The Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda will return to Sebring International Raceway this week to open its seven-event, 14-race 2013 season. A pair of races will be held on March 14-15 in support of the American Le Mans Series Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring, with a quality field of 30 drivers on the first step of IndyCar's Mazda Road to Indy ready to challenge on the 3.74-mile, 17-turn road course.
“I couldn't be more excited about the exceptional group of drivers we have on deck this year, from returning drivers who are poised to shine to a new group of rookies – many with familiar names – who bring solid credentials to the table,” said Dan Andersen, owner and CEO of Andersen Promotions, the series promoter. “It's been a busy off-season for all of us at Andersen Promotions and we are more than ready to go racing. To start our season in support of such a prestigious and well-attended event as the Twelve Hours of Sebring is tremendous, and we look forward to some great racing.”
A productive offseason for the series included partnership extensions with Mazda and Cooper Tires; new associations with Sunoco as the Official Fuel and USANA's Rev3 Energy as the Official Energy Drink; the addition of SCCA Enterprises as the presenting sponsor of the National Class; expansion to three new race markets in California, Texas and Canada; a highly successful Cooper Tires Winterfest Championship in February; and the creation and launch of the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires – the second step of the ladder system – by Andersen Promotions.
The broadening appeal of USF2000 and the Mazda Road to Indy is underscored in the lineup for the 2013 season. No fewer than seven countries are represented with drivers from the United States (14), Canada (8), Brazil (3), England (2), The Netherlands (1), France (1) and Norway (1) entered for this year's championship.
Following February's six-race Cooper Tires Winterfest preseason mini-series at Sebring and Palm Beach International Raceway, several drivers in particular emerged as ones to watch, led by Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing teammates Neil Alberico, Scott Hargrove and James Fletcher. Alberico, 20, out of Los Gatos, Calif., won five of the six races to secure the title but was afforded little breathing room by Winterfest runner-up Hargrove, 18, of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, who notched one win and a quintet of second-place finishes. Fletcher, 18, of Windsor, United Kingdom, made a memorable U.S. racing debut with three podiums and two fourth-place drives to secure third in the standings.
Other drivers to impress, all of them rookies, included Andretti Autosport's Garett Grist, 17, of Grimsby, Ont., Canada, whose consistent performance – including a podium in Race 3 at Sebring – netted him fourth in the Winterfest point standings; Edmonton, Alb., Canada's Stefan Rzadzinski, 20, of JDC MotorSports – a former Skip Barber Karting Shootout Scholarship Award winner – who finished fifth with a pair of top-five drives; and 15-year-old Montreal, Que., Canada native Jesse Lazare of Pabst Racing Services and Danilo Estrela, 19, of Goiânia, Brazil, driving for Belardi Auto Racing – the only two other drivers to wrestle the Cape trio out of a podium spot.
Five “veteran” drivers are more than capable of challenging the preseason bar set by 2012 champions Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing. These include two young hotshoes who will be graduating to the Championship Class: PRL Motorsports' Henrik Furuseth, 16, of Oslo, Norway, who claimed the 2012 National Class title with seven wins, and RC Enerson, 16, of New Port Richey, Fla., who notched four wins and nine top-three finishes with ZSports Midwest/Team E Racing, to miss out on the title by a mere eight points.
Enerson will have the benefit of a teammate this year as he pairs with New York, N.Y., talent Luca Forgeois, 17, the 2011 National Class champion. JDC MotorSports' Michael Johnson, 20, of Flint, Mich., is also poised to shine. Johnson, a paralyzed racer and inspiration to so many, showed his pace by posting the second-quickest time – by a scant 0.014 second – in the 27-car field at the off-season Chris Griffis Memorial Mazda Road to Indy Open Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Teammates Jason Wolfe and Dalton Kellett of Pabst Racing Series are also well-prepared to make their presence felt. Wolfe, 18, of Mount Vernon, Ohio, finished seventh in the Cooper Tires Winterfest. Former F1600 racer Kellett, 19, of Toronto, Ont., Canada, missed the outing due to his Engineering Physics studies at Queen's University, but showed solid progression in his rookie season.
Four drivers among this year's immensely strong crop of rookies have names well-known in the racing community. The youngest driver in the field at age 14, Austin Cindric, of Mooresville, N.C., with Andretti Autosport – a winner in the Skip Barber Racing Winter Series and INEX US Legends cars last year – is the son of Penske Racing President Tim Cindric. ArmsUp Motorsports' Andrew Hobbs, 18, of Milwaukee, Wis. – a victor the past two years in Skip Barber competition since graduating from cars – is the grandson of legendary driver-turned-commentator David Hobbs.
Matt McMurry (Belardi Auto Racing), 15, from Phoenix, Ariz. – a seven-time podium finisher last year also in Skip Barber – is the son of American Le Mans Series race winner Chris McMurry. Brandon Newey (Afterburner Autosport), 20, from Indianapolis, Ind. – runner-up in the 2012 F16000 Championship Series with four wins and nine podiums – is the son of Indianapolis 500- winning Bryan Herta Autosport co-owner Steve Newey.
Also from the deep talent pool within the first-year contingent, many eyes will be focused on Peter Portante, 17, who has made astonishing progress since switching from stock cars to the far lighter and more nimble open-wheel cars. The former Late Model champ from Plainville, Conn., enters the series courtesy of the MAZDASPEED Driver Development Ladder after winning the Skip Barber Championship Shootout last December. Portante will drive for Belardi Auto Racing.
Watch out, too, for Wyatt Gooden (Afterburner Autosport), from Cleveland, Ohio, who first sprung to prominence as an online computer simulation “gamer” with iRacing.com and has since confirmed his competitiveness on-track by winning both in F1600 and F2000 Championship Series events the past two years; Dutchman Jeroen Slaghekke (Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing), a proven winner both in Formula Ford and Formula Renault in Europe; fellow Formula Renault convert Michael Epps (PRL Motorsports), from St. Albans, England; and 15-year-old Frenchman Florian Latorre (JAY Motorsports), a race-winning graduate of the International Auto Sport Academy.
National Class Contenders
The graduation to the Championship Class of Furuseth and Enerson will leave veteran Scott Rettich (Alliance Autosport), of Camden, Ohio, as a strong favorite for honors in the USF2000 National Class Presented by SCCA Enterprises, which features cost-effective Mazda-powered Van Diemens. Opposition for Rettich, a multi-time SCCA National Champion, will include Alliance Autosport teammate Ryan Verra and fellow Canadian James Dayson (ArmsUp Motorsports).