season opener and Barber Motorsports Park information
What began as a team supporting vintage racing quickly became a championship-winning professional race team with wins across multiple series.
Located in Indianapolis, Ind., Abel Motorsports has 19 wins (2 in Indy Pro 2000) and 38 podiums (9 in Indy Pro 2000) across the series that make up the American junior open-wheel ladder.
The team recently added the ultra-experienced John Brunner as Team Manager. Brunner was recently the team manager at championship-winning Indy Lights squad Belardi Auto Racing and spent much of his career before that with the championship-winning Forsythe Racing Atlantic Championship and Indy Lights squads.
“I’m excited to join Abel Motorsports and Abel Construction,” commented Brunner. “We’re wrapping up the move of the race team from Louisville (KY) up to the new Speedway (IN) building. Our two Indy Pro 2000 cars are here along with our transporter and much of the shop equipment. Some team members will be relocating, and we’re looking to staff up with quality people here because this is a team on the rise. Belardi was in a similar situation when I started there in 2011. They were a young team that wanted to get to a championship level, and together we were able to do that. My goal here is the same, to take Abel Motorsports to a championship level.”
Jacob Abel – Abel Construction / Bell Helmets sponsored No. 51
Despite being only 19-years-old, Jacob Abel is only four starts away from 100 in an American Junior open-wheel career that began in 2017.
Last year, the Butler University sophomore finished fifth in the Formula Regional Americas Championship while also contesting seven Indy Pro 2000 races. His best Indy Pro 2000 finish was a podium during a difficult wet race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
Across Indy Pro 2000, FRA, USF2000, and F4, the Louisville, Ky. native has two wins, two poles, 14 podiums, 30 top fives, and 62 top tens.
If anybody can get the most of Jacob Abel and the team, it’s John Brunner. He has an innate ability to motivate a driver and crew to perform at their best. Abel was recently named an Official Honda Junior Driver, which should aid in his confidence. The Indy Pro 2000 field is a deep one, but Abel’s experience and adaptability should have him fighting for top-fives.
DEForce Racing made their first Indy Pro 2000 start at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in the 2016 season finale.
Since then, DEForce Racing – the D and the E are for David Martinez and Ernesto Martinez’s first names – has continued to get more competitive.
The Indy Pro 2000 squad broke into the win column in 2020 and trailed only perennial powerhouse Juncos Racing in the team standings. In 2020 the Texas-based team had two wins, three poles, eight podiums, 19 top fives, a series-best 40 top tens, and led 83 laps.
Cameron Shields – Valkyrie Intel / VSRS Motorsports / Turn 2 Drivers Club / Racefit sponsored No. 7
Australian Cameron Shields joined DEForce Racing just before the halfway mark of the 2020 USF2000 season and quickly got to work, showing how competitive he and the team would be. His first nine races with DEForce Racing included two podiums and an average finish of 6.5.
Sheilds’ won the pole for the first race at the St. Petersburg, Fla. finale, leading nine laps before dropping out due to a mechanical issue.
The 20-year-olds impressive junior formula career includes 180 starts, 53 wins, 17 poles, 114 podiums (63.3%), and 43 fastest laps of the race.
The Australian driver will be the sixth from “Down Under” to make at least one Indy Pro 2000 start since 1999. Matthew Brabham (2013) is the only Australian driver to win the championship, and James Davison and Anthony Martin join him as Australian Indy Pro 2000 race winners.
I recently had a chance to catch up with fellow Toowoomban? Toowoomba-ite? and NTT INDYCAR SERIES star Will Power, who was effusive in his praise of Shields. Power thinks that he has the on-track chops to make it to INDYCAR and the desire off-track to keep looking for budget. We tend to agree. Shields has been quick from his first appearance at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test a few years ago, and he’s seemed to have found a home at DEForce Racing.
The 2021 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season will be Exclusive Autosport’s fourth on the middle rung of the Road To Indy ladder.
The Canadian team based in Brownsburg, Ind. has at least one win each season, and their six wins are spread across road courses, street circuits, and ovals.
