By Diane Swintal
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship comes down to three drivers, all of whom would be worthy of graduation to the 2023 Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
Pabst Racing’s Myles Rowe, Cape Motorsports’ Michael d’Orlando and Pabst Racing’s Jace Denmark all enter the weekend hoping to take home the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scholarship package valued at $406,925 to assist in their progression.
With a racing-related news cycle that seems to consist mainly of contract disputes, driver dismissals and a “who’s going where” rumor mill in overdrive, the knowledge that one of these young drivers will know exactly what he is doing in 2023 – and that it’s all but paid for – is huge.
Coming into the Portland tripleheader (races one and two on Friday, race three on Saturday), Rowe holds a 23-point lead over d’Orlando and 25 points over Denmark. Four drivers have held the points lead this season (Rowe, d’Orlando, Denmark and Cape Motorsports’ Jagger Jones) with the lead changing hands a whopping eight times – and from race five to race 11, the lead changed after every race.
Penske Entertainment Corp.’s Race for Equality & Change program opened the door for Rowe last year, but when Augie Pabst gave Rowe a second year in the series in 2022, the 22-year-old New York resident made the most of the opportunity (especially given the timely assist from Roger Penske after a crash in race one at St. Pete threatened the remainder of his season).
If Rowe successfully holds his points lead and takes the championship title, it would provide Pabst Racing its long-awaited first driver’s championship. Pabst Racing has won the team’s championship twice.
The stated purpose of the USF2000 series is to start drivers on their Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires journey – a vital training ground, where drivers hone their race craft in front of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock. But on several occasions, this season, Rowe and d’Orlando have shown a propensity for tangling with other drivers – and with each other. In the previous race on the streets of Toronto, d’Orlando attempted a pass on Rowe for second position in turn eight coming to the checkered flag, with d’Orlando on the inside. The pair made contact and finished with d’Orlando fourth and Rowe fifth.
Looming large over the series going into the weekend finale is the realization that this is the final USF2000 race weekend for Cape Motorsports. Pabst Racing would dearly love the chance to take the driver title over their longtime rival, who has 13 driver championships on its resume – including nine of the last 11. With brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape graduating back up the Road to Indy ladder to Indy Lights in 2023, it is Pabst’s last chance to do so for now.
There is no doubt that it is a significant blow to USF2000 to lose one of its longest-standing and marquee teams (USF2000 has not seen a Cape-less season since 2010) but Pabst Racing and DEForce Racing look to take over as the series’ top teams (the two teams split the season victories to date, aside from the Indy GP sweep by Alex Quinn and VRD). Exclusive Autosport, Jay Howard Driver Development and Turn 3 Motorsport all have drivers in the top 10 in points, and with several USF Juniors teams indicating an interest in joining the formal Road to Indy ladder, the series looks strong going forward.
Driver watch: of course, the champion will not be the only driver graduating from USF2000 to Indy Pro 2000 next year. Funding question marks exist for both Rowe and d’Orlando, should they not win the scholarship. Beyond that, there’s always an intriguing blend of rookie drivers in USF2000 who have to determine whether they continue for a second year in the series, and veterans who have done two or more years and think they’re ready for the next step. Those drivers a little further down the championship order have one more weekend to impress and help determine their future to cap off the 2022 campaign.