Only a few days to go until the 2021 Road to Indy season kicks off at Barber Motorsports Park. Our editor-at-large and resident Road to Indy writer Jeroen Demmendaal highlights some of the potential stars in USF2000 that deserve extra attention this year.
By Jeroen Demmendaal
As I wrote in last year’s preview, while Indy Pro 2000 and especially Indy Lights usually provide a pretty good window into who is heading for the NTT IndyCar Series, that is slightly trickier in USF2000, the first step on the Road to Indy ladder. Fields in USF are often bigger than in the other two series and this really is the proving ground where the youngest talents test their ambitions to reach IndyCar against reality.
Unfortunately we didn’t end up with the 28 or so cars that looked likely somewhat earlier this winter, as a number of programmes did not come together as planned. For example, Millennium Motorsport, a new team that aimed to enter USF this year, reportedly saw their planning affected by the pandemic and is looking at 2022 instead. Velocity Racing Development said in January that they were planning for two cars, but showed up with only Erik Evans at Spring Training. And so on.
Having said that, the interest to join the grid from these and other teams was definitely there and shows the growth potential of the series. Moreover, the 23 full time entries that we have now add up to a very solid field, which is still bigger than in the last two years. Finally, all those sources that we meet in dark parking garages for insider info tell us that some drivers are still working to find the required funding to be on the grid at some point this year, so we might hit 25 cars at some events.
As so often, the USF season will be a battle between the rookies, some of whom are really coming fresh out of go-karts, and a class of sophomore or even third-year drivers who really need success if they want to continue climbing the ladder. How that battle plays out is anyone’s guess – last year Christian Rasmussen and Dudu Barrichello clearly benefited from being sophomores, but in 2018 and 2019 rookies like Kyle Kirkwood, Rasmus Lindh, Braden Eves and Hunter McElrea ruled the school.
Which veterans for victory?
Start off with the ‘veterans’. Since half of last year’s top-ten in the standings has moved on to Indy Pro 2000, it makes sense to look at the other half when considering this year’s championship battle. Michael d’Orlando and Christian Brooks finished fourth and fifth respectively, despite managing only one win each. Brooks has resigned with Exclusive Autosport, while d’Orlando stays with Cape Motorsports. Especially Brooks looked very strong in Spring Training, so keep an eye on him.
Another obvious candidate for the top spot is Josh Green. The 18-year-old is still awaiting his first win, but has switched from Cape to Turn 3 Motorsports, run by Irish former racer Peter Dempsey. Green demonstrated a lot of consistency last year, finishing in the top-ten in most races. In a series where the racing can get hairy sometimes, that might be the key to success. Other sophomores to keep tabs on are Californian Prescott Campbell and 15-year-old Oregon spring chicken Josh Pierson.
A driver in search of redemption is Brazilian youngster Kiko Porto. More so than others, his season was heavily affected by the pandemic last year as he was forced to miss several races due to travel restrictions. Despite those setbacks he scored four podiums and a win, and the 17-year-old is back with DEForce Racing this year. It’s his third year with the team (they finished second overall in the 2019 US F4 championship together), so expect this well-gelled unit to be right up front.
Then there are two third-year drivers who face a make-or-break season. Yuven Sundaramoorthy joined Pabst Racing last year in the hope of finding success, but he was unable to improve on his 2019 finish of twelfth overall and claimed that spot again in 2020. He has resigned with Pabst and while he is still only 18 years old, he will want to show significant progress this year.
The same applies to Nolan Siegel. At 16, he is even younger than his fellow American and has time on his side, but he too is starting his third year in USF2000. Last year he finished thirteenth overall – but, while only a slight improvement from fifteenth in 2019, he also scored two podium finishes. Consistency will be his main aim for this year, as well as that first win with new team DEForce.
An exciting rookie class
This year’s USF field also contains plenty of rookies. For several of them this is their first taste of open-wheel racing, while others will spend the year adjusting to a new car and new tracks. In terms of go-karting aces, Jace Denmark stands out. A fairly late addition to the Pabst Racing line-up, the 16-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona impressed many with his speed at Spring Training and was the fastest rookie there.
Cape Motorsports also brings in two karting stars, in the form of Canada’s Thomas Nepveu and young Illinoisian Evan Stamer. The American has joined Cape’s new set-up together with Ignite Autosport, which aims to provide a ladder straight from karting into the Road to Indy. Meanwhile, Québec’s Nepveu already kickstarted his open-wheel career last year, by making one appearance in Mexican F4 and immediately claiming a win and two podiums that weekend.
The rookie class also sees two new Kiwi’s joining the Road to Indy. Peter Vodanovich has signed with Jay Howard Driver Development (JHDD), coming with a strong pedigree in the Toyota Racing Series and other New Zealand series. The same goes for Billy Frazer, who will run with Exclusive Autosport. Frazer is the reigning New Zealand Formula Ford champion, winning half of all races last year.
In terms of graduates from the various lower open-wheel series in the US: Spike Kohlbecker is the other driver in the Cape/Ignite set-up and finished third in US F4 last year, Dylan Christie has signed with Turn 3 after finishing second in US F1600 in 2020 and 16-year-old Ely Navarro joins DEForce as the reigning champion in the Lucas Oil Formula Car series. Jackson Lee, the son of NBC broadcaster Kevin Lee, also graduates from F1600 and will run with Jay Howard.
Finally, this year’s grid counts two teams completely new to the Road to Indy that deserve some extra attention. The much-publicised Force Indy team, supported by Team Penske, will field a car for Myles Rowe and pre-season form has been encouraging. The other new team, which has flown a bit more under the radar, is a new outfit formed by dirt track racer Joe Dooling. 16-year-old Trey Burke, who earned his spurs on the dirt but also raced in F1600 last year, is the sole driver.
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.