Artem Petrov – Road To Success / Bell / 226ers sponsored No. 42
After considering a move to Indy Lights, double Indy Pro 2000 race winner Artem Petrov decided a return to the series made more sense.
In 2020, the Russian driver won races at Road America and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course on the way to a fourth-place championship finish. His stellar season also included one pole, seven podiums, and 38 laps led.
Before making a move stateside in 2019, Petrov was a race winner in Italian F4, ADAC (German) F4, and the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand.
Petrov is only the third Russian to compete in Indy Pro 2000 since 1999 and is the only Russian with race wins and poles.
As the highest finishing returnee, Petrov is one of the favorites to win the $718,065 scholarship and race seat in Indy Lights. One thing Petrov will have to improve on is his qualifying. It wasn’t horrible, but starting fifth, sixth, or seventh in this deep of a field won’t cut it in 2021.
Braden Eves – Cambridge / CCFI / Huston Insurance / MDRN Livery sponsored No. 91
When Braden Eves arrived at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the eighth Indy Pro 2000 race of the bizarre 2020 season, he stood third in points and was in line for a championship fight.
That all changed with a bone-breaking crash in the first race, and the rest of 2020 became a fight first to get healthy and second get back on the grid. Eves, who has shown toughness in the past – think the season finale and USF2000 championship-winning effort at Laguna Seca in 2019 – was able to accomplish both goals and returns to Exclusive Autosport to finish what he started.
The 21-year-old, who has support from NTT INDYCAR SERIES team Meyer-Shank Racing has ten wins, eight poles, 19 podiums, 28 top-fives, and has led 117 laps in 45 previous North American junior open-wheel starts.
The field is more experienced and larger this season, but there is no reason to think that Eves won’t insert himself right back into the championship hunt again. The one thing, like many drivers this year, he’ll need to improve on is his consistency in qualifying. Eves exhibits outstanding race craft but will need to make sure he starts in the first two rows of the deep Indy Pro 2000 grids.
Jay Howard Driver Development began when USF2000 and Indy Lights champion Jay Howard began a karting team. Now, the Westfield, Ind.-based team is the only entity with a footprint in Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000, USF2000, FRA, and F4.
The middle rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder is the team’s newest venture. Still, if Indy Pro 2000 spring training is any indication, the newcomers to the series will be competitive right out of the box.
Christian Rasmussen – JHDD / CSU | One Cure / Lucas Oil / Pelican Energy / Dansk Metal / Carta Leasing / DASU / Team Danmark / Midland Oil sponsored No. 1
Christian Rasmussen, who won the 2020 USF2000 championship while driving for Jay Howard Driver Development (JHDD), returns to the team for a fourth season.
The Dane has made 49 F4 and USF2000 starts with JHDD and has won 34.7% of them. His three seasons of action also include 24 podiums, 19 races led, and 15 fastest laps of the race.
Before his move stateside, Rasmussen amassed seven wins in the Formula Ford Denmark and F4 Danish championships.
Rasmussen will be the first Danish to contest an Indy Pro 2000 race.
Rasmussen didn’t lead any of the four Indy Pro 2000 spring training sessions he took part in, but he was quick in all of them, turning in the second-fastest lap once and third fastest lap three times. With a dozen drivers capable of winning an Indy Pro 2000 race in 2020, limiting mistakes will be the key to Rasmussen putting himself in an opportunity to win back-to-back advancement scholarships. He cannot afford to have a repeat of his second visit to the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2020.
Wyatt Brichacek – JHDD / CSU | One Cure / Lucas Oil sponsored No. 5
Wyatt Brichacek will join his Jay Howard Driver Development F4 and USF2000 teammate Rasmussen in Indy Pro 2000.
The 20-year-old surprised during spring training at Barber Motorsports Park, leading the first three test sessions.
