The eyes of the open-wheel auto racing world will be focused firmly on St. Petersburg, Fla., this weekend as the Verizon IndyCar Series and all three levels of the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires begin their new season on the challenging 1.8-mile, 14-turn downtown street circuit.
More than 50 ambitious drivers literally from around the globe will converge on the scenic waterside track, each and every one of them looking to make a strong start to their campaigns in pursuit of more than $3.5 million in scholarships and awards which will be up for grabs to assist in the graduation from the grassroots of the sport to the elite level in North America.
A brand-new Mazda-powered Tatuus USF-17 chassis has breathed fresh impetus into the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda, which has been providing opportunities for youngsters to gain their first taste of professional open-wheel racing for close to 30 years. The sleek, carbon fiber monocoque cars have attracted several new teams to the fray, although at Spring Training last week the ultra-successful St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports team once again set the pace with talented newcomer Oliver Askew.
After several years of trying to break into car racing following a hugely successful career in karting, Askew, 20, from Jupiter, Fla., suddenly has sprung to prominence after winning, firstly, a Team USA Scholarship last year, which allowed him to display his talents in Europe, then clinching the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout. Askew was fastest in five of the six sessions that comprised Spring Training, although a hint of the level of competition he will face came in the final period when no fewer than 15 cars were blanketed within just one second.
“I couldn’t be more excited to start my first full season in car racing and to start my first street race,” says Askew. “It’s going to be so cool to be in the same paddock as the Verizon IndyCar series. There will be a lot of buzz, but I must keep my head down and keep focusing on what’s important.”
Likely rivals this weekend to Cape Motorsports, which has won six consecutive USF2000 titles, will include Newman Wachs Racing, which is making a welcome return to the sport seven years after winning the Atlantic Championship. Dakota Dickerson, from San Diego, who won both a Team USA Scholarship and a Skip Barber/Mazda Scholarship in 2015, and rookie Andre Castro, a fellow Skip Barber grad from New York, N.Y., both proved fast at Homestead.
Pabst Racing, which swept both St. Petersburg races in 2016, will return with F1600/F4 graduate Calvin Ming, from Guyana, rapid Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay and Brazilian Lucas Kohl.
Team Pelfrey, with last year’s top rookie Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., impressive 14-year-old F1600 graduate Kaylen Frederick and Norway’s Ayla Agren, who became the first female to win an F1600 championship in 2014, are also expected to challenge, along with the Exclusive Autosport team, which enters the fray after several years of success in Canadian F1600, with established USF2000 front-runners Parker Thompson, from Red Deer, Alb., who finished a close second in last year’s title-chase and Australian Luke Gabin, plus Andersen Racing karting graduate Dev Gore.
Both USF2000 races – the Hi-Tide Kids on Track Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the Allied Building Products Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – will take place on Saturday, March 11, following a pair of qualifying sessions on Friday.