Young New Yorker Michael d’Orlando has claimed his position as one of the pre-season favorites in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, returning to the Cape Motorsports team that helped him capture fourth place in the final 2020 standings. Currently sixth in 2021 points, he will try to complete that unfinished business this season, aiming for the scholarship that would help him continue his race up the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
Scoring a victory and five podium finishes in 2020, the 18-year-old impressed during his first full season of racing cars. With a stellar karting career that featured multiple championship titles including the 2013 US Rotax Grand National Mini MAX championship and the 2016 Florida Winter Tour Rotax Junior MAX Championship, d’Orlando feels ready to follow several fellow former karting stars who successfully traversed the Road to Indy ladder into the NTT INDYCAR SERIES before him.
“I raced with Oliver (Askew) and Pato (O’Ward) a great deal during our karting days,” said d’Orlando. “They were always a few years ahead of me, but it’s been good to see how they’ve handled the trajectory through karting and the Road to Indy.
“That’s one of the benefits of the Road to Indy, having INDYCAR teams and drivers watching you. You’re regarded as a future INDYCAR driver and that gives you a sense of security, knowing people are seeing your success. It makes that road possible.”
Recently announcing his return to Cape Motorsports, winners of nine of the last 10 USF2000 driver championships, d’Orlando hopes to take the lessons from 2020 and his karting career to add to the Cape brothers’ trophy collection.
“The high-pressure situations that I’ve been in through the years – the CIK FIA European Karting Championships, the World Finals, the highest levels of national karting – and the level of competition in those events, really taught me how to step it up. If you have 100 drivers within a second, that’s going to be tough. You really learn how to manage yourself in those circumstances.
“Those opportunities really teach you proper racecraft, but also how to keep your composure. If you start falling back – and that’s bound to happen when there are 100 of you – it teaches you that you can’t let it get to your head. You have to just keep pushing.”
The story of how he earned his first series victory last season is emblematic of that “just keep pushing” mentality. As is often the case, Friday of the Mid-Ohio weekend saw qualifying sessions for both Race One and Race Two. Qualifying third that morning for Saturday’s Race One, d’Orlando pressed too hard early in the afternoon’s Race Two qualifier and went off course, causing significant damage to his Tatuus USF-17. That the Cape Motorsports team was able to repair the car overnight and give d’Orlando a car with the same setup and speed that he was able to have confidence in is a testament to the resilience of both team and driver.
“It’s a lot easier to win when you qualify up front, so qualifying is that much more important. I’d qualified for Race One in third position and going into the second qualifying session, I knew I had more to give. But I got a little too greedy going into Turn Six, got into the grass and went straight into the wall. My first thought was to check and make sure I was okay, then it was a matter of assessing the car. There was left side damage, some nose damage but I had complete faith in the team to get me back out there the next morning.
“I knew immediately on the pace lap that the far felt great and with the pace I’d had in qualifying – I’d been P1 when I hit the wall – that I knew I could win. I went into it with the idea that I would take it easy early on and see what developed, knowing that I couldn’t win it early on, but I could certainly lose it.”
When championship leader and polesitter Christian Rasmussen overcooked the entry to the tricky, uphill Turn 11 and ran wide onto the grass at the exit, d’Orlando, who had out-muscled Cape teammate Reece Gold at Turn Four to grab second, found himself in the lead and held off Gold to score his first win.
“It almost feels like practice when you’re out in front like that. You don’t look behind you, you just focus on your lap. I’ve won many karting races, so I just held on to those feelings. Coming across the line, I was so excited that I smacked my elbow, hitting my funny bone on the cockpit when I put my hand up! I’m looking forward to having that feeling many more times.”
Family is so important to d’Orlando, so having parents Sherri and Michael and brother Nick at Mid-Ohio for that first win made it even more special. But the highlight of the year might very well have come later in the season at New Jersey Motorsports Park (less than three hours away from his hometown). A large contingent that included family, friends and sponsors were on hand to see him score his fifth podium of the season.
“I’m so glad that everyone could come and watch. So many people that I know have been itching to go and this was close enough that they could all come. It was a chance to show them what my life at the racetrack is like, and I’m happy that it was such a good race (d’Orlando drove from 7th to 3rd). It was such a great feeling, to hop out of the car and have everyone there, it was really an overwhelming emotion.
“My brother Nick and I started racing when we were really young, when I was 6 years old, and I’m grateful that my parents are so dedicated to us, and so involved. I’m blessed to have a family like this. Nick has taught me to be a better driver; we constantly push each other, and we learn from each other. He’s started to get into race cars now, so I’m hoping to see him on the grid at some point!”