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 Indy Pro 2000 that deserve extra attention this year.
The build-up of a Road to Indy weekend is one of my favourite things in racing. Each of the three series have something special to offer and as the weekend progresses, you get to see talented drivers at different stages of their development. The racing in USF2000 is always a little bit scrappy, while Indy Lights races are usually pretty polished but razor-edged, as the cream of the crop battles it out for that final step up towards the NTT IndyCar Series.
In between there sits Indy Pro 2000. Here, drivers already have some experience with open-wheel racing and most know the tracks they compete on, but some of them still need to lose their rougher edges if they want to make it all the way to Indy Lights. Technically speaking, Pro is familiar territory for USF graduates: the Indy Pro 2000 car has more power and a different wing set compared to the USF2000 machine, but otherwise it is basically the same Tatuus chassis.
This has an obvious benefit for teams, as their cost base remains manageable. This is also why several teams run cars in both USF and Pro, whereas Lights is a more specialised business. For drivers, meanwhile, their progress on the Road to Indy is a gradual one: a bit more power and a bit more grip to get used to, but most drivers who do well in USF also achieve success in Pro. With that in mind, this year’s field of 17 drivers offers up a very interesting mix.
Pabst vs Exclusive
The most obvious starting point when taking stock of the field is last year’s rookie class. And while I am not a betting man, it would not surprise me if either Pabst Racing or Exclusive Autosport provides this year’s champion. Artem Petrov finished fourth overall last year and has seen all three drivers that finished ahead (Robb, DeFrancesco, Frost) graduate to Indy Lights. Numerical logic makes him the next champion, but of course, that is not quite how racing works.
Still, the Russian scored two wins and five additional podiums last year and will be a force to be reckoned with. The same goes for his Exclusive teammate Braden Eves, who won the 2019 USF2000 championship and had a decent start to last year, until that insane crash at the Indianapolis road course in September. Eves spent the rest of 2020 recovering from his injuries, but the talent we saw in 2019 is still there. He also has the benefit of consistency, starting his second season with Exclusive.
The man he narrowly beat to the USF title in 2019, New Zealander Hunter McElrea, is another clear candidate for the title. He had a very rough start to the 2020 season in Road America and Mid-Ohio, but buckled down and went on to score five podium places before taking his first win at the final race in St Petersburg. Like Eves, 21-year-old McElrea is a star in the making with bags of raw talent and he, too, has opted for consistency by resigning with Pabst.
His teammate is a slightly less safe bet for top honours. On his day, Colin Kaminsky can compete for podiums, as he did two times in the last three races of 2020. But a lack of consistency is his Achilles heel and something he’ll want to improve on this year. For a fourth title candidate, look at Mexican Manuel Sulaiman instead. A winner of two races last year, he has switched to Indy Pro powerhouse Juncos Racing. To underline his ambitions, he made sure to be the fastest overall in Spring Training.
The USF graduates
As if these names aren’t promising enough, the class of graduates from USF2000 also bursts with talent. Another Juncos signing, Reece Gold, collected two wins and eight additional podiums on his way to third overall last year. Still only 16 years old, Gold made a huge jump in his development last year and is more than ready for the next level. Whether a title bid is on the cards in his rookie year remains to be seen, but the young Floridian is clearly a star of the future.
Last year’s USF champion Christian Rasmussen is another name to watch. The Dane dominated the early proceedings in 2020, before hitting a mid-season dip in form and luck. He recovered well and won the title quite comfortably, continuing a career streak in which he has never finished lower than third in a championship. His tie-up with JHDD has been highly successful, so it’s no surprise that he stays with the team as it graduates to Pro and was among the front runners in Spring Training.
Of the other USF graduates, Jack William Miller and Cameron Shields are probably the most promising prospects. They finished eighth and ninth overall in 2020 respectively and will mostly be looking to learn this year, Miller graduating with his father’s team. Australian Shields appears in a single DEForce Racing car, which has considerably scaled back its Pro programme this year. Fun fact: he is a native of Toowoomba, the same town as IndyCar star Will Power.
The Fittipaldi name returns
Apart from these dedicated Road to Indy drivers, the field also includes additions from elsewhere. The most prominent of those must be Enzo Fittipaldi. His record so far is a bit of a mixed bag: he was a star in Italian and German F4 and Formula Regional, but had a decidedly average season in FIA F3 last year and left the Ferrari Driver Academy. Signing with Italian squad RP Motorsport will help him get up to speed (2019 title winners with Kyle Kirkwood), plus there is that Andretti Autosport link. Either way, it will be interesting to see how the Brazilian-American gets on.
His teammate, Enaam Ahmed, is another refugee from FIA F3 and another question mark. He was a winner in British and Japanese F3, but his campaign with Carlin Buzz last year came to an early end after disappointing results. His budget doesn’t cover a full season yet, but that is work in progress.
Finally there are two teenagers that are high on my radar. The third Juncos entry is driven by Kyffin Simpson, an intriguing 16-year-old talent from Barbados with a wealthy family backing his career. Simpson is doubling up this year with a Formula Regional Americas campaign, where he swept the first weekend in March and won all three races, so he will get plenty of track time in 2021.
That also applies to Hunter Yeany, a 15-year-old American who dominated the competition in US F4 last year to such an extent that he skipped the last round and still won the title. Like Simpson, he will run both Indy Pro 2000 and Formula Regional Americas this year, sticking with Velocity Racing Development for both series.
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.