New car, deep talent pool make USF2000 season worth watching in 2017

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It’s a new era for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda for 2017 with the addition of the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis, which makes its race debut in the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg doubleheader weekend on March 10-12.

The first step on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper tires developmental ladder, sanctioned by INDYCAR, welcomes back a healthy mix of veterans to counter some new faces for the 14-race schedule.

Last year’s champion and Mazda scholarship winner, Anthony Martin, took his award to the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires and left Cape Motorsports, winner of six consecutive USF2000 drivers’ titles dating to 2011 (Martin, Nico Jamin, Florian Latorre, Scott Hargrove, Matthew Brabham and Petri Suvanto) with a seat available.

However, that seat finds occupancy in Mazda Road to Indy Shootout champion Oliver Askew, who will run the iconic Mazda Soul Red colors in the No. 3 Cape Motorsports Mazda/Tatuus USF-17. Impressive during spring training this past week around Homestead-Miami Speedway’s 2.21-mile road course, the 20-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, led five of six sessions and put everyone on notice for the upcoming season.

“These guys here at Cape Motorsports know what they’re doing, for sure,” said Askew. “Having won the last six consecutive championships and now we’re in a new car, I think we are definitely sending a statement.”

The team also added 18-year-old Ricky Donison, who becomes the first Indian-born driver to enter the Mazda Road to Indy.

Team Pelfrey returns 2016 USF2000 Rookie of the Year and Tilton Hard Charger Award winner Robert Megennis, who believes the team has improved its single-lap qualifying pace, which should enhance his ability to mix it up for wins and podiums.

“Last year, my strong point was really race craft and consistency throughout the race with race pace,” said Megennis, driver of the No. 80 Team Pelfrey Mazda/Tatuus. “So to see now that we’re able to be fast on a one-lap basis, faster than we were last year, is really encouraging because I know I can race.”

Pelfrey also sees the reunites with its 2014 F1600 champion Ayla Agren, the sole female in the championship class, as well as Kaylen Frederick for select rounds.

Other key additions come at Exclusive Autosport with last year’s USF2000 championship runner-up, Parker Thompson, and Luke Gabin, who finished 2016 fifth in the overall standings, as well as rookie Dev Gore.

One of the more exciting returns comes in the form of a team with Newman Wachs Racing. The former stalwart team in the Atlantic Championship Series in 2009, the team returns to open-wheel racing this season under ownership of Eddie Wachs, who retained the team name from when he partnered with the late Paul Newman, the great actor, team owner and driver. NWR brings on three pilots led by veteran Dakota Dickerson, along with rookies Andre Castro and Rinus VeeKay, who led the final session in spring training at Homestead.

Lucas Kohl will lead the charge for Pabst Racing, with rookie Calvin Ming.

A rivalry that has carried on for years in the karting levels will now rise to the Mazda Road to Indy ranks in the form of Benik rookie Kyle Kirkwood. Like Askew, Kirkwood hails from Jupiter, Florida, and has competed against the MRTI shootout winner since their early childhood days.

Dan Andersen, owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions that runs the Mazda Road to Indy ladder, said the combination of the new chassis and talent level makes USF2000 a series to watch this year.

“I think the series is looking really strong for 2017,” said Andersen.

“The new car we already know is going to be a good race car, in terms of the fact that it doesn’t have a lot aero downforce so it will race well and dice really well,” Andersen said. “The (driving) talent is incredible. These kids always impress me. We’ve had the most competition in Indy Lights over past years, but I think USF2000 is the place to look for ’17.

“They will really turn some heads, there is going to be some great racing.”

The 2017 Indy Lights season kicks off with a doubleheader weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 10-12. Sessions will be streamed live at racecontrol.indycar.com.

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