As of this year, the Road to Indy has informally expanded to four stages, with the creation of USF Juniors. A direct competitor to the F4 US Championship, the series is designed to be a stepping stone towards USF2000 for young racers taking their first steps into open-wheel racing. In this exclusive season preview, F1 Feeder Series tells you what to expect!
By Jeroen Demmendaal
It may not be a formal part of the Road to Indy, but in practice it is: as of this year, the feeder series ladder towards the NTT IndyCar Series has a new entry level in the form of USF Juniors. It’s run by the same people that organise the Road to Indy and the winner of USF Juniors gets a scholarship that smooths the way towards a follow-up campaign in USF2000. Additionally, the Lucas Oil School of Racing will give its champion a scholarship for a season in USF Juniors going forward.
Mirroring the mindset behind other new initiatives such as the GB4 Series in the UK, USF Juniors seeks to fill the gap between go-karting and USF2000, until now the first step on the Road to Indy ladder. While USF2000 was originally envisioned to be the first step for young drivers, the budgets required are sizable and the level of competition has become razor sharp in past years. In USF Juniors, however, budgets should stick a lot closer to the USD 100,000 mark.
As first reported by F1 Feeder Series last September, USF Juniors also looks to launch a smart and cost-effective ‘three cars for the price of one’ model as of 2023. This year, teams and drivers will still compete in the Ligier F4 car known from the F4 US Championship but starting in 2023, USF Juniors will use the same Tatuus chassis with halo that’s also used in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000.
The key word here is scalability: drivers that plan to do the complete Road to Indy can use the same car for at least three consecutive seasons while climbing the ladder. Limited extra spending comes in the form of bolt-on components such as dampers, brakes, wings and steering wheel. The engine in USF Juniors is the same as prepared by Elite Engines for USF2000 but restricted in terms of output.
The USF Juniors entry list so far is a bit shorter than initially anticipated, but this is because the US F4 Championship is feeling the heat from its new competition. Paddock sources tell F1 Feeder Series that by reportedly offering teams and drivers free tire deals and waiving entry fees, US F4 is trying to convince teams not to jump ship. In the short term this may halt the growth of USF Juniors somewhat, but the long-term financial viability of such subsidies is questionable.
Regardless, the USF Juniors field currently stands at a solid 18 cars or so and more are expected to join as time goes on. The series benefits from its direct link to the Road to Indy and by extension INDYCAR, its staff and management are first-rate, and if the racing proves to be as good as we’ve seen in recent years in USF2000, USF Juniors should become the default starting point for any young American karter with bigger ambitions in open-wheel racing.
Maybe most importantly, the series leadership of USF Juniors will focus on instilling and developing quality racecraft in their recruits from day one. Whereas other entry level series at times suffer from rather immature on-track scraps, series driver coach Gabby Chaves and colleagues will from the start emphasize their expectations in terms of clean racing. After all, only then will USF Juniors graduates be able to really make the most of further opportunities on the Road to Indy.
So far, USF Juniors has enlisted seven teams to its roster for 2022. Starting with the squads we know from regular Road to Indy competition, Velocity Racing Development (VRD) is the only team to field four cars. VRD boasts a strong line-up with the all-American quartet of Nikita Johnson, Sam Corry, Alessandro de Tullio and Noah Ping. Johnson was a star of the YACademy Winter Series and won the title ahead of Ping, while all showed strongly in pre-season testing at Barber.
Their main competition should come in the form of DEForce Racing as well as Cape Motorsports’ partnership with DC Autosports. DEForce has a strong ace in Canadian Mac Clark, who will combine USF Juniors with a Formula Regional Americas campaign this year, where he has already won a race. Clark was also the fastest USF Juniors tester at Barber. Maxwell Jamieson and Jake Bonilla complete the three-car line-up for DEForce, building on their recent F4 US outings with the team.
The DC/Cape tandem has Nicholas d’Orlando, younger brother of USF2000 ace Michael, as its lead driver. The youngster from New York won the FRP F1600 title in 2021 and hopes to follow in his brother’s footsteps. Earl Tucker IV is in the second car as the 23-year-old switches from Miata cup competition to open-wheel cars, while Californian karter Ethan Ho has received the nod for the third entry after testing a USF2000 car with Exclusive Autosport last October.
Florida-based squad International Motorsport is graduating from go-karting to open-wheel this year and is fielding entries in both F4 US and USF Juniors. Their drivers may shift between series, but young Frenchman Alan Isambard and his more experienced teammate Andre Castro are both expected to run the full USF Juniors season. Justin Garat was confirmed earlier this winter as the third name on the team sheet, but it is unclear whether he will appear at all this season and he certainly won’t be at the season opener in Missouri.
IGY6 Motorsports also has three entries, with Illinois born-and-raised Jason Pribyl making the step up from regional SCCA Formula Enterprise competition. His first teammate is young Philippine driver Bianca Bustamante, who will combine a partial USF Juniors campaign (she is expected to miss the final two events at Road America and COTA) with a full season of W Series. The third IGY6 car will be driven by young American go-karter Jacob Bolen.
Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Development fields only one car but has an exciting talent within its ranks with young Elliot Cox. Only 14 years of age, the Indiana youngster comes with a rich karting CV and finished third in the YACademy Winter Series this winter.
The most recent addition to the field is the Kiwi Motorsport/Crosslink Competition partnership that has extensive F4 US experience. So far it has only named Jeremy Fairbairn officially as a driver, but F1 Feeder Series has learned that the 17-year-old from Florida will be joined by 2021 Lucas Oil Formula Car runner-up Titus Sherlock. Kiwi/Crosslink is also expected to name an additional, third driver, which should push the entry list for the season opener to 19 cars.
USF Juniors will visit six tracks in its debut season, which together play host to 16 races. If you know your Netflix highlights, the location and name of the season opener might sound familiar: the first three rounds take place this weekend at the Ozarks International Raceway in Missouri. Opened only last year, the long and twisty track of almost 4 miles looks like a big challenge and will immediately give a good impression of who’s in tune with their car and who has work left to do.
Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama hosts race four and five at the end of April, in the days before the IndyCar race weekend there, followed by a triple-header at Virginia International Raceway in June. July is a busy month, with two races at Mid-Ohio and another triple-header at Road America. The season finale is a triple-header in September at COTA in Texas.
The points system mirrors the road/street course variant we know from USF2000, so a win gets you 30 points, while single additional points are awarded for pole, most laps led and the fastest race lap.
As per usual with the Road to Indy, all races will be streamed live for free through the Road to Indy TV channel on YouTube. The series is also working on its own mobile app.
The full schedule and dates
|1/2/3||April 23/24||Ozarks International Raceway|
|4/5||April 28/29||Barber Motorsports Park|
|6/7/8||June 4/5||Virginia International Raceway|
|9/10||July 8/9||Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course|
|11/12/13||July 30/31||Road America|
|14/15/16||September 17/18||Circuit of The Americas|
Header photo credit: USF Juniors PR/Gavin Baker
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