Christian Rasmussen and team owner Jay Howard celebrate Jay Howard Driver Development’s first Indy Pro 2000 win in St. Petersburg, Fla. Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

By Steve Wittich

It took two races, but after giving away his first Indy Pro 2000 win at Barber Motorsports Park last weekend, Christian Rasmussen made it to the podium’s top step in Sunday’s Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix Of St. Petersburg presented by Cooper Tires Race #2.

The Jay Howard Driver Development built a big lead, survived a restart, and pulled an impressive 7.9-second gap over the last six laps to grab his and the team’s first win on the second rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.

“Very happy getting my first win in Indy Pro,” said the Dane with a huge grin on his face. “It was great giving it back to the team. I think they really deserve this win after getting the car near perfect for both here and Barber. I’m now only a few points behind the leader. Looking to build on this momentum and hopefully get a lot more wins the rest of the season.”

The win is Rasmussen’s first Indy Pro 2000 win and the 13th in his Road To Indy career, giving him a winning percentage of 36.1%. The Dane has now won 18 open-wheel junior formula races in North America and 25 worldwide.

It’s the first Indy Pro 2000 win at St. Pete for Jay Howard Driver Development, making them the eighth different team to win a series race on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit.

Rasmussen has now had the quickest lap of the race in three of the four races to start the 2021 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires season.

In the things only we notice category, Christian Rasmussen is the first driver in the 22 Indy Pro 2000 race in St. Pete to win from the outside of the first row.

Rounding out the podium was a pair of Juncos Racing drivers – Manuel Sulaiman and Reece Gold – who both got around McElrea on the final lap.

The pair of podiums for Juncos Racing pilots Manuel Sulaiman and Reece Gold are the 21st and 22nd in St. Pete for Juncos Racing, the most of any team. The Ricardo Juncos-led team has now had 16 different drivers visit the podium at the tricky street circuit.

The podiums are the 166th and 167th all-time Indy Pro 2000 podiums for Juncos Racing and their 40th and 41st on a street circuit.

Gold’s podium is his second in four Indy Pro 2000 races this season and the 12th in his Road To Indy career.

Juncos Racing sophomore Manuel Sulaiman and the Telcel/Infinitum/WBC/Inteligentus/Anahuac sponsored No. 22 PM-18 on track in St. Petersburg, Fla., during Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires action. Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

It’s the fifth time in his Indy Pro 2000 career that Sulaiman has visited the podium, and the second-place finish is the Mexican driver’s 25th career Road To Indy top ten.

“We had some great battles today but it doesn’t matter if I’m racing my teammate or any other competitor – we always race clean,” said the Juncos Racing pilot. “That’s why I love this sport and that’s how you know how good the other drivers are, by how much they respect each other. There’s so much pressure and aggressiveness but respect is the most important thing. But I had a lot of fun out there, climbing up to second. The car felt amazing, I’m so thankful to my team. Unfortunately, the gap to Christian was too much to fight for the top step but we had a good comeback to finish second. I feel as though this is just getting started, we’re focusing on the championship title.”

The top five  in Indy Pro 2000 points after four rounds are:
1 – Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport) – 98 points
2 – Christian Rasmussen (Jay Howard Driver Development) – 94 points
3 – Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) – 87 points
4 – Artem Petrov (Exclusive Autosport) – 79 points
5 – Reece Gold (Juncos Racing) – 67 points

The command to fire the 2.0L engines powering the 16 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires entries was given at 7:55 am.

The forecasted rain was holding off. The ambient temperature was a very humid 76F when the front row of McElrea and Rasmussen brought the field down Albert Whited Airport Runway 7/25 to get the 25 lap race started.

A hazy start to Sunday’s Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires race in St. Petersburg, Fla. Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

McElrea quickly moved to the inside, with Rasmussen falling in behind the pole sitter. In the braking zone to the first turn, Rasmussen popped but couldn’t make the pass.

The first three rows made it safely through the right-hand Turn 1, but not much further. Hunter Yeany (Velocity Racing Development) and James Roe (Turn 3 Motorsport) had an incident in Turn 2, with Roe coming out on the losing end and not being able to continue. Further along, Kyffin Simpson (Juncos Racing) and Wyatt Brichacek (Jay Howard Driver Development) ended up in the concrete barriers in the tight Turn 8 right-hander.

It’s the sixth Indy Pro 2000 race since 2013 at St. Pete that has seen a first lap caution.

