The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship isn’t joining its Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires compatriots this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway, but the series will be strongly represented off track by a local team and its drivers – all focused on making the transition from the karting ranks to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
St. Louis-based Ignite Autosport made its USF2000 debut this season, joining forces with 13-time series champions Cape Motorsports. The team brought onboard two young local drivers with aspirations to reach the top, but without the budget to make it happen on their own – Spike Kohlbecker, 18, from St. Louis, and Evan Stamer, 19, from Glen Carbon, Illinois.
The driving forces behind Ignite Autosport are team owner Scott Blind, a successful entrepreneur, and team manager Keith Freber, the third-generation owner of kart manufacturer Margay Racing, who lives in Glendale, Missouri. The story begins with Freber and the successful Margay, originally founded in St. Louis in 1966. When Curtis Francois purchased World Wide Technology Raceway in 2013, he wanted karting to play a significant role, and he turned to Freber.
“This story really starts with Curtis,” Freber said. “In 2013, he contacted me and basically gave us a clean sheet of paper, so we were able to develop both the karting track there and the racing program called Ignite.
“It was our feeling that it was far too difficult to get involved in karting. There were too many entry barriers, so it was all about trying to reduce or eliminate the entry barriers to the sport. Curtis gave us carte blanche, so we have grown this program from nothing.”
Freber formed the WWTR-based Ignite Karting program to bring youngsters into the sport in a cost-effective manner, conducting races across the country (the series ran at Daytona last December with World Karting and had 200 Ignite entries). The next piece of the puzzle was Blind, whom Freber met last November. A motorsports enthusiast and local property developer, Blind was shocked to discover how expensive racing was and how few drivers can make the jump from karting. Getting to know Stamer as he progressed through the Ignite Karting program, it became clear that he would need help continuing his progress. From that conversation, the Ignite Autosport team was born – they just needed a race team.
“I knew the Cape brothers from back when I was racing and actually raced against Nicholas Cape many years ago, and of course, we were well aware of their success,” Freber said. “It was a very easy decision to align ourselves with the Road to Indy because this is where you want to be, racing at all the right venues in front of all of the right people in a very professional atmosphere. Even at the lower levels of the formulas, it is amazing how competitive USF2000 is. I feel like we are putting our young drivers in the best possible environment to achieve success. It’s been a whirlwind, and we are still learning a lot, but it has been really good.”
Ignite Autosport wants to establish a foothold as one of the feeder systems into the Road to Indy.
“As far as we are concerned, it starts with Ignite Karting, then probably some period at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, then the Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series, and into USF2000” Freber said.
The mission for Ignite Autosport was clear from the start: be a bridge from karting to the Road to Indy.
“For me, personally, the goal is very simple and that is to not be a one and done program. There are a lot of very enthusiastic motorsport benefactors like Scott Blind out there that have come in over the years with the same sort of thought process and enthusiasm for helping young drivers only to go, ‘Wow, that was a lot of fun, but really costly.’ So, the goal for us is beyond one year into year two, and anything beyond that is terrific. Whether that is with one driver in USF2000 or two drivers, one driver in USF2000 and maybe one in Indy Pro 2000, who knows. It just depends on how things work as we reach the end of the season.”
Freber appreciates the advancement that both Stamer and Kohlbecker have made this year, with Stamer getting his footing in his first season racing cars, and Kohlbecker sixth in the standings and the leading rookie, with a podium at Road America. The future looks bright for the program, and Freber can’t say enough about the contribution made by the entire team at World Wide Technology Raceway.
“I don’t think you can overstate the connection with WWTR, Curtis Francois and his team. Curtis, (executive vice president/general manager) Chris Blair, and (media relations director) John Bisci, the entire team there does a great job,” Freber said. “We wanted this to be a St. Louis-centric program: there is a lot of enthusiasm for motorsports in St. Louis, and Curtis has really built that enthusiasm to a crescendo.
“We think we can tap into that and find the support we need to continue this program beyond one year. It’s really the goal to take young drivers from karting, move them into the Road to Indy and ultimately, to see these guys at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in a few years. It sounds cliché but it is all about getting to that point where you can fight to drink that milk.”