PORTLAND, Ore. – A dramatic pair of races today as part of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix saw championship contender Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing), from Scottsdale, Ariz., and impressive debutant Mac Clark (DEForce Racing), from Milton, Ont., Canada, claim victories at Portland International Raceway. But the overriding story at the end of the day concerned the three title protagonists: Denmark, his Pabst Racing teammate Myles Rowe, from New York, N.Y., and Cape Motorsports’ Michael d’Orlando, from Hartsdale, N.Y.
All three were involved in a variety of incidents and will head into tomorrow’s season finale separated by just seven points. At stake is a scholarship valued at $406,926 for the champion to graduate onto the next step of the Road to Indy, the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, in 2023.
Denmark won the opening race of the day, chased home by VRD Racing rookie Nikita Johnson, from Gulfport, Fla. Thomas Nepveu (DEForce Racing), from Oka, Que., Canada, finished third.
Denmark’s hopes of a sweep were halted by a mistake from Rowe at the first corner in the later race, which opened the door for a disbelieving Clark to take the victory. Fellow rookie Nicky Hays, from Huntington Beach, Calif., secured his best finish, second, for Cape Motorsports with New Zealander Billy Frazer completing the podium for Exclusive Autosport.
Denmark’s day began in perfect fashion as he snagged his third Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season, and second in succession, during qualifying this morning. Fourteen-year-old Johnson impressed again by posting the second fastest lap for VRD Racing, while Nepveu and points leader Rowe shared row two on the starting grid.
Denmark made sure he kept the door firmly closed under braking for the notorious Festival Curves complex of corners on the opening lap, and duly emerged in the lead ahead of Nepveu, a fast-starting Hays and Rowe as Johnson found himself shuffled down the order. A little farther back in the pack, Nicholas d’Orlando (younger brother of Michael), from Hartsdale, N.Y., fell victim to one of the almost inevitable concertina-style incidents which necessitated a full-course caution while his Exclusive Autosport Tatuus was removed from harm’s way.
Denmark held firm out in front at the resumption, and again following another brief caution after top rookie Jagger Jones (Cape Motorsports), from Scottsdale , Ariz., was involved in another incident at Turn Two. Rowe, who had moved up to third place on Lap Eight, overtook Nepveu at the final restart and soon began to pile the pressure on his race-leading teammate. At the same time, Johnson, having worked his way up from seventh, was catching both of them.
The pivotal moment of the race, and perhaps the championship, came with five laps remaining when Johnson edged alongside Rowe on the back straightaway. Rowe, unwilling to cede the position without a fight, ran wide onto the grass at the following chicane and slipped all the way to 13th.
Denmark reeled off the remaining laps to win comfortably from Johnson, who earned a career-best second, and Nepveu.
Clark, the USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires championship leader, capped an impressive USF2000 debut for DEForce Racing by finishing fourth ahead of New Zealander Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport). Danny Dyszelski, from Belmont. N.C., secured the best result in his young career for Jay Howard Driver Development in sixth, which was comfortably enough to claim his second Tilton Hard Charger Award of the season after having started 16th.
Denmark once again lined up on pole position for the evening race with Rowe alongside him at the front of the grid. Denmark again hugged the inside line for the run toward the Festival Curves, only for Rowe to misjudge his approach and ram heavily into the polesitter from behind. Rowe’s car speared high in the air before continuing without a front wing, while Denmark trailed into the pits with rear end damage.
Rowe continued for a couple of laps before also heading to the pit lane. His crew quickly replaced the front wing, leaving Rowe to resume, albeit a lap down to the leaders. He later set the fastest lap of the race, worth what could be a crucial championship point, as he battled on to a 16th-place finish after being assessed a 30-second penalty for avoidable contact.
Clark, who had started seventh, emerged from the first-corner melee in the lead and never looked back. Hays was equally surprised to find himself in second ahead of Frazer and the elder d’Orlando, who had been involved in an incident during the opening race. The top four positions remained unchanged until the finish, which occurred under a full-course caution after the young d’Orlando made contact with the barrier at Turn 10.