After the first lap of the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit, the running order under yellow was McElrea, Rasmussen, Gold, Eves, Manuel Sulaiman (Juncos Racing), Enaam Ahmed (RP Motorsport), Colin Kaminsky (Pabst Racing), Jacob Abel (Abel Motorsports), Jack William Miller (Miller Vinatieri Motorsports), Artem Petrov (Juncos Racing), Cameron Shields (DEForce Racing), Hunter Yeany (Velocity Racing Development) and Flinn Lazier (Legacy Autosport)

After the AMR INDYCAR Safety Team got the mess cleaned up, the green flag came back out to start Lap 7.

Once again, Rasmussen took a look to the outside of McElrea, and once again, McElrea was able to hold off the No. 1 Jay Howard Driver Development PM-18.

On Lap 8, Kaminsky could go to the outside of Turn 1, grabbing the sixth spot.

On Lap 9, Rasmussen waited until deep in the Turn 1 braking zone, moved to inside of McElrea after the pole sitter moved out to set up for the corner. The reigning Indy Pro 2000 champion completed the pass and began to pull away from McElrea.

“I got a good run on Hunter and drafted all the way down the front straight, and he didn’t really defend so I made a last-minute dive bomb to the inside in Turn One and got by,” said Rasmussen about the pass for the lead. “From there, I pretty much checked out, even with the yellow flag. I had an amazing car all weekend and I’m so happy to get my first Indy Pro 2000 win and my first win at St. Pete. It’s been a long time coming. I had so many emotions at the checkered flag but for me, it’s all about the championship, it’s all we’re thinking about. Getting max points today is crucial, especially with all the guys that I’m chasing finishing further down. The win today is amazing but the championship is the most important thing.”

After 11 laps, Rasmussen’s lead was already 1.2 seconds over McElrea. The pole-sitter was being pressured by Gold and was warned that race control was watching the No. 18 for blocking.

Rasmussen had a 2.4 second lead over McElrea at the crossed flags, signifying the race’s halfway point.

McElrea had a line of PM-18s behind him, with positions two through 12 within five seconds.

On the next lap, Gold looked on the outside of McElrea, but couldn’t get the pass done. That opened up the rookie to a challenge from Eves in Turn 4. The Juncos Racing No. 55 was able to hold off Saturday’s winner.

On Lap 16, Petrov was able to make a pass to the inside of Miller in Turn 1, moving to the ninth spot.

The Russian driver was the races biggest mover, finishing eighth after starting 14th.

When Miller got to Turn 10, the rear end of the No. 40 stepped out and hit the tire barrier and concrete wall, knocking the rear wing off the car and bringing out the yellow.

The yellow was withdrawn to start Lap 20. Rasmussen got a significant jump, but behind them, it was two-by-two for the following six drivers. McElrea and Gold held onto the podium spots, with Eves being the big loser, falling to sixth, losing spots to Sulaiman and Kaminsky.

Sunday’s Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires pole sitter Hunter McElrea (Pabst Racing) working hard to keep Juncos Racing rookie Reece Gold behind him. Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography/Road to Indy

Rasmussen had a 2.8-second lead with three laps remaining, with the battling for the final podium spot was intense behind him.

Sulaiman was able to go around the outside of his teammate Gold to grab third.

Rasmussen’s lead when the starter waved the white flag was 7.0 seconds. Once again, it was the Telcel sponsored No. 22 that was on the move, going around the outside of McElrea in Turn 1 for the second spot.

Unfortunately, the Kiwi was not done losing spots on the final lap. Gold could get a better run off the last corner and beat him to the line by a hundredth of a second. After the race, it was determined that McElrea was losing power throughout the race.

Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix Of St. Petersburg presented by Cooper Tires results

1 1 Christian Rasmussen Jay Howard Driver Development 25 LAPS
2 22 Manuel Sulaiman Juncos Racing -7.921
3 55 Reece Gold Juncos Racing -9.132
4 18 Hunter McElrea Pabst Racing -9.1506
5 27 Colin Kaminsky Pabst Racing -9.5468
6 91 Braden Eves Exclusive Autosport -9.9597
7 51 Jacob Abel Abel Motorsports -11.1524
8 42 Artem Petrov Exclusive Autosport -11.6237
9 77 Enaam Ahmed RP Motorsport USA -12.1074
10 11 Hunter Yeany Velocity Racing Development -13.1959
11 7 Cameron Shields DEForce Racing -13.4022
12 20 Flinn Lazier Legacy Autosport -14.0129
13 40 Jack William Miller Miller Vinatieri Motorsports – 7 LAPS
14 21 Kyffin Simpson Juncos Racing – 25 LAPS
15 5 Wyatt Brichacek Jay Howard Driver Development – 25 LAPS
16 3 James Roe Turn 3 Motorsport – 25 LAPS
17 74 Enzo Fittipaldi RP Motorsport DNS

The Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires scholarship fight heads to famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a triple-header scheduled for May 13-15.