By Steve Wittich

Lochie Hughes, the pilot of the CSU | One Cure / Lucas Oil Products / LHP sponsored No. 8 celebrates his first USF2000 win with team owner Jay Howard (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography

A pole-to-checkered flag victory in only his first street circuit and fourth USF2000 Championship Presented By Cooper Tires race was the perfect way for Jay Howard Driver Development rookie Lochie Hughes to begin the 2023 chase for the $433,200 scholarship.

“I couldn’t ask for a better race,” said the 20-year-old from Gold Coast, Australia. “I started on pole and built a gap on the first lap and just managed the race really. I didn’t make any mistakes.

“I probably could have pushed a bit harder, but the goal was just to get the win. I sacrificed a starting position for tomorrow, but I am over the moon to get this race win. This (the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg) is my first time on a street circuit. It takes a little bit to get used to it, but I am loving it.”

The 2019 Australian Young Driver Of The Year, who didn’t race during the 2020 and 2021 seasons, moved to the United States last year, winning six races on the way to the F4 United States Championship Powered By Honda with Jay Howard Driver Development.

Hughes’ Jay Howard Driver Development teammate Evagoras Papasavvas made a pair of on-track passes to move from his fourth-place starting position to the second step of the podium.

The 15-year-old karting standout showed some late pace during a partial USF2000 campaign and missed the early part of the 2022 season while recovering from a karting incident.

The BodyWise / Tiger Natural Gas / Ares Elite Sports Vision sponsored No. 6 of Evagoras Papasavvas exits Turn 1 of the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit on the way to a second place finish (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography)

“I was in fourth for a little bit. I had a pretty decent start and didn’t lose or gain any positions,” said the Ohio resident after getting out of the BodyWise / Tiger Natural Gas / Ares Elite Sports Vision sponsored No. 6. “I stayed in fourth and got as close as I could and made the move for third. I followed second place around for a bit and kept the pressure on, and he made a mistake. I took advantage of that mistake and got myself into second and ran a smooth race from there. It was a great way to start the season.”

Rounding out the podium was the hometown driver Nikita Johnson, pilot of the Allen Exploration, LLC / Walker’s Cay / PSA Check / Tiger Precision Products sponsored No. 17 from the Velocity Racing Development stable. The 14-year-old started on used tires, while those around him began on fresh Cooper Tire slicks, making his chore of staying with the leaders tough.

“The race was pretty good, explained Johnson. “We ended up P3 after starting second. We lacked a bit of pace in the very beginning of the race, but towards the middle we were pretty fast, and I was trying to catch Lochie. Then the tires started falling off because we were running old tires, and third place caught up to me, and I fell back. I tried to catch him, but at that point, my tires were pretty cooked, and I just tried my best to keep third.”

Veteran Simon Sikes, who dominated spring training and the first practice on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit, drove his way from 15th to fourth after the Pabst Racing crew worked hard to get his Group6 sponsored No. 22 back together after a hard crash in Turn 3 during qualifying.

Sam Corry, the driver of the Red Line Oil / Stilo Helmets / Simpson Race Products / Punch’d Energy / Windsor Windows & Doors sponsored No. 14, started third and was the second Velocity Racing Development driver in the top five.

The front row of Hughes and Johnson brought a perfectly formed field in rows of two to the first green flag of the 2023 USF2000 season.

Hughes was the first driver to Turn 1, getting cleanly through the dangerous first turn ahead of Johnson, who had Papasavvas on his outside. Corry, who started beside the Jay Howard Driver Development driver, could take advantage, sliding through on the inside of the No. 6 to grab third as the field entered the narrow and tricky Turn 3.

Lochie Hughes (No. 8), Nikita Johnson (No. 17) and Evagoras Papasavvas (No. 6) go three wide to start the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Photo credit: Gavin Baker Photography)

The field made it cleanly to Turn 4 before a pair of single car incidents involving Zack Ping (Velocity Racing Development) and Avery Towns (Exclusive Autosport).

Ping, who started eighth and Towns, who started 21st, both got wide at the exit of the turn, catching the tire barrier with their left rear tires, bringing out the yellow flag for the 13th time in 27 USF2000 races on the 1.8-mile, 14-turn St. Petersburg street circuit.

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

The race restarted to begin lap four, with Hughes getting to Turn 1 first and the remainder of the field filing in behind him, nose to tail. Papasavvas looked to the inside of Corry in the slippery Turn 4 braking zone but thought better of it, quickly filing back in line.

Sikes, the dominant pilot in spring training and practice at St. Petersburg before a qualifying crash, gained six spots in the first four corners and moved into eighth on the fifth lap.

On Lap 7, Papasavvas broke deeper on the slippery inside line in Turn 1, getting his car turned and moving past Corry into the final podium position. The No. 14 Velocity Racing Development lost another spot, promoting Burke to fourth.

At the halfway point of the 20-lap race, Hughes’ lead over Johnson was 1.4 seconds, with Papasavvas, Burke, Corry, Castro, Sikes, d’Orlando, Douglas and Brienza rounding out the top ten.

Behind the top three, Burke faced a ton of pressure from the drivers running fifth through tenth.

On Lap 13, Corry got back around Burke for fourth, and Sikes got by Castro for sixth.

Hughes’ lead was still a comfortable 1.6 seconds with five laps remaining, but Johnson faced pressure from Hughes’ Jay Howard Driver Development teammate Papasavvas.

On the next lap, the second spot changed hands, with the No. 6 getting around the No. 17 of Johnson after a mistake by the hometown driver. Also making moves was Sikes to fifth, Clark to tenth, and Gargiarce to 13th.

Sikes’ march to the front continued, getting around Corry for fourth, but he was five seconds off the podium.

On the next to last lap, three drivers – Burke to fifth, d’Orlando to seventh and Douglas to eighth – gained spots.

Burke’s up-and-down race continued on the last lap, with the Future Star Racing driver falling to seventh after losing spots to Corry and d’Orlando on the final lap.

Hughes’ final gap to his Jay Howard Driver Development teammate was 2.4 seconds, with the top 11 within 13 seconds of the leader.

Sikes ended up gaining 11 positions and also set the fastest lap of the race, which will also give him the coveted pole for tomorrow’s race.

After the first lap single car incidents, the youngest drivers kept things clean, with 19 of the 21 starters finishing on the lead lap.

18Lochie HughesJay Howard Driver Development20 LAPS
26Evagoras PapasavvasJay Howard Driver Development-2.4846
317Nikita JohnsonVRD Racing-3.6408
422Simon SikesPabst Racing-7.4802
514Sam CorryVRD Racing-10.7616
692Nicholas d’OrlandoExclusive Autosport-11.8056
758Trey BurkeFuture Star Racing-12.3192
890Jacob DouglasExclusive Autosport-12.7926
956Andre CastroFuture Star Racing-13.751
1091Joey BrienzaExclusive Autosport-13.8853
111Mac ClarkDEForce Racing-14.5706
1295Chase GardnerExclusive Autosport-15.7354
1310Jorge GarciarceDEForce Racing-16.0988
149Louka St.-JeanJay Howard Driver Development-17.2467
157Al MoreyJay Howard Driver Development-23.0317
1618Danny DyszelskiVelocity Racing Development-23.0327
1712Maxwell JamiesonDEForce Racing-25.7118
1867Elliot CoxSarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development-27.3385
1919Gordon ScullyVRD Racing-28.7365
2097Zack PingVRD Racing-20 LAPS
2193Avery TownsExclusive Autosport-20 LAPS