The dramatic conclusion to the story of the 2019 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship was the perseverance and heart delivered by Braden Eves.
The 20-year-old Ohio native enjoyed a stout campaign that included six wins, eight podiums, 14 top 10s and four poles in 15 races on the way to securing the title. He burst out of the gate with four victories through the opening four races, but a myriad of misfortune struck midway through the season as rival Hunter McElrea started to gain ground – and eventually surpass him – in the standings.
Eves, driver of the No. 8 Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-17, experienced a winless drought that spanned seven races heading into the season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. He trailed McElrea by 12 points and was in a must-win situation to capture the championship, which he came through to deliver on a set of used Cooper Tires.
When thinking back, Eves recalls those final moments on the grid in the lead up to what was, to this point at least, the biggest race of his life.
“It was actually one of the most surreal moments of the entire weekend,” Eves said. “I was so nervous going into the weekend and just had so much pressure on me. I don't know what changed going into Sunday, but it was almost like that weight got lifted off my shoulders and I was kind of just winning.
“It's funny to compare it, but it was like I was just kind of at peace and just ready for whatever was going to come. Win or lose, I was just ready. Obviously I didn't want to lose, but it just felt like a lot of pressure was lifted off me.”
Eves becomes the ninth consecutive driver to win the championship for Cape Motorsports. As remarkable as that is, it nearly didn’t come to be as he let his stranglehold on the overall standings slip away.
“We definitely had a little bit of a drought,” Eves said. “The big struggle weekend for us was Mid-Ohio. At Toronto, I got a fourth, and then I would have been fourth again, which wouldn't have been too bad, but I got into an incident with Colin Kaminsky. Then Portland was two second places, but Mid-Ohio was really a struggle, qualifying 10th. The next one we actually qualified fourth for, but got that penalty and sorted sixth and ended up getting hit in the second race.
“I had a 41-point lead going into Mid-Ohio and then I left with a nine point lead. So that was a huge hit to the confidence. It took things from, 'Oh, I just have to finish relatively decent the rest of the year' to win a championship to, 'Oh crap, if I don't win some races, if I don't get some, some really good results then Hunter's going to win this.’”
In what proved fortunate for Eves, McElrea was dealt a terrible blow as an engine sensor issue hindered him in qualifying, which left him starting the race from last (18th) on the grid. However, Eves still needed to execute a flawless performance to even have a chance to make a comeback for the title.
“I told my team to lay off the radio as much as possible because if I was going to win the championship, I had to win,” Eves said. “Anything that they were going to say, it wasn't really going to change that.
And in the end, he was able to do exactly that en route to completing the stirring comeback drive.
“I was glad the race ended when it ended because Christian (Rasmussen) was just so fast and I was having to hold him off with the entire race,” Eves added. “It was so difficult, but I remember just thinking at three (laps) to go like, 'Oh my gosh. I’m going to finally do this.' When I crossed the line, I knew it was basically impossible to go from last to, I believe he had finish fourth or third (depending on bonus points). I knew that was basically impossible to do with the only the one caution that we had on the opening lap. So I just came over to the radio going berserk. I was screaming.
“I don't even know a lot of what happened because I just had so much adrenaline going from the time that I crossed the finish line throughout my entire celebration, when I was talking to Rob Howden (voice of the Road to Indy) on the podium about the championship. I don't remember everything that happened because it was just, I don't know, it was like one of those out of body experiences.”
In addition to claiming the title for the first rung of the Road to Indy, Eves earns a scholarship award in the amount of $305,600 that guarantees him a seat as he moves up to Indy Pro 2000 presented by Cooper Tires.
“It takes a load of pressure off because it was a big stress getting this year paid for, but now I have technically two-thirds of my Road to Indy career funded,” Eves said. “I don't even know if there is any way to describe how much that helps me going into the offseason with my mindset.
“This is off track a little bit, but they say you're only as good as your last race and that was a pretty good last race for me to go in the offseason.”