As the 2020 Road to Indy season is about to get underway on the Streets of St Petersburg this weekend, our editor-at-large and resident Road to Indy writer Jeroen Demmendaal highlights some of the potential stars in Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 that deserve extra attention in 2020.
By Jeroen Demmendaal
Indy Lights – Can Kyle Kirkwood make it three in a row?
It is easy to be dismissive of Indy Lights, given the car counts in recent years. But despite those small fields, it still serves its purpose in delivering the next generation of IndyCar drivers. Go figure – the 2018 and 2019 seasons both saw less than ten full-time competitors, but promoted four drivers that are expected to be stars of the future: Colton Herta, Patricio “Pato” O’Ward, Oliver Askew and Rinus VeeKay. The news for the class of 2020 is equally positive: Indy Lights is set for another exciting title battle featuring some of America’s most promising talents.
As per usual, Andretti Autosport has signed up names that will feature on anyone’s shortlist of title candidates. Second-year driver Robert Megennis (20) showed some flashes of quality during 2019 and was a solid member of the ‘best of the rest’ group behind Askew and VeeKay. Nevertheless, he will have to demonstrate growth this season if he is to make a serious claim for a future of IndyCar. Like VeeKay, he ended the 2019 season strongly and will now need to carry that form into 2020.
The more obvious championship choice for a gambling (wo)man would be Kyle Kirkwood, the reigning Indy Pro 2000 champion. It is difficult to overstate his qualities: one fellow observer told me this winter that Kirkwood “is like Pato, Rinus and Oliver all put into one”. That is a pretty accurate description for the 21-year old, who in recent years has swept every series he competed in.
In the last three years, Kirkwood secured back-to-back titles in US Formula 4 (2017), F3 Americas, USF2000 (both in 2018) and Indy Pro 2000 (2019). The manner in which he won those titles is possibly even more astonishing, with 45 wins and 55 podiums in 69 races. No wonder Kirkwood is a sky-high favourite for the Indy Lights title this year.
Another driver with obvious title aspirations is young Swede Rasmus Lindh (18), who has signed with Belardi Auto Racing. He only narrowly lost out on the Indy Pro 2000 title last year, but questions remain whether Lindh is not moving too fast through the Road to Indy. You could argue that one extra year in USF 2000 would have given him a title, while another season would probably have seen him dominate the Pro 2000 field in 2020.
However, Lindh remains determined to progress higher up the ladder every year. It is possible that third time’s a charm for Lindh, but it is equally probable that just like in USF and Pro 2000, he will just come up short for the title on his debut. The Gothenburg youngster has solid backing though, with partners including hometown businesses Volvo CE and SKF as well as Chicago Pneumatic.
His team-mate at Belardi, experienced second-year driver Toby Sowery, should also be expected to play a role in the title battle. The 23-year old Brit had an encouraging rookie year in 2019, scoring one win and three podiums on the way to third overall in the championship. While he couldn’t keep up with Askew and VeeKay, he proved to be a more consistent rookie than Megennis and ended the year on a high. Whether Belardi can provide both Lindh and Sowery with a car good enough for the lead weekend in weekend out remains to be seen, but these two are definite dark horses.
Elsewhere in the field young Chicagoan David Malukas deserves attention, as he prepares for a second season with HMD Motorsport. Like Megennis, Malukas was decent last year in his first Lights campaign and at only 18 years of age, he is still very young and has time on his side. Since the team formerly known as BN Racing became HMD Motorsport last fall, now carrying the name of his father’s HMD trucking business, the team sold its USF and Pro 2000 equipment and instead focuses fully on Indy Lights. That should help David putting up a better fight against the Andretti drivers, and more regular podium finishes and a first win will be his targets this year.
And then there is Santiago Urrutia, back from the doldrums of European touring cars. The 23-year old Uruguayan, whose talent is undeniable, carries the weight of a very small racing nation on his shoulders. With a little bit more luck he would have been an IndyCar driver already (he was one of three drivers who saw a contract with Harding Steinbrenner evaporate), but now he is back for another shot at the Lights title and that important scholarship. He was second overall in 2016 and 2017, and finished third in 2018, so the potential is there. But as with Malukas, the question is: can HMD compete with Andretti? The answer to that question will likely define Santi’s career.
Indy Pro 2000: is this Parker Thompson’s year?
Forget new IndyCar-driver Dalton Kellett: the most promising Canadian at the moment is 22-year old Parker Thompson. A perennial struggler in terms of sponsorship, the young man from Alberta has been close to disappearing from open-wheel racing a number of times, but not for a lack of ability. In 2018 he gave VeeKay a serious run for his money in Pro 2000 and beat Askew to second overall, while last year he took first-year team Abel Motorsport to third overall. Bottom line is: Thompson is way too good to be spending his driving days in Canadian touring cars and it would be great if more Canadian firms start supporting his career already. Either way, keep your eyes peeled for this one.
The Pro 2000 field also contains a number of graduates from last year’s USF2000 championship, with reigning champion Braden Eves (20) one of the most exciting prospects. The young American started the season in the best way possible, sweeping the first two weekends, but then dropped back somewhat as others started to find their feet. Nevertheless, a strong finish to the season in Portland and Laguna Seca helped him secure the title, and Eves will benefit from landing a seat with experienced powerhouse Exclusive Autosport.