Sometimes a higher power car with more downforce suits a driver better. It’s not that the Hoosier-born driver was terrible during his season in USF2000. It’s more that a huge step up in performance was not expected. There is no reason to believe that Brichacek can’t fight for wins in Indy Pro 2000. The three sessions he led at spring training covered varying track conditions. Sometimes, it’s amazing what confidence can do for a driver.
With three of the last four driver’s championship trophies residing in their Speedway, Ind. shop, the 2021 Indy Pro 2000 championship goes through the Ricardo Juncos-owned team.
Ricardo Juncos, a former Argentinian driver, formed his eponymous team in 2009 and has won at least one race every season in those dozen seasons.
Now a competing Indy Pro 2000 owner, Peter Dempsey grabbed the first of the team’s Indy Pro 2000 wins on the Iowa Speedway oval in 2009.
Past and present INDYCAR drivers that have stood on the top step of the podium for Juncos Racing include Conor Daly, Spencer Pigot, Kyle Kaiser, and Rinus VeeKay.
Kyffin Simpson – Simpson Race Products / GoPro / SpY sponsored No. 21
Rookie Kyffin Simpson is set to participate in a joint Indy Pro 2000 and Formula Regional Americas Championship (FRA) program in 2021. The plan for the 16-year-old is to contest the entire FRA season and skip any Indy Pro 2000 races that have a conflict. Currently, the only current conflict is between an FRA event at Road America and the Indy Pro 2000 event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
The Bahamian-born driver’s 2021 season is off to a stellar start with three dominant wins at the first FRA weekend of the year at Road Atlanta.
This season is only Simpsons second in cars. He took part in nine F4 United States Championship (F4), nine FRA races last year.
Simpson is a bit of a wild card. He had the third quickest lap during spring training and finished each session inside the top ten. That should allow him to play spoiler and steal valuable points from his competitors.
Manuel Sulaiman – Telcel / Infinitum / WBC / Inteligentus / Anahuac / Volta / MSD sponsored No. 22
After two seasons of Road To Indy action with DEForce Racing, Manuel Sulaiman’s talents head to Juncos Racing for his sophomore Indy Pro 2000 season.
The 20-year-old karted internationally before spending two seasons in the British F4 Championship. The Mexican driver came home for the 2018-2019 FIA Formula 4 Nacam Championship, winning 10 of 20 races on the way to the title.
Sulaiman finished sixth as Indy Pro 2000 rookie, visiting victory lane twice, starting from pole three times and standing on the podium four times. With a little less bad luck, he would have been in the top three of four of the standings.
“We are thrilled to welcome Manuel to Juncos Racing,” said an enthusiastic team owner Ricardo Juncos. “Manuel brings a lot of great talent to our line-up, and we are confident he will be one of the top drivers contending for the 2021 championship. He showed great speed and pace on the track last year, so we are looking forward to beginning our work with him and taking him to the next level. We want to thank Manuel and the Sulaiman family for this great opportunity.”
Sulaiman heads into the 2021 season as one of the favorites to win the championship and scholarship that will allow him to move up to Indy Lights. He was the quickest driver during spring training and one of the five fastest laps of the race ten times last season, so pace shouldn’t be a problem. Sulaiman’s success will depend on his ability to avoid the dreaded Did Not Finish (DNF).
Reece Gold – The Ticket Clinic sponsored No. 5
After two seasons with Cape Motorsports in USF2000, 2018, Lucas Oil Formula Car Series champion Reece Gold has moved up the ladder to join Juncos Racing for his first Indy Pro 2000 season.
Still only 16-years-old, Gold finished his sophomore season in third place, gathering two wins and seven front-row starts, and ten podiums along the way.
The Miami, Fla., knows how to finish races, with only one DNF in 40 North American Junior Open Wheel starts.
There is no doubt that God was the most improved driver across the Road To Indy in 2020. There is no reason to think that a move to Juncos Racing will inhibit more growth. Gold is the perfect type of driver that will benefit from the cornerstone Juncos Racing – driver development.
The aptly named Legacy Autosport is a labor of love for Louis “Mike” Meyer and his family. Meyer is a fourth-generation racer, the great-grandson of three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Louis Meyer. His grandfather Sonny was a legendary engine builder, and his dad Butch was also an engine builder and past technical director of the Indy Lights series.