Ethan Ho (VRD Racing), capped a solid USF2000 debut by rising from 18th on the grid to 11th to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award.
Augie Pabst, along with Ernesto and David Martinez, took home the two PFC Awards as the winning car owners.
More fireworks are expected in tomorrow’s title-deciding, 25-lap finale which will see the green flag at 10:15 a.m.
Provisional championship points after 17 of 18 races:
1. Myles Rowe, 363
2. Jace Denmark, 357
3. Michael d’Orlando, 356
4. Jagger Jones, 275
5. Billy Frazer, 258
6. Thomas Nepveu, 255
7. Nicky Hays, 210
8. Christian Weir, 207
9. Bijoy Garg, 203
10. Spike Kohlbecker, 186
Jace Denmark (#23 Radford Racing School/Metal Works-Pabst Racing Tatuus USF-22): “I’m really happy to come away with the win. It was a hectic Turn One, first lap. The start was crazy. I got hit in the back, but came out on top. The yellows set us back a little bit but we stayed in the lead for the second restart. My teammate caught me, we had a little battle, but I brought it home for the win.”
Nikita Johnson (#17 Allen Exploration, LLC/Walker’s Cay-VRD Racing Tatuus USF-22): “It was an amazing race. We had a lot of pace in qualifying. In the race, I was just trying to send it in Turn One and not go off but that kind of happened and then I hit the pit limiter, which made me go back to about eighth or ninth. Thankfully, we had a couple of yellows and I worked my way up the pack and was able to make some passes, and then I gave Myles a fight. The first time I backed out of it; the second time in Turn 10 he rolled in with a lot of speed, hit the curbing in Turn 11 and went off. After that it was just hitting consistent laps and making sure Thomas didn’t catch up to me and then basically just cruised to second.”
Thomas Nepveu (#10 Cromwell/Karting Excellence/Home Hardware-DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-22): “It was a great race, really happy to finish third. I think we need to work harder to get more speed out of the car and more speed out of me to be able to fight for the wins in races two and three, but overall really happy for another podium and hopefully a top-five at the end of the year in the championship points.”
Mac Clark (#12 MIR Raceline USA/Sekanskin/Valkyrie AI-DEForce Racing Tatuus USF-22): “That was crazy, I was almost crying in the car. It was like the seas just parted for me going into Turn One. I knew I had to brake late and try to get some guys on the inside. There was contact between the two Pabst cars in front and I just took the road through that I had. After I secured the position, I was praying it wouldn’t go full course yellow, then it was just hit my marks and bring it home. I’m so pumped about this weekend. My main goal was to get experience, hopefully for next year, and we’ve done more than that. It’s been amazing. We only found out we were doing this race last Tuesday, it was such a last minute deal, so I’m so happy to be here and to get my first win. I can’t thank my dad enough, and everyone at DEForce Racing.”
Nicky Hays (#5 Touchstone Helicopters/Molecule Sports/Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-22): “That was a crazy start. To be honest, I feel like I let this victory get away. I let Mac up the inside when cars were flying everywhere, but that’s how it goes. To have such good speed and to come away with a podium is great, but I wish I’d had a few more laps to try to make a challenge. But I’m so happy to finally get on the podium. The Cape boys gave me such a great car – I wasn’t able to take advantage in Race One, but we did in Race Two. We had an electrical issue just before the race, so huge thanks to the guys at Elite Engines.”
Billy Frazer (#92 Corpay Cross-Border Solutions-Exclusive Autosport Tatuus USF-22): “Getting through Turn One is half the battle. I was on the receiving end in Race One and fell back when I had to go through the escape road. But bad luck is often followed by good luck. I had a game plan and I have to say, I think that delay gave some guys the chance to psyche themselves out. I did the best I could, we had great consistency so I’m very proud. We’ve had a bad run so I’m glad to turn that around for the team. It’s been a good day for Exclusive Autosport. I’m excited for the future – and for finishing the season on a high tomorrow.”