The entire Mazda Road to Indy contingent was present for the IZOD IndyCar Series season opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg this past weekend, the Cooper Tires USF2000 National Championship Powered by Mazda, the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, and the Firestone Indy Lights series. The Pro Mazda drivers were the only one to escape the carnage that plagued every other series on the track that weekend. For Pro Mazda and USF2000, this weekend was their second race weekend of the season, and we’re starting to see the two championship battle take shape.
Once again, the USF2000 series had the most representation of the weekend with 30 cars taking the green flag on Saturday for Race 1 and 28 cars on Sunday for Race 2. There were 31 cars entered, but in the first practice session, Andrew Hobbs slammed his ArmsUp Motorsports Van Diemen into the wall injuring his hand.
Qualifying for Race 1 went more or less as expected with the two strongest racers in the Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing, Scott Hargrove and Neil Alberico, taking P1 and P2, respectively. Other strong drivers from Sebring, Andretti Autosport’s Garrett Grist and Belardi Auto Racing’s Danilo Estrela really struggled to find pace during qualifying. Grist found himself starting back in 28th and Estrela started Saturday’s race in a bit better position, ninth, but still far behind where he’s been accustom to running.
The first race of the weekend saw considerable carnage. The combination of a narrow street course and a large field of inexperience racers lead to a lot of the problems. Nick Andries, who after a mechanical DNF at Sebring, really needed two solid results this weekend to have a real shot at the championship. Unfortunately, a Rule #1 Failure ended both his day and that of his teammate’s, Jeroen Slaghekke. By the way, for those of you new to my commentary in articles here or on our podcast, Rule #1: “Don’t take out your teammate.”
“It may have looked easy but driving on the streets was not at all easy with the walls everywhere. It was a pretty big challenge. I can’t thank the Cape Motorsports team enough. They gave me a great car. It was really close in qualifying and we got through Turn One, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.” — Scott Hargrove, #38 Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing
Continuing with the Canadian theme that struck the weekend, Edmontonian and JDC MotorSports driver Stefan Rzadzinski secured his first USF2000 podium with a third-place finish, and Afterburner Autosport’s Wyatt Gooden finished second after a great start and smart racecraft early in the race.
Hargrove picked up right where he left off in spite of the cooler, wetter conditions for Race 2 on Sunday morning, taking the lead on the start and never looking back until the checkers 21-laps later. With the new rules in place this year for Race 2 qualifying, Alberico was able to take the outside Row 1 position alongside his teammate, but an issue with his brakes would force him to the pits and out of contention. Neil would complete nine race laps before retiring. This kills his championship hopes for this season. One win and three DNFs sets him all the way back in 11th and 87 points behind Hargrove. Gooden’s two second-place finishes this week along with two top-ten finishes at Sebring have placed him second in the championship with 79 points, albeit a very distant second to Hargrove’s 122 points.
“We had a great start. It was a lot cleaner than yesterday. It was good to see an entire green flag race on a street circuit and that tells you a lot about the quality of the field this year. I am just really happy to have two seconds out of the two races, and we learned a lot as a team. Overall, it was a great weekend for us.” — Wyatt Gooden, #17 Afterburner Autosport
The next event for the USF2000 drivers will be on the 5/8-mile oval at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis for the Night Before the 500. For many of the young drivers it will be their first time on an oval track, but it will be old hat for Belardi Auto Racing’s Peter Portante. If you missed Episode 177 of the OpenPaddock.net Podcast, Peter comes to USF2000 having a background in racing Legends cars and late-model modifieds. Lucas Oil Raceway should be right up his alley.