Meyer has spent a large portion of his career working in the Road To Indy with teams like Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and Belardi Auto Racing.
The team has only made a pair of Indy Pro 2000 starts, but one of those was a win with Kody Swanson at Lucas Oil Raceway last year.
Flinn Lazier – Metalloid / Spark VR / Tivoli Lodge / Bell Helmets sponsored No. 20
Joining Legacy Autosport for a run at the Indy Pro 2000 championship is a legacy driver. After a light year of racing in 2020, third-generation racer Flinn Lazier will join the Road To Indy’s middle rung.
Lazier has been a regular in SCCA open-wheel competition since 2015, starting with Formula Vee, winning the Runoffs in Formula Enterprise in 2018, and joining his grandfather Bob and uncle Jacques as Formula B/Atlantic Runoff champions.
The 2021 Indy Pro 2000 season will be a year for the third-generation driver to spend learning the PM-18 and a new team. He has the chops to be successful at this level of racing, but it might take a few seasons to get there.
A side note from Steve: I’m going to terribly miss Lazier’s grandfather Bob, who we lost early in 2020. He was one of my favorite people to chat with within the INDYCAR paddock. I’ll also miss seeing him smile when talking with great pride about Flinn and how well he has been doing.
The team formed by former INDYCAR driver Jack Miller and recently retired Super-Bowl winning kicker Adam Vinatieri in 2016 made their debut in USF2000 and the Road To Indy in 2018. The 2020 season was the team’s most successful, with driver Jack William Miller scoring two podiums.
The team will move up a step to Indy Pro 2000 with Miller in 2021.
Jack William Miller – Indy Dental Group, LLC / Patterson Dental sponsored No. 40
The 17-year-old Miller, who has already made 32 USF2000 starts and 63 American junior open-wheel at a young age, is coming off his best season of racing.
The high school sophomore and second-generation pilot finished his second season of USF2000 action in eighth place in the title hunt. The Hoosier twice finished on the podium and finished in the top ten in ten of the final 13 races of the season.
Miller matured tremendously on track from the start of his freshman USF2000 campaign to the end of his sophomore season. His Road To Indy career started with a string of self-inflicted DNFs and ended with a string of top ten finishes where he took what the car and race gave him. If that maturation process continues, Miller should be quickly fighting for top tens in a deep Indy Pro 2000 field.
For over a decade, Pabst Racing has been one of the USF2000 teams to beat, so it should come as no surprise that the Oconomowoc, Wisc. squad success in their first season of Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires action.
Colin Kaminsky scored the first of the team’s nine podiums in the first race of the season at Road America, their home track, while Hunter McElrea won the team’s first Indy Pro 2000 race at the season finale.
Hunter McElrea – Giltrap Group / Doric NZ / Miles Advisory Partners / Highlands Motorsport Park / Bell Racing USA sponsored No. 18
McElrea, who was born in Los Angeles, Calif, lives in Australia, and races under the New Zealand flag, returns for a sophomore season Indy Pro 2000 with Pabst Racing. McElrea recovered from two 15th place starts to begin the season to finish fifth in points, only 21 points out of second.
The 21-year-old will be with Pabst Racing for a third season. He finished his rookie USF2000 season in 2019 in second place. His podium percentage in three seasons of Road To Indy action is an outstanding 56.3%.
Before moving to the U.S.A., McElrea won at least 37 Formula Ford Races in Australia.
McElrea is only the second Indy Pro 2000 driver to race under the New Zealand flag. From Palmerston North, New Zealand, John Faulkner made 51 starts between 2000 and 2007, winning eight times in the Masters Class.
McElrea enters the 2021 Indy Pro 2000 season as one of the favorites to win the title and scholarship for a seat in Indy Lights. The driver and team lacked a little consistency in pace in 2020, but both have one year of experience with a brand new car and should be much improved. McElrea’s performance in spring training at Barber Motorsports Park did nothing to dissuade me from believing that the Kiwi is a championship contender. McElrea was incredibly consistent, finishing in the top five in the first four test sessions.
