As expected, this weekend's opening two rounds of Pacific F2000 Championship Presented by Corsa Car Care at Willow Springs International Raceway boiled down to a battle of youth vs. experience.
Honors ended up being shared equally as Conner Ford – at a mere 14 years of age – and top Masters (aged 50 and above) contender Bob Negron each claimed a pole and a win.
The first race on Saturday afternoon saw youth take the upper hand as Ford qualified his No. 77 PR1 Motorsports Van Diemen on the pole. He then made a perfect start, led the entire race and set fastest lap to earn a maximum 34 points.
"That was the perfect day," said Ford, from Carson City, Nev., who started four races last year, winning once, and, surprisingly, had not been able to conduct any off-season testing. "I didn't expect to be doing this good, this early in the season, but everything came together really well. The team gave me a great car and it made me very happy."
Negron, from Morgan Hill, Calif., qualified second but made a poor start and fell to fourth on the first lap. He battled back, passing David Cheng (No. 2 PR1 Motorsports Van Diemen) and Ira Fierberg (No. 27 Pinnacle Performance/LDF/DFR/Quiksilver Van Diemen) to reclaim the runner-up spot in the updated Van Diemen RF99 he prepares and runs almost entirely by himself...along with some help from wife Terri.
Veteran Les Phillips, from Bakersfield, Calif., enjoyed one of his strongest races in a while to finish fifth in the only Mygale chassis in the field, although he was pressed every inch of the way by F2000 debutant Kyle Kuntze. The 21-year-old from Poway, Calif., was especially impressive when considering the fact he hadn't so much as sat in Dave Freitas Racing's No. 5 Van Diemen RF02 prior to the weekend.
Windier and cooler conditions for qualifying on Sunday morning saw Negron emerge with the fastest time to secure his first-ever F2000 pole position. Furthermore, Negron sensibly completed a bare minimum of laps to ensure his Hankook tires would be in good shape for the race on Willow Springs' notoriously abrasive surface.
Nevertheless, Negron once again made a poor getaway, allowing Ford to claim the lead going into Turn 1.
"I guess I caught him sleeping both times," said Ford with a twinkle in his eye.
Negron remained unflustered. "I thought, OK, fine, let's just him and I pull away from everybody else and then I'll see what I can do," related Negron. "But after a couple of laps I realized we weren't pulling away from the others, and then I thought, wait a minute, I'm faster than him, let's have a go!"
Ford, meanwhile, was struggling. "My car was really loose in just about every corner," said Ford. "I over-did it a bit in qualifying and used up my tires a little more than I should have done. He kind of outsmarted me, I guess."
On lap 5, Negron timed his run out of the ultra-quick Turn 9 to perfection, used the draft to pull alongside his rival on the front straightaway, then braked a little deeper into Turn 1. It was a textbook pass. Once into the lead, Negron gradually inched away to score a long overdue maiden victory.
"It was fun," said Negron. "It's been a long time coming; it's been one hell of a long time coming. I'm hoping to get a few more (wins) this year, too."
Ford's attempts to hold onto second, under intense pressure from Cheng and Fierberg, unraveled when he carried too much speed into Turn 5 on lap 12. The resulting off-course excursion relegated him to fifth at the finish.
"It was still a good weekend," concluded Ford. "I'm pretty happy with how it ended up."
Cheng took second, just over four seconds in arrears of Negron. Fierberg completed the podium, narrowly ahead of a fast-closing Kuntze.
"I was just getting more and more comfortable with every lap," said Kuntze. "Boy, that was so much fun!"
Negron leads the points standings by 57-51 over Ford, while Fierberg holds down third place on 46, two ahead of Cheng. The next two races will be held at Buttonwillow Raceway on May 21-22.