Christchurch’s James Munro joins a stacked 24-car field for Rounds Three and Four of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda this weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama. Heading the grid is the Pabst Racing duo of Jordan Lloyd and Yufeng Luo, who each claimed a win and a second-place finish in the opening two rounds of the 16-race season last month in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Alabama will feature a pair of races on the scenic 2.3-mile road course.
Munro had a difficult start to the series at St Petersburg in March, crashing out of race one and puncturing in race two.
USF2000 is the first step on the INDYCAR-sanctioned Mazda Road to Indy, which, uniquely in the auto racing world, offers scholarship-funded opportunities to progress from karting all the way to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500. Last year’s runaway champion, Frenchman Nico Jamin, has used his Mazda scholarship to move up to Pro Mazda this year, and there is a tremendous array of accomplished youngsters seeking to follow in his footsteps. At least nine different nationalities will be represented, reflecting the global appeal of the Mazda Road to Indy.
Wisconsin-based Pabst Racing has taken an early lead in the title chase. Lloyd, from Toowoomba, Australia (the same town in Queensland from which Verizon IndyCar Series front-runner Will Power hails), contested the first four USF2000 races in 2015 before heading home to win his nation’s inaugural Formula 4 Championship. He has returned with a vengeance, dominating the opening race on the streets of St. Petersburg, and was seemingly headed for a second win until his progress was interrupted by a late full-course caution. Teammate Luo took advantage of the restart to wrest away the lead and become the first driver from China ever to win a race on the Mazda Road to Indy.
Another young Australian, Luke Gabin, with JAY Motorsports, scored well in Florida with a pair of top-five finishes, while rookie teenagers Robert Megennis, from New York, N.Y., and Jordan Cane, from England, claimed a podium finish apiece for Team Pelfrey. Cane, in particular, marked himself as a potential star of the future in last year’s F1600 Championship Series at the tender age of 14, winning no fewer than seven of his 14 races, while Megennis, 16, also impressed with eight podium finishes. Team Pelfrey also will field cars for 22-year-old Californian TJ Fischer, who chose a different career path, joining the Mazda Road to Indy after competing in Europe the past two years, and rapid New Zealander James Munro, who comfortably won his nation’s Formula Ford title in 2013 and the Formula Masters China Series title the following year.
Three of last year’s most promising USF2000 rookies – Anthony Martin from Australia, Parker Thompson from Canada and Nikita Lastochkin, a Los Angeles-based Russian, who finished fourth, fifth and eighth, respectively in 2015 – have joined Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in the hopes of claiming the team’s sixth successive USF2000 championship.
Other expected front-runners in a very competitive field include Brazilian Victor Franzoni (ArmsUp Motorsports), who finished on the podium at Barber one year ago; Norway’s Ayla Agren, who in 2014 became the first female to win the F1600 Championship Series; Pennsylvania’s Garth Rickards (Pabst Racing); and Dakota Dickerson (Afterburner Autosport), who is stepping up to USF2000 on the strength of a Mazda scholarship after winning the Skip Barber Racing Championship Shootout, as well as a coveted Team USA Scholarship, in 2015.
The Cooper Tires USF2000 Grand Prix of Alabama weekend will start with a pair of test sessions on Thursday, April 21, at 8:40 a.m. CDT and 11:20 a.m., followed by two official practice sessions later in the afternoon at 2:15 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Qualifying is slated for 9:30 a.m. on Friday, with Race One later in the afternoon at 4:30 p.m. The green flag for Race Two will fly at 5:35 p.m. on Saturday. Live streaming shows of all sessions will be available on the Road To Indy TV App, as well as the series’ website, usf2000.com, and indycar.com.