Colin Kaminsky – Slick Locks sponsored No. 27
Colin Kaminsky, a second-generation racer, didn’t start racing until 2015, beginning his Road To Indy journey with a partial USF2000 season in 2017.
In 56 career USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000 starts, Kaminsky has four poles, nine podiums, and 15 top-five finishes. The University Of Pittsburgh student captured a podium in his first Indy Pro 2000 start and finished his rookie season off on a high note, scoring the third-most points in the season’s final five races.
When I first met Kaminsky, he was a college hockey goalie that raced for fun. Over the last three years – two in USF2000 and one in Indy Pro 2000 – Kaminsky has become a darn good professional racer, showing consistent and significant improvement each season. That first win would be a tremendous confidence boost and would help propel him to that next step – the road to becoming a prospective NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver.
Unfortunately, due to the global pandemic, RP Motorsport could not defend the driver’s championship they won in 2019 with Kyle Kirkwood.
After leasing their cars to other teams in 2020, RP Motorsport returns with a stellar line-up featuring a pair of FIA Formula 3 veterans.
The Italian team made their Indy Pro 2000 debut in 2018, and has already won 11 races, started from the poles six times, and split 20 podiums among four drivers.
Enzo Fittipaldi – Claro / Baterias Moura / XP Investimentos / PLGG sponsored No. 74
The first of the two experienced shoes joining RP Motorsport for the 2021 season is Enzo Fittipaldi, the youngest member of Brazilian racing royalty.
Fittipaldi made a move to Europe as a 14-year-old to start his career in cars. The Miami, Fla.-born pilot that races under the Brazilian flag started in the Ginetta Junior Championship before two seasons of Italian and ADAC (German) F4 action.
Fittipaldi won the Italian F4 Championship and finished third in the German-based F4 Championship in 2018, winning eight races, 11 poles, and celebrating on 21 podiums.
A third-place finish followed after step up the European ladder to the Formula Regional European Championship in 2019 before moving to the FIA Formula 3 Championship in 2020. Fittipaldi finished the 2020 season strongly with two top-fives in the series finale at Mugello.
From a multi-generational racing family, Fittipaldi will be the 16th Indy Pro 2000 pilot to race under the Brazilian flag. Two previous Brazilian drivers – Raphael Matos (2005) and Victor Franzoni (2017) have won Indy Pro 2000 championships. Five different drivers – Nicolas Costa, Victor Franzoni, J.V. Horto, Caio Lara, and Raphael Matos – have won Indy Pro 2000 races since 1999.
The 19-year-old finished spring training with the ninth-best time on the combined timesheet but was within four-tenths-of-a-second of Sulaiman’s best time. Fittipaldi got quicker as the test progressed, finishing the final session with the third-fastest time in the last session. The legacy driver is one of the dozen drivers that will contend for podiums and victories in 2021, and like the rest of them, limiting mistakes in a deep field will be the key to a good championship finish.
Enaam Ahmed – Lux Lot / Discover us / Newpoint Financial Corp. / Location Lounge / Oracle sponsored No. 77
The second ‘rookie’ for RP Motorsport, Enaam Ahmed, is the most well-traveled of the drivers in an Indy Pro 2000 field with an international flavor.
The London, United Kingdom driver was a British National karting champion before becoming a World and European karting champion in 2014.
The 21-year-old made a move to cars in 2015. Since that first season in the MSA Formula Championship (British Formula 4), he has made 180 junior open-wheel starts across Europe, Asia, and Oceania.
Highlights of Ahmed’s impressive career include 27 wins since 2015, the 2017 BRDC British Formula 3 Championship title with Carlin, a third-place finish in the Japanese Formula 3 Championship, two appearances in the Macau Grand Prix, and race wins in the FIA Formula 3 Championship.
