By Steve Wittich
Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship championship leader, DEForce Racing sophomore Kiko Porto, has had a long 53-day summer break to think about the final five races in the chase for the $401,305 scholarship and a seat in Indy Pro 2000.
The bottom rung of the Road To Indy Presented by Cooper Tires turned their last competitive laps on Independence Day at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, where Porto and Cape Motorsports veteran Michael d’Orlando separated themselves from their competitors.
Porto grabbed the championship lead after a wire-to-wire victory at Road America five races ago, slowly building his lead with breathtaking qualifying pace and steady race efforts.
In the next five races, he has scored 127 points, the most of any driver during the same time frame, leaving him with a 19 point lead over d’Orlando as the series heads to the Garden State for a triple header at New Jersey Motorsports Park.
Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship points scored over the last five races.
|4||Thomas Nepveu – r||78|
|6||Jace Denmark – r||69|
|8||Spike Kohlbecker – r||63|
|13||Billy Frazer – r||48|
|15||Peter Vodanovich – r||31|
|16||Evan Stamer – r||25|
|17||Dylan Christie – r||21|
|19||Myles Rowe – r||19|
|20||Ely Navarro – r||18|
|21||Jackson Lee – r||17|
|22||Trey Burke – r||14|
|24||Kent Vaccaro – r||13|
|25||Erik Evans – r||11|
|27||Nathan Byrd – r||3|
|28||Chase Hyland – r||3|
The 2.25-mile, 12-turn Thunderbolt Raceway at New Jersey Motorsports Park road course will play host to the penultimate round of the USF2000 Championship for the second year in a row.
The 20-lap Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix trio will be the sixth, seventh, and eighth races held at the Millville, N.J. circuit.
Porto’s championship lead over d’Orlando comes down to his consistency and avoiding catastrophic finishes.
d’Orlando, a 19-year-old, and Porto have three wins apiece, but the Hartsdale, N.Y. driver leads Porto in the podium and laps led categories. The 19 point difference between the two drivers comes from two spots.
First, Porto has a six marker advantage in bonus points scored. Drivers are awarded one bonus point for winning the pole, leading the most laps, and turning the quickest lap in the race.
2021 USF2000 Bonus Points Scored
Second, Porto has avoided finishes that result in single-digit points. That means finishes of 12th or worse. The Brazilian points leader’s worst finish came in the first race of the season, a tenth place way back in April at Barber Motorsports Park. Porto’s current streak of eight top-fives has allowed him to maintain the points lead.
Unfortunately for d’Orlando, he finished 23rd in Race #1 in St. Petersburg, Fla. and 20th in Race #2 at Road America, scoring only a single point in each race.
d’Orlando does have a slight advantage at New Jersey Motorsports Park, finishing third and fourth in races on the same circuit last year, while Porto missed those races due to COVID-19.
The pair of championship front runners finished Friday’s test with the fourth (Porto) and fifth (d’Orlando) quickest times, separated by a slim four-hundredths of a second.
Pabst Racing veteran Yuven Sundaramoorthy is currently third on the USF2000 points table, 51 points behind Porto and 32 points behind d’Orlando.
The University of Wisconsin freshman, who has also stood on the top step of the podium, will need to win races and get a little help from his competitors to move closer to battle for the scholarship.
The 18-year-old led the first test session at New Jersey Motorsports Park on Friday and ended the day second on the combined timesheet, an excellent start to the weekend.
Fifteen-year-old Josh Pierson, Sundaramoorthy’s Pabst Racing teammate, begins the weekend 73 points out of the championship lead. That leaves him needing to grab his first win, along with a lot of help from those drivers in front of him.
Pierson has been one of the most consistent drivers on the season, completing every lap so far and not finishing worse than 12th place in a race.
Christian Brooks, a double race winner in St. Petersburg, Fla., and championship leader through four rounds early in the 2021 season needs a summer break refresh and a solid finish to the season.
Like Pierson, wins and a whole lot of help from his competitors will be needed to win the championship and the $401,305 scholarship that goes with it.
After an unfortunate disqualification from a second-place finish in the third race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Brooks has struggled with consistency, dropping from first place in the championship down to fifth place on the points table.
The Californian has completed every lap in those races but has struggled in qualifying, starting the last five races – all on natural terrain road course circuits – an average of 14th. Brooks has gained 20 spots over where he qualified in those races, proving that the pilot of the Hot Wheels/Chaco Flaco/Bell Helmets sponsored No. 44 from the Exclusive Autosport stable still has the racecraft to fight for wins.
Brooks does have USF2000 experience at New Jersey Motorsports Park, finishing the three 2020 races at the same circuit with a fourth, fifth and seventh.
Rookie of the year fight
The battle for the 2021 USF2000 Rookie Of The Year has quietly turned into an entertaining fight between a quartet of teenagers representing three different stables and from three different countries.
Spike Kohlbecker (Ignite Autosport w/Cape Motorsports), from St. Louis, Missouri, was the early leader among the newcomers, but a recent spurt by the other drivers has made things much closer. Kohlbecker’s lead over Thomas Nepveu (Cape Motorsports), Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing), and Billy Frazer (Exclusive Autosport) is one, 17, and 41 points, respectively.
With nine top-ten finishes, St. Louis, Mo. born and bred Kohlbecker has been the most consistent of the rookies, leading that category along with the best average finish of the rookies, which for the top four is as follows:
- Spike Kohlbecker – 8.2
- Thomas Nepveu – 8.8
- Jace Denmark – 10.0
- Billy Frazer – 11.7
Nepveu is the only rookie to win a race this season, climbing to the top step of the podium at Road America in June. The Cape Motorsports driver also leads all rookies with three top-five finishes.
“This tripleheader weekend is an important one for me as I hope for three good results to improve my position in the Rookie of the Year championship standing,” said the 17-year-old Quebecer. “I know the track after a test day at that particular circuit earlier this year, and it’s not an easy task to overtake on this type of layout. We will be up to the challenge!”
Denmark, a 17-year-old from Phoneix, Arizona, has been the most consistent driver since May. The pilot of the Metal Works Custom Fabrication sponsored No. 23 has six straight top-ten finishes, a streak that began with an impressive third-place finish in the only oval event of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway. That podium is one of only three podiums by a rookie driver in 2021.
Frazer, an 18-year-old Kiwi, has some work to do to catch his fellow rookies, but he is coming off his best weekend in USF2000 at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, qualifying in the first four rows of all three races and matching a season-best finish of fourth.
Kohlbecker was the quickest of the rookie in Friday testing at New Jersey Motorsports Park, giving him a slight edge heading into Saturday and Sunday.
The quickest driver in Friday testing was Turn 3 Motorsport sophomore Josh Green, who would love to cap off his season with several trips to the podium. Green is part of a battle for sixth place in the championship that has five drivers separated by only 17 points.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship schedule for the weekend is as follows:
Saturday, August 28
- 8am – 8:30am –> Practice
- 10:15am – 10:45am –> Qualifying #1
- 2:30pm – 3:15pm –> Race #1 (20 laps)
Sunday, August 29
- 9am – 9:30am –> Qualifying #2
- 11:30am – 12:15pm –> Race #2 (20 laps)
- 2:30pm – 3:15pm –> Race #3 (20 laps)