By Tony DiZinno
Exclusive Autosport has secured its second pole of the day in as many opportunities at St. Petersburg. On this occasion it was Braden Eves doing the honors, as the Ohioan continues his return to racing tour in the No. 91 Tatuus PM-18 for the Indy Pro 2000 series. It’s his fourth Indy Pro 2000 pole and ninth in his Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires career.
Eves uncorked the first and only lap in the 1:08 bracket, at 1:08.9361, on his fourth flying lap. Before he posted that lap, the top seven drivers in the ultra-competitive series were separated by just over two tenths of a second on their third flying laps. As Eves got his fourth lap in before others, he stretched the gap to 0.3339 of a second.
“I love it, just heading straight into qualifying after one practice session,” said the 2019 USF2000 champion. “I think it puts things more in the hands of the driver – it challenges us. It’s tough to push here, with the walls so close, but the stakes are so high. And it’s so important to get experience here. I came here two years ago in USF2000 and it was tough, going against the veterans. It’s a big advantage to have been on a street circuit before, and this is one of my favorite tracks and events.”
The pole win is Eves’ second Indy Pro 2000 pole of 2021, his fourth career series inside front row start, and the ninth pole in his Road To Indy career.
Timing paid off for him because shortly afterwards, a red flag flew with an incident that appeared to occur near the exit of Turn 3, a notoriously treacherous corner on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg track. This occurred just after five minutes into the 20-minute session, and nearly brought the remainder of the session to a halt.
Hunter Yeany’s No. 11 Velocity Racing Development and Enzo Fittipaldi’s No. 74 RP Motorsport USA cars were both brought back to the paddock on tow trucks. Yeany’s car had rear wing damage and still showed stickers on its new set of Cooper Tires, while Fittipaldi’s car appeared to sustain more significant damage with a yellow tarp underneath the car when it went back behind the wall.
Update on this incident: Fittipaldi, who was on a hot lap, made significant contact with Yeany’s No. 11 Velocity Racing Development PM-18, as the latter driver was exiting pit road. Both drivers could get out of the cars under their own power and were checked, released and cleared to drive by INDYCAR medical. The RP Motorsport crew has a significant amount of work to complete to get the Claro/Baterias Moura/XP Investimentos/PLGG sponsored No. 74 of the multi-generational racer ready for Saturday’s morning second qualifying session.
After track repairs and the red flag was lifted, the green flew with roughly one minute to go. But no one was able to improve.
Eves and fellow Barber Indy Pro 2000 winner Hunter McElrea, the two sparring partners who are quickly developing into a great rivalry, will share the front row. McElrea is in the No. 18 Pabst Racing car, and denied Exclusive a double front row lockout with Artem Petrov third in the No. 42 Exclusive entry.
Eves’ qualifying topper was the first Indy Pro 2000 pole in St. Petersburg, Fla., for Exclusive Autosport. It’s the Canadian team’s seventh career Indy Pro 2000 pole and the first on a street circuit.
The top entries from Jay Howard Driver Development (Christian Rasmussen), Juncos Racing (Reece Gold) and RP Motorsport USA (Enaam Ahmed) ensured five different teams in the top six of qualifying.
Even with the extended red and Eves’ 0.3 gap to second place, the top 12 of 17 cars were still covered by less than a second, just 0.9395.
The series is done on track for the day with its next session at 8 a.m. ET Saturday morning, qualifying for Race 2.
Indy Pro 2000 Race 1 Qualifying
|1||91||Braden Eves||Exclusive Autosport||1:08.9361||1:08.9361||7|
|2||18||Hunter McElrea||Pabst Racing||1:09.2700||0.3339||6|
|3||42||Artem Petrov||Exclusive Autosport||1:09.3397||0.4036||6|
|4||1||Christian Rasmussen||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:09.3640||0.4279||6|
|5||55||Reece Gold||Juncos Racing||1:09.3726||0.4365||6|
|6||77||Enaam Ahmed||RP Motorsport USA||1:09.3922||0.4561||6|
|7||22||Manuel Sulaiman||Juncos Racing||1:09.4568||0.5207||6|
|8||5||Wyatt Brichacek||Jay Howard Driver Development||1:09.4920||0.5559||6|
|9||27||Colin Kaminsky||Pabst Racing||1:09.6602||0.7241||6|
|10||3||James Roe||Turn 3 Motorsport||1:09.7184||0.7823||6|
|11||51||Jacob Abel||Abel Motorsports||1:09.7348||0.7987||6|
|12||7||Cameron Shields||DEForce Racing||1:09.8756||0.9395||6|
|13||21||Kyffin Simpson||Juncos Racing||1:09.9584||1.0223||6|
|14||20||Flinn Lazier||Legacy Autosport||1:10.1185||1.1824||6|
|15||40||Jack William Miller||Miller Vinatieri Motorsports||1:10.1474||1.2113||4|
|16||74||Enzo Fittipaldi||RP Motorsport USA||1:12.2344||3.2983||3|
|17||11||Hunter Yeany||Velocity Racing Development||No Time||—||—|