It might take Ahmed a few events to settle into racing in the U.S.A. with his new team, but his pedigree and past results have me leaning toward the experienced shoe quickly becoming a contender for race wins.
The Mundelein, Ill.-based Turn 3 Motorsport made their Road To Indy debut in the second half of the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 season. The team, with Danial Frost, finished third in their first entire season of Road To Indy action, winning once and grabbing six podiums.
The team, led by Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights-winning driver Peter Dempsey, purchased a pair of USF-17s to expand their Road To Indy footprint in 2021.
“This will be our second full year in Indy Pro 2000, and I couldn’t be happier to have James Roe leading the line for our team,” said the team owner Dempsey. “He is ready for the challenge ahead of him. All of the drivers are ready to go, and I know the team members are ready to go, too. Our goal will be to focus on ourselves all year and not allow any distractions from outside of our team. If we all stay focused on our jobs, the results will come. We are ready to get this season started.”
James Roe – Topcon Positioning Group / Trintech sponsored No. 3
Forming an all-Irish team with Dempsey is another second-generation racer who has found a home in the United States. Like so many drivers from Ireland before him, Roe got his open-wheel start in Formula Ford, winning twice and finishing fifth in the 2017 British Formula Ford 1600 Championship.
A move to the United States followed in 2018, with Rowe winning three races in the F2000 Championship Series and making his Road To Indy debut in a USF2000 event on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
Roe has spent the last two years in the Formula Regional Americas Championship, winning once and placing fifth in the season-long standings.
Roe is the third driver to represent the Irish flag in Indy Pro 2000. His team owner, Peter Dempsey, has nine wins, seven poles, 13 podiums, and a second (2009) and third (2008) place championship finish.
“I am extremely excited to be making my Indy Pro 2000 debut this weekend,” said Roe. “Over the course of the winter, I worked extremely hard to put myself in the best possible position to perform, that is from both a team and personal standpoint. We are looking very strong and are happy with the way in which we prepared. As always on the Road to Indy, it is going to be extremely competitive, and we are well aware the smallest of margins will make a big difference. A special thanks to all my partners who have put me in this position. It’s going to be great to have the fans back as well. Tickets for this weekend are sold out, so I’m looking forward to having a great crowd there to support us.”
Roe, whose uncle Michael Roe made four starts in Indy car in 1985, is coming off a successful spring training. The 22-year-old finished fifth on the combined timesheet and had the second quickest time in the Sunday afternoon test session. Roe has worked extremely hard for this opportunity, happily wrenching on cars in exchange for the opportunity to get behind the wheel. I won’t be surprised if the combination of two highly passionate Irish racers surprises people this season.
Velocity Racing Development (VRD), based in Georgia, is a newcomer to the Road To Indy, but not to American junior open-wheel racing. Engineer and driver coach Daniel Mitchell owns the team. The British-born, Georgia-based Mitchell has been there, engineered that, in the European junior formula categories. In the last three years, VRD has won eight F4 United States Championship (F4) races and one Formula Regional Americas Championship (FRA) race. In 2020, the team won the F4 drivers championship with Hunter Yeany.
Hunter Yeany – Thirty Seconds Out / DFNDUSA / Hoist sponsored No. 11
Leading the charge for Velocity Racing Development in Indy Pro 2000 is 2020 F4 Champion Yeany. The 15-year-old dominated the year, winning eight times and standing on 14 podiums in 15 races in an impressive move to cars.
The 2021 native of Charlottesville, Virginia, began his racing season at Road Atlanta with a seventh, sixth, and fifth-place finish in the first three FRA races of the 2021 season. Yeany will get plenty of seat-time in 2021 across the two series, and if last season was any indication, don’t be surprised if it gets more competitive as the year progresses.
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A note about our presenting sponsor.
Once again, a huge thank you to Cooper Tires for coming back to be the presenting sponsor of TSO Ladder for the fourth season. Without them, we would not be able to bring you our extensive Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires coverage. If you require tires, I highly recommend them. Our family has the Discover ® AT3 4S on our SUV and CS5 Grand Touring on our car.