By Steve Wittich

Nikita Johnson navigates the streets of his hometown (St. Petersburg, Fla.) in the Allen Exploration, LLC/Walker’s Cay sponsored No. 17 from the Velocity Racing Development stable (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography)

Hometown driver, 14-year-old Nikita Johnson couldn’t have asked for a better season-opening race weekend. After standing on the second step of the podium yesterday, he made an impressive on-track pass for the lead, celebrating on the top of the podium with family and friends on Sunday morning.

Sunday’s USF2000 Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Nikita Johnson (Velocity Racing Development) celebrates on the top step of the podium with his family, friends and sponsors (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography)

“Yesterday, we were pretty fast,” said the pilot of the Allen Exploration, LLC/Walker’s Cay No. 17 (Velocity Racing Development). We made some improvements in my driving of the car. Coming into the race, I was third. I went to the outside and got into second and stayed behind Simon. The next lap, I went and did an over/under. After that, I was in the lead and just controlled the race the whole time, backing him up in some of the corners.

“I knew I needed to be in front to control the race and that’s what won it. The car was very fast and super consistent. I want to thank my friends and family for coming out, and all of my sponsors.”

The Floridian won three USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires races last year, giving him four total USF Pro Championship wins.

It is Velocity Racing Development’s fourth USF2000 win in its second year of competition.

Pabst Racing veteran and pole-sitter Simon Sikes pressured Johnson after losing the lead but had to settle for second place after a fourth-place finish yesterday. The 22-year-old pilot of the Group6Gear sponsored No. 22 added to his points haul by getting the bonus lap for the pole and setting the fastest lap of the race.

“Well, this was the most up-and-down weekend I have ever had in my racing career,” said the Georgian Sikes. “I started a half second up on the field in practice, went into qualifying and had the worse crash of my career by far. Pabst Racing did an excellent job to get the car back together for Saturday.

“We had to start deep in the field and drive it from 15th to fourth, but today was a much, much better day. I started from pole, had a great race with Nikita (Johnson) and ultimately came up short to finish P2 but had the fastest lap. I am thrilled with the weekend, even though it had its ups and downs, and am looking forward to getting back at it at Sebring.”

Simon Sikes, the pole-sitter on track at the USF2000 Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in his Group6Gear sponsored No. 22 from the Pabst Racing stable (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography)

Jay Howard Driver Development drivers Evagoras Papasavvas and Lochie Hughes spent the 20 laps of the Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg trading the final podium position, with Saturday’s winner Hughes eventually prevailing in the most entertaining fight of the race.

“The race was alright,” explained the Aussie after climbing from his JHDD/CSU One Cure/Lucas Oil Products/LHP sponsored No. 8. “I struggled a little bit to be honest. We were on an older tire, and everyone ahead had newer tires. I made some mistakes on the first lap, which made me drop some positions, so then I was trying to catch back up and make some passes.

“In the end, I finished third. It was tough with Evagoras behind me. It was a decent result. To take a pole, a win and a third from the first round of the year, I’m pretty happy.”

The distinct note of the 21 Elite Engine prepared 2.0L engines served as an 8 am alarm for the residents of downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., when the command to fire up the power plants to get the Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg underway.

The front row Sikes and Papasavvas brought the field to the starter’s stand on the front straight, but with a spread-out field, the start was waived off.

Future Star Racing’s Andre Castro, who was starting 8th, came to pit road on the first of two attempts at a start. Unfortunately, the New Yorker was forced to retire due to a mechanical issue.

The field did a much better job getting two-by-two on the second attempt. There was some contact back in the field, with one car getting airborne over the back of another. However, everybody kept it pointed forward and got cleanly through Turn 1 and the remainder of the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit.

Johnson, who started behind the pole-sitter, followed him closely, moving by outside front-row starter Papasavvas at the exit of the right-hand Turn 1.

With Papasavvas Turn 3 compromised, his Jay Howard Driver Development teammates Hughes and St-Jean made it three wide. With team owner and former USF2000 Jay Howard holding his breath, the trio sorted things out, and all emerged from Turn 4 safely.

Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport), who started outside the third row, got into Turn 10 too hot and found the run-off area. But, the 19-year-old kept going, recovering from 21st to 13th.

The running order after the first green flag lap was Sikes, Johnson, Papasavvas, Louka St-Jean (Jay Howard Driver Development), Hughes, Joey Brienza (Exclusive Autosport), Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport), Elliot Cox (Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development), Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport), Chase Gardner (Exclusive Autosport), Trey Burke (Future Star Racing), Al Morey (Jay Howard Driver Development), Mac Clark (DEForce Racing), Gordon Scully (Velocity Racing Development), Sam Corry (Velocity Racing Development), Danny Dyszelski (Velocity Racing Development), Zack Ping (Velocity Racing Development), Maxwell Jamieson (DEForce Racing), Avery Townes (Exclusive Autosport), and Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport).

