PORTLAND, Ore. – A pair of talented youngsters shared the honors in this afternoon’s penultimate round of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires at Portland International Raceway. Rinus VeeKay, 17, secured the championship – plus a Mazda Scholarship prize worth almost $800,000 to progress into Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2019 – with a conservative drive to second for Juncos Racing, while Oliver Askew, 21, scored an overdue maiden victory for Cape Motorsports.
Parker Thompson finished third for Exclusive Autosport.
After winning last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda as a rookie, Askew has sometimes struggled to match the leaders’ pace this year after stepping up to the second rung on the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder. But this afternoon the young man from Jupiter, Fla.,.ensured a banner day for the Florida-based Cape Motorsports team following another USF2000 win for close friend and recently crown champion Kyle Kirkwood earlier in the afternoon.
After snagging his fifth pole position of the season during qualifying on Friday, VeeKay, from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, found himself out-dragged by second-place qualifier Askew on the run toward Turn One. The opening stages provided quite a spectacle as Askew remained under intense scrutiny from his young Dutch rival, with Canada’s Thompson and David Malukas (BN Racing), from Chicago, Ill., also part of the leading group.
The quartet traded fastest laps on a regular basis through the opening 10 laps, whereupon the top two, Askew and VeeKay, managed to put just a little breathing space between themselves and Thompson, who has remained as a thorn in VeeKay’s side throughout this year’s hard-fought championship.
Even with a string of consistent laps through the middle stages of the 30-lap contest, Askew’s lead was only rarely larger than one second – and often much less. VeeKay even established a new record of 1:07.1597, an average speed of 105.277mph, on Lap 21, but Askew remained just those tantalizing few lengths ahead and was able to resist the pressure before taking the flag just 1.3482 seconds to the good.
Askew also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award, while Cape Motorsports claimed its first PFC Award of the season.
VeeKay, who had finished a close second to Askew in last year’s USF2000 title-chase – and entered this final weekend of the season with a comfortable 47-point edge over Thompson -- was thrilled to finally tuck the championship under his belt. Under the circumstances, second place this day would be just fine.
Malukas finished hot on Thompson’s heels in fourth as Robert Megennis took fifth for Juncos Racing.
The final round of the championship will take place tomorrow at 2:15 p.m. VeeKay will start on pole once again following another fine performance in qualifying this morning, and will be looking to end his glorious season with yet another victory.
Oliver Askew (#3 Mazda Motorsports/Doug Mockett & Company/Team USA Scholarship-Cape Motorsports Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “It’s an emotional weekend for all of us, to get the win and get the monkey off our back, but to do it for Mazda and John Doonan as well. It’s great to be back on the top step and it helps me get to third in the championship.
“I got a good jump off the line, which is rare when you’re not on pole, and I was able to defend going into Turn One. I wasn’t worried about pace, it was more about not making mistakes – which was hard, because the track conditions were so different than this morning. I knew the team had it in them and I knew I had it in myself, but we just squeezed this one in there on the final weekend. I couldn’t be happier for myself, for Mazda, and for my supporters, including Doug Mockett and Bell Helmets.”
Rinus VeeKay (#2 Jumbo Supermarkets/La Place Restaurants/KNAF Talent First-Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “It feels great to be a champion, after two years in cars. I can’t wait to go to Indy Lights next year! Though the first thing I thought about when the race ended was wondering what happened at the start. I went too early and had to back off and Oliver stayed flat. That was unfortunate, but it was really close, but now I know what to do – and what not to do – tomorrow. I really want to be a winning champion. I don’t have any pressure on me now. But yes, I’m already thinking about next year. We have to think a lot and look at what previous champions have done. We have a big help from the Mazda Road to Indy and Mazda, and I can’t thank them enough.”
Parker Thompson (#90 Exclusive Autosport Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “All in all, it was a pretty decent day for the Exclusive Autosport crew. It was a pretty messy start, as the front row didn’t know if we were going or not. I think I could have had a really good shot at the lead if I hadn’t gotten checked up, but that’s racing – sometimes it goes your way, sometimes it doesn’t. But I can’t thank this team enough. It’s been an amazing two years – they always give me a car that can compete at the front and I’m glad to get them some results. Third doesn’t do a lot for us, but I’m just trying to prove that I belong on the Mazda Road to Indy and hopefully I can prove to a sponsor or a team owner that I deserve a shot next year so that I can continue my career to IndyCar.”