By Tony DiZinno / Steve Wittich
Braden Eves displayed excellent racecraft and defense from the lead to win from pole, leading flag-to-flag for his second Indy Pro 2000 victory in the first three races of the season. He’s also ensured Exclusive Autosport has a pair of wins this weekend in St. Petersburg, with Eves following Christian Brooks’ win in race one for USF2000 earlier Saturday morning.
The win is Eves’ third Indy Pro 2000 victory and the ninth of his Road To Indy career. For the 16th time (in 21 races) at this event, the pole-sitter won the race.
“Christian is tough – I raced against him in USF2000 and it was much of the same, always in your mirrors, always ready to make a pass,” said a happy Eves after the race. “But we both learned our craft from Jay Howard so I know all his moves! It’s always going to be a good fight but it was a bit too close for comfort. I made one mistake toward the end and almost threw it away, but I was able to hang on. I still haven’t lost here at St. Pete. I came here in 2019 as a rookie and that first race – and first win – gave me the confidence to go on my championship run. It may not be the season-opener this time but I’m getting shades of 2019 with our success right off the bat so I couldn’t be happier. The team gave me a great car today.”
The Ohioan in his No. 91 Tatuus PM-18 edged ahead of his old USF2000 sparring partner, Hunter McElrea in the No. 18 Pabst Racing Tatuus, from pole and led away with Christian Rasmussen (No. 1 Jay Howard Driver Development) quickly moving into third around Eves’ Exclusive teammate, Artem Petrov.
It’s the third Indy Pro 2000 podium in St. Pete for Exclusive Autosport, with Eves joining Danial Frost and Parker Thompson as the podium visitors for the Canadian team. The podium is the team’s 18th overall and fourth on a street circuit.
“Braden picked right up where he left off last March when COVID shut down the weekend and having missed the season finale here in St. Pete after his IMS accident, his pole and race win was remarkable,” said Michael Duncalfe, Team Principal. “The team is gelling incredibly well and Artem’s performance added to our overall success. He scored his third straight top-five finish on Saturday and then showed patient aggression on Sunday to score a crucial eighth-place finish. That run has kept him firmly in the early-season championship hunt. I’m really proud of both of them and the EA crew. It was great to win with our Cambridge Global Payments car while we had our friends from Cambridge at the race cheering us on.”
The 17-car field was down a few cars early. With too much damage from his accident on Friday, Enzo Fittipaldi was unable to start this race today in his No. 74 RP Motorsport USA entry. You can see Fittipaldi’s tweet below:
Cameron Shields peeled off into the pit lane with an issue in his No. 7 DEForce Racing car, and Jacob Abel needed to pit his No. 51 Abel Motorsports entry with left rear damage from P9 after a couple laps.
Neither the Shields nor Abel departures from contention forced a yellow flag and by Lap 5, Eves held a steady lead over McElrea with Rasmussen third, Petrov fourth and Reece Gold fifth in the first Juncos Racing entry.
Ramussen completed a slick, classic St. Pete outside at Turn 1 to be inside at Turn 2 move on McElrea for second on Lap 8, and would begin his charge of Eves from 1.6 seconds behind.
“I’m disappointed because I made that mistake,” explained McElrea on his eighth career Indy Pro 2000 podium run. “Braden, Christian and I were all together, not catching or pulling away. I want to win, so that’s disappointing, but you can’t feel too badly when you’re on the podium. Even though Braden finished ahead of me, it’s good points. I’m on pole tomorrow and I’m looking forward to that. It was tough out there today: we saw what happened to the USF2000 guys, but it’s tough to go from such a wide front straight to such a tight first corner, especially for the rookies. For us, we’re a bit more experienced but it’s always a hairy Turn One so I’m really happy to be on pole for race two.”
He gained a half a second in five laps before Hunter Yeany’s second incident of the weekend, this time at Turn 10 in his No. 11 Velocity Racing Development entry, brought out the first and only full-course caution of the race.
This wiped out Eves’ 1.1-second lead but set up a thriller for the final 11 laps under green flag conditions.
After the restart some passing occurred further in the pack, with Flinn Lazier (No. 20 Legacy Autosport) getting around James Roe (No. 3 Turn 3 Motorsport) for 11th and Manuel Sulaiman (No. 22 Juncos Racing) passing Enaam Ahmed (No. 77 RP Motorsport USA) for sixth. Sulaiman later got his teammate, Gold, for fifth.
But the action intensified up front as Rasmussen closed on Eves, as he got within three tenths of a second in the final five laps.
He made one attempt to the outside of Turn 4 with less than four laps to go, but Eves maintained his line in the middle of the road to tease Rasmussen into an unsuccessful attempt.
“That was an awesome race for me,” said Rasmussen who is looking for his first Indy Pro 2000 win. “I started P4, got by Petrov at the start and just settled in. It can be hard to pass here but Hunter made a little mistake out of (Turn) 14 that let me get a run on him and get by in Turn One. I was chasing Braden down toward the end but just didn’t have enough to get a pass done but I’m really happy with our pace today. It’s my first podium at St. Pete – I’ve always had the pace here but I’ve never been able to get it done. We’re thinking championship all the time so that’s the most important part for me, so a drive from fourth to second is very positive in terms of points. I’ll start from second tomorrow and hope to go for the win.”
Eves held on by 0.3519 of a second from Rasmussen with McElrea third ahead of Petrov and Sulaiman. The 0.3519 margin of victory was the ninth straight under two seconds and the fifth during that time frame under one second.
Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports) had the quickest lap of the race. The first time the second generation driver has accomplished that in Indy Pro 2000, and the second time he’s been the fastest in his Road To Indy career.
The top nine starters in the race finished in the top nine positions, albeit not entirely in the positions they qualified (of note, Rasmussen went fourth to second, Sulaiman went from seventh to fifth). Juncos’ third driver, Kyffin Simpson, advanced three spots from 13th up to a top-10 finish at the checkered flag.
Race two of the weekend goes green at 8 a.m. ET Sunday morning.
INDY PRO 2000 GRAND PRIX OF ST. PETERSBURG PRESENTED BY COOPER TIRES Race 1 Unofficial Results
|1||91||Braden Eves||Exclusive Autosport||25||LAP 25|
|2||1||Christian Rasmussen||Jay Howard Driver Development||25||0.3519|
|3||18||Hunter McElrea||Pabst Racing||25||1.5804|
|4||42||Artem Petrov||Exclusive Autosport||25||1.9639|
|5||22||Manuel Sulaiman||Juncos Racing||25||4.2843|
|6||55||Reece Gold||Juncos Racing||25||5.0066|
|7||77||Enaam Ahmed||RP Motorsport USA||25||5.5105|
|8||5||Wyatt Brichacek||Jay Howard Driver Development||25||5.9287|
|9||27||Colin Kaminsky||Pabst Racing||25||6.4447|
|10||21||Kyffin Simpson||Juncos Racing||25||10.2683|
|11||20||Flinn Lazier||Legacy Autosport||25||11.0718|
|12||40||Jack William Miller||Miller Vinatieri Motorsports||25||11.3968|
|13||3||James Roe||Turn 3 Motorsport||25||17.3617|
|14||7||Cameron Shields||DEForce Racing||23||2 LAPS|
|15||51||Jacob Abel||Abel Motorsports||18||7 LAPS|
|16||11||Hunter Yeany||Velocity Racing Development||10||Off Course|
|17||74||Enzo Fittipaldi||RP Motorsport USA||—||IN PIT|