Morey, from 17th to 12th and Scully, from 19th to 14th, were the biggest movers forward on the first lap.

On Lap 3, Ping locked up in Turn 1, banging into the side of his Velocity Racing Development teammate Corry, spinning both drivers. Ping, a 15-year-old Georgian, was penalized, serving a drive-thru penalty for avoidable contact. Corry had already lost his front wing but held on to finish an impressive 11th.

On the next lap, Johnson got a superb drive off the final corner, putting immense pressure on Sikes, who missed his braking point at the end of the 3,677-foot Runway 7/25 at the Albert Whited Airport, getting into the marbles and allowing Johnson through on the inside.

Between Lap 4 and 6, several drivers had issues coming to pit road, including the No. 1 of USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires driver champion Mac Clark (engine problem), Chase Gardner (front wing askew), Jacob Douglas (missing a front wing), and Louka St-Jean (mechanical issue). Gardner replaced a front wing and got back on the track.

On Lap 8, Cox lost a front wing while running 7th, coming to pit road to replace that critical part. The Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development crew got that wing changed, but the car did not sound great, coming to a stop in the Turn 10 run-off.

At the front of the field, Johnson had Sikes, Papasavvas and Hughes within 1.1 seconds at the halfway mark of the 20-lap race.

With eight laps remaining, Ping and Towns had an incident in Turn 8, with the No. 97 stopping behind the barriers and retiring from the race.

On that same lap, Saturday’s winner Hughes got around his teammate Papasavvas for the final spot on the podium.

Behind the top four, Brienza faced heavy pressure from Garciarce and Burke, losing the spot, dropping to seventh, and eventually coming to pit road and retiring with a mechanical issue.

With five laps remaining, Johnson, the only driver to start up front with fresh Cooper Tire slicks, had a 1+ second lead for the first time. Sikes had a 1.7 gap to third place Hughes, who was defending against his Jay Howard Driver Development teammate Papasavvas.

Over the next three laps, Sikes was much quicker than Johnson, cutting the gap to two-tenths of a second as they crossed the line with two laps remaining, going side-by-side in the Turn 1 brake zone, before the No. 22 filed in behind the No. 17 again.

Sikes had the better car in the corners, closing up on Johnson in the higher-speed corners. However, Johnson was getting a better drive off the corners, making a pass impossible for the pole-sitter. Johnson crossed under the checkered flag a half-second ahead of Sikes while his Velocity Racing Development crew cheered him from the pit wall.

Behind the front pair, Jay Howard Driver Development teammates Hughes and Papasavvas were waging a fantastic battle for the final spot on the podium.

On the last lap, American/Cypriot driver Papasavvas and the Jay Howard Driver Development No. 6 forced Saturday’s race winner into a mistake. The driver of the Jay Howard Driver Development No.8 tapped the wall at the exit of Turn 8 after losing rear grip. However, Hughes kept his foot in it for the final six corners, crossing the line two-tenths of a second ahead of Papasavvas to complete a successful weekend that included a pole, win, an additional podium, and the points lead.

Discount Tire Grand Prix of St. Petersburg unofficial results

117Nikita JohnsonVRD Racing20 LAPS
222Simon SikesPabst Racing-0.5627
38Lochie HughesJay Howard Driver Development-3.5172
46Evagoras PapasavvasJay Howard Driver Development-3.7147
510Jorge GarciarceDEForce Racing-17.5834
658Trey BurkeFuture Star Racing-18.0588
718Danny DyszelskiVRD Racong-27.7082
819Gordon ScullyVRD Racing-31.6273
912Maxwell JamiesonDEForce Racing-35.9222
107Al MoreyJay Howard Driver Development-50.5005
1114Sam CorryVRD Racing-53.4696
1293Avery TownsExclusive Autosport-71.3989
1392Nicholas d’OrlandoExclusive Autosport-71.6354
1495Chase GardnerExclusive Autosport-3 LAPS
1590Jacob DouglasExclusive Autosport-3 LAPS
1691Joey BrienzaExclusive Autosport– 5 LAPS
1797Zack PingVRD Racing-10 LAPS
1867Elliot CoxSarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development-11 LAPS
199Louka St.-JeanJay Howard Driver Development-14 LAPS
201Mac ClarkDEForce Racing-15 LAPS
2156Andre CastroFuture Star Racing– 18 LAPS

The series is back in action at Sebring International Raceway on March 25-26.