Two other USF2000 graduates are joining their team on the way up, as Pabst Racing competes in Pro 2000 for the first time this season. Arguably the strongest of that duo is New Zealander Hunter McElrea, last year’s USF2000 runner-up, who stays with Pabst following last year’s run with the team. Like Eves, 20-year old McElrea is a star in the making with bags of raw talent and consistency: he won four times and finished on the podium 12 times in 16 races in 2019, so expect McElrea to be a significant factor in this year’s title race.
His team mate, Colin Kaminsky (20), was second-fastest in that October test at Indianapolis, and graduates as the overall number four of last year’s USF2000 campaign. He will have his work cut out: despite half a dozen podium finishes, Kaminsky didn’t win a single USF race in 2019 and might have benefited from another year in USF2000. Nevertheless, he elected to continue climbing the ladder, and has a very strong yardstick in McElrea to measure himself against. At the very least, we can expect him to be top fit: apart from being a racing driver, Kaminsky also is an ice hockey goalie at the University of Pittsburgh.
They left it fairly late, but Juncos Racing is back this year as well – at least in Pro 2000. Sting Ray Robb, the young man from Idaho with easily the coolest name in the paddock, returns for a second season with the team after finishing fourth overall in 2019. It’s easy to forget since he is still only 18 years old, but this will be Robb’s fourth season in Pro 2000: he skipped USF2000 altogether and made his debut in 2017 as a 15-year old. That also implies he will have to make a breakthrough in 2020, if he doesn’t want his career to stall.
Two other drivers to follow with extra interest are Swedish driver Lucas Petersson and W Series prospect Sabré Cook. 18-year old Petersson joins Pro 2000 following stints in British Formula 3 and New Zealand’s Toyota Racing Series, and adds some international flavour to the series by securing a top seat with last year’s title winners RP Motorsport. Getting used to a new car and new tracks will be his primary challenge this year.
Cook, meanwhile, will run a part-time programme and appear at six race weekends together with long-term partners Team Benik. The 25-year old engineering student last appeared on the Road to Indy in the 2018 USF2000 championship, which she then followed with a credible W Series campaign throughout 2019. It will be interesting to see how much she has grown as a driver compared to 2018, as she continues her quest to become the next female IndyCar-driver.
USF2000: can Christian Rasmussen live up to expectations?
While Indy Pro 2000 and especially Indy Lights usually provide a pretty good window into who is heading for the IndyCar Series, that is slightly trickier in USF2000, the first rung on the Road to Indy ladder. Fields are often bigger than in the other two series, but this, if anything, is the proving ground where the youngest talents test their ambitions to reach IndyCar against reality.
If there is one obvious favourite for the title this year, it is 19-year old Christian Rasmussen. He finished third overall in 2019, and all his direct competitors (Eves, McElrea, Kaminsky) have moved on. So in a way the young Dane has the field pretty much to his own, but the flipside is that a lot of people will simply expect him to succeed and win the championship. However, if he can continue his form from the second half of the 2019 season, that shouldn’t be a problem; he finished on the podium in seven of the last eight races.
‘Sons of’ always draw a lot of interest, and that is no different with Eduardo “Dudu” Barrichello. The 18-year old son of former F1 star Rubens had a solid debut season in USF2000 in 2019, but was never quite able to mix it up with the front runners and finished the year in eleventh with seven top-10 finishes in fifteen races. An important factor this year is that he has switched teams, exchanging DE Force for powerhouse Pabst Racing. If that combination starts to gel properly, 2020 could turn out to be a very good year for young Dudu.
Another young man that comes with some expectations is young Australian Cameron Shields. The 19-year old ran a part-time USF campaign in 2019, in which he scored a win and another podium, and now returns for a full season with Legacy Autosport. Shields is a native of Toowoomba, the same town as his mentor Will Power, and was the 2018 runner-up in the Australian F3 championship.
Apart from these somewhat older drivers, there is also a contingent of ultra-young competitors of interest. The most exciting of this group is 16-year old Brazilian Francisco “Kiko” Porto. After finishing second in American F4 with DE Force, he now graduates to the team’s USF2000 outfit.
Another driver that deserves a special mention is Reece Gold. Only 15 years of age, the young American debuted in USF already last season and finished tenth overall for Cape Motorsport. This year, he is aiming for podiums and wins, as he should when driving a championship-winning car.
Finally, two other youngsters are also embarking on what is already their second USF campaign despite their tender age: Nolan Siegel (15) and Jack William Miller (16) finished fifteenth and sixteenth overall respectively, but have a full season of experience with the car and tracks under their belt. Both will want to start challenging for top-10 finishes consistently this year.
If you want to follow the Road to Indy sessions and races this year, make sure to download the Road to Indy TV app to follow your favourite driver. This year, Road to Indy TV is planning a bigger-than-ever daily live show for every race weekend – and if you don’t have access to the app, you can also go to the Road to Indy social channels or the Roadtoindy.tv website. (Please note: in the US, Indy Lights broadcasts are a part of the NBC Gold subscriber package)