ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The opening round of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship produced a thrilling battle around the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg. Canadian Thomas Nepveu led for 19 of the 20 laps for DEForce Racing, only to tangle wheels with Pabst Racing’s Myles Rowe as they fought side-by-side for the win on the entry to Turn Three on the final lap. The ensuing chaos left both cars heavily damaged against the retaining wall and enabled Rowe’s teammate, Jace Denmark, from Scottsdale, Ariz., to nip through and seal his maiden Road to Indy victory.
Billy Frazer, from Auckland, New Zealand, finished a career-best second for Exclusive Autosport, with Bijoy Garg, from Atherton, Calif., also securing his first-ever podium finish for DEForce Racing.
Nepveu, from Oka, Que., Canada, capped an incredibly tight qualifying session this morning by capturing his first Cooper Tires Pole Award, with the top eight drivers separated by a scant 0.1124 of a second.
Nepveu, who scored his first victory last year at Road America during his rookie season, maintained his advantage at the start of the Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg with Denmark, who qualified second, hot on his heels. Frazer contrived to jump from sixth on the grid to third at the first corner, followed initially by Garg before Rowe, from New York, N.Y., found a way past on the second lap.
Frazer came under increasing pressure from Rowe as the race progressed, until, on lap 12, Rowe slipped past under braking for Turn 10. Rowe, who became the first African-American to claim a Road to Indy victory when he triumphed last year at New Jersey Motorsports Park, quickly whittled down a deficit of over two seconds to the two leaders. He also set what was to stand as the fastest lap of the race as he closed onto the tail of the leading pair with four laps to go.
On lap 19, Rowe continued his impressive charge by driving around the outside of teammate Denmark to grasp second place in Turn One. Next time around he dived to the inside of Nepveu at the same corner. Rowe’s momentum carried him a little too deep into the corner which allowed Nepveu an opportunity to cut back to the right-hand side of Rowe as they sped, side-by-side, into the Turn Two left-hander. Unfortunately, through the ensuing ess-bend heading toward Turn Three, which leads onto one of the 1.8-mile track’s longest straightaways, the two cars interlocked wheels and crashed heavily. Their race was over. Instead, Denmark deftly negotiated the spinning Tatuus USF-22s to capture the race win.
Frazer, who had lost contact with the leaders, benefited from the carnage to claim second after a race-long scrap with Garg and preseason championship favorite Michael d’Orlando (Cape Motorsports), from Hartsdale, N.Y., who had been fastest during the early stages of qualifying before experiencing an electrical problem and slipping to seventh on the grid. The Cape Motorsports team worked wonders to replace the car’s wiring loom in time for the race, and d’Orlando repaid their diligence by securing 19 valuable championship points with his fourth-place finish.
Augie Pabst took home the PFC Award as the winning car owner, while Swedish rookie Viktor Andersson (Velocity Racing Development) claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from 19th on the grid to 13th at the checkered flag.
The green flag for the second round of the 18-race season, the Foundation Building Materials Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, will fly at 10:45 a.m. on Sunday, immediately prior to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES headline event. Denmark will have an opportunity to extend his initial championship lead by starting from the pole position, courtesy of his second-best lap during qualifying this morning proving quicker than his 18 rivals.
Provisional championship points after 1 of 18 races:
1. Jace Denmark, 30
2. Billy Frazer, 25
3. Bijoy Garg, 22
4. Michael d’Orlando, 19
5. Simon Sikes, 17
6. Spike Kohlbecker, 15
7. Trey Burke, 14
8. Jagger Jones, 13
9. Dylan Christie, 12
10. Christian Weir, 11
Jace Denmark (#23 Metal Works Custom Fabrication-Pabst Racing Tatuus USF-22): “I knew that if we were racing into Turn One after a big braking zone on the last laps, there was going to be some carnage. I’m gutted for Myles and I’m sorry we didn’t finish under green, but I’m happy to have the points. I was comfortable out here. We’ve had top-three pace all weekend, and this is exactly how we wanted to start the season. This was a little bit more difficult than last year, when we started at Barber – it’s a bit nerve-wracking to have the walls so close so it’s good to have the speed early. It helped me feel comfortable enough to really pressure Thomas and Myles, trying to force a mistake, and that’s what happened. It’s hard to find the balance between full offensive and just being in someone’s mirrors.”
Billy Frazer (#92 Corpay Cross-Border Solutions-Exclusive Autosport Tatuus USF-22): “I’m glad I have my rookie year here under my belt, so the first-time nerves were out of the way. We had an issue in practice and only got five laps, and then it turned into an overnight engine replacement so huge thanks to the team for such a great job. We have a lot of confidence here and I’m glad it’s finally my turn on the podium! The front group started on new tires so I was able to gain early and make some good moves, but I worried that I went too hard and wore out the tires. I tapped the wall and Myles made an awesome pass. It was a tough way to end, but when you’re going for the win, you have to take those chances.”
Bijoy Garg (#12 DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-22): “We knew we had good speed – we were right there in practice and just missed out on pole. We lacked speed early on so it wasn’t an easy race, struggling to keep the tires where we wanted them to be. But there was the crash in the end, so a podium’s a podium. It was easier to come here having raced here last year; I knew where the limits were and got into a rhythm quickly. And it helps to have confidence here with a year in the series under my belt!”