It’s never over until it’s over, and the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda is proving just that in 2017.
Through the first six races of the season, Cape Motorsports driver and Mazda shootout winner Oliver Askew was in a world of his own, winning five consecutive races and dominating the championship. One poor result later, however, and the 20-year-old Floridian now has company atop the standings with six races remaining.
A broken camber shim in Race 1 at Road America two weeks ago relegated Askew to a 17th-place finish, while Dutch teenager Rinus VeeKay pounced on the opportunity to claim his first USF2000 win. VeeKay, driving for Wisconsin-based Pabst Racing, repeated his performance with a victory in the second race of the weekend. Askew finished third in Race 2, but VeeKay slashed 36 points out of his championship deficit to Askew with the doubleheader sweep.
Askew takes a 24-point lead over VeeKay into Sunday’s 60-lap race at Iowa Speedway – the only oval event on the 2017 USF2000 schedule.
“It was a great first half of this season,” said VeeKay, 16. “After my two wins at Road America, I got a huge confidence boost. The Pabst Racing team does a great job improving every outing. Now we know we can do it at other races.”
Askew was confident he could run up front with Cape Motorsports, which has fielded the past six USF2000 champions. But even he couldn’t predict a five-win tear after finishing second in the opening race of the St. Petersburg weekend in March.
“I knew going into the season that’d we be competitive, but not this competitive this fast,” said Askew, who moved up from karting to formula cars last fall after winning the $200,000 Mazda shootout scholarship. “I’ve got a lot of great people around me, which has definitely helped a lot with Cape Motorsports. I guess you could say I’ve just meshed really well with the car and with the team.”
The introduction of the new Tatuus USF-17 chassis to the series this year has brought in a number of new teams and competitors, but Cape and Pabst have risen above the rest in pace and consistency. Kaylen Frederick, a 15-year-old driving for Team Pelfrey, sits third in the standings after eight races, 71 points behind Askew.
“I feel that we have the best team and the best car in the field,” said Askew, “and we proved that at the beginning of the season. I knew that we were going to have tough weekends like Road America, but hopefully that’s behind us now, and we can just take it one weekend at a time, doing our best.”
Now, what looked to be a runaway for Askew has turned into a two-horse race for the title and Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires scholarship that will elevate the 2017 USF2000 champion to a ride in the 2018 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires – the middle of three Mazda Road to Indy development levels. Between Askew, the established, cool favorite, and VeeKay, the sharp and confident challenger, it should be a battle to enjoy.
“To catch Oliver, it will take hard work and dedication,” VeeKay said, “and I think we can make them have a hard time. I think it's going to be a close ending of the season.”
Thirteen USF2000 drivers participated in a three-hour test today at Iowa Speedway to acclimate themselves to oval racing. Calvin Ming, VeeKay’s teammate at Pabst Racing, logged the fastest lap of 132.399 mph (24.3083 seconds) on the 0.894-mile oval. Ming turned 222 laps – nearly the distance of four full races – in the No. 22 Mings Products and Services car.
Alex Baron, in the No. 4 ArmsUp Motorsports entry, was second at 132.395 mph (24.3091 seconds). VeeKay was third in the No. 21 Jumbo Supermarkets The Netherlands/Total entry (132.383 mph) and Askew fourth (131.950 mph) in the No. 3 Mazda Motorsports/MC Racing car. The top 10 today were all under the USF2000 track record set by Sage Karam in 2010.
USF2000 will hold a 45-minute practice session at 5:30 p.m. ET Saturday. Qualifying is set for 10:15 a.m. Sunday, with the race starting at 2:05 p.m. that same day. All sessions will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com as the young drivers look to gain solid oval racing experience.
“I am looking forward to it,” Askew said. “There’s going to be a lot to learn, but I’m looking forward to some more close racing and hopefully leaving here with maximum points. That’d be great.”