The ultra-competitive nature of this year’s Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel racing development ladder was plain for all to see today during qualifying on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Kyle Kirkwood (Andretti Autosport), from Jupiter, Fla., and David Malukas (HMD Motorsports), from Chicago, Ill., each earned a Cooper Tires Pole Award for this weekend’s pair of races that will comprise the Indy Lights Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Foundation Building Materials and Andersen Interior Contracting.
In the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, points leader Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport), from New Albany, Ohio, secured his second pole position of the season, while stablemate Christian Brooks, from Santa Clarita, Calif., ensured a spectacular day for the Canadian-owned team by taking pole for the first of two Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship races.
Coincidentally, after sharing the honor of claiming a maiden USF2000 victory last year on the streets of St. Petersburg, Brazilian Kiko Porto will start tomorrow’s second race from the pole after being fastest in this afternoon’s second qualifying session.
Kirkwood, who won back-to-back Road to Indy scholarship awards in USF2000 and Indy Pro 2000, rebounded from a difficult first Indy Lights weekend of the season at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama to lay down the fastest time in morning practice. He kept that momentum alive in the first of two qualifying sessions by topping the charts at 1:05.1334 and edging out Malukas by just eight-hundredths of a second.
“This is my home state and it’s my home race, so I’m super happy to start tomorrow’s race on pole,” said Kirkwood. “Last weekend didn’t go as planned by any means, so this is a good way to start over. We knew we had the pace here, we were quick in the one session we had here last year, and the car is phenomenal. There’s a point deficit that we need to fix – I feel as though I’m playing catch up every year after the first weekend! We had the one practice this morning but that’s not difficult if you have experience here. We barely had to touch the car: it’s always a good weekend when you roll off the truck and you’re fast.”
Later in the day, however, Malukas took full advantage of the lower temperatures by dipping underneath Pato O’Ward’s three-year lap record to claim the Cooper Tires Pole Award for Race Two at 1:04.6491 – the first-ever Indy Lights lap at better than a 100 mph average on the challenging 1.8-mile street circuit.
— Indy Lights (@IndyLights) April 23, 2021
Kirkwood capped a productive day by annexing the other front row starting position for Sunday’s race, while Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport teammate Devlin DeFrancesco, from Miami, Fla., will start third in both races, just ahead of Singapore’s Danial Frost aboard a third Andretti Dallara IL-15.
After claiming a slender Indy Pro 2000 points lead last weekend by virtue of a victory from the pole in the opening race of the season at Barber Motorsports Park backed up by a fourth in Race Two, Eves today continued where he left off in Alabama by snagging another Cooper Tires Pole Award. His Exclusive Autosport Tatuus PM-18 topped the charts in practice this morning with a best lap of 1:08.8933, and even though the 20-minute qualifying was cut short by a red flag, Eves again was fastest to secure another championship point in his quest for a scholarship valued at well over $700,000 to graduate to Indy Lights in 2022.
“I love it, just heading straight into qualifying after one practice session,” said Eves. “I think it puts things more in the hands of the driver – it challenges us. It’s tough to push here, with the walls so close, but the stakes are so high. And it’s so important to get experience here. I came here two years ago in USF2000 and it was tough, going against the veterans. It’s a big advantage to have been on a street circuit before, and this is one of my favorite tracks and events.”
Braden Eves will start P1 on Saturday in Race 1 for Indy Pro 2000 as he repeats his pole performance from last week at Barber!#RoadToIndy| #TeamCooperTire pic.twitter.com/h71mQhYmUm
— Indy Pro 2000 (@IndyPro2000) April 23, 2021
New Zealand’s Hunter McElrea, who claimed the other victory one week ago for Pabst Racing at Barber Motorsports Park, will start alongside Eves on the front row of the grid.
Eves’ Russian teammate Artem Petrov will share the second row with last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship winner Christian Rasmussen (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Copenhagen, Denmark.
A separate qualifying session to determine the starting grid for the second leg of this weekend’s Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Cooper Tires will be held at 8:00 a.m. EDT tomorrow morning.
The grids for both races that will comprise the USF2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Andersen RacePark (Race One) and Andersen Interior Contracting (Race Two) were set today during a pair of 20-minute qualifying sessions. The first was dominated by Exclusive Autosport, with Brooks blitzing the field to secure his second straight Cooper Tires Pole Award on the challenging 1.8-mile street circuit and teammate Matt Round-Garrido, from Stourbridge, England, bouncing back from a disappointing weekend at Barber to post the second-fastest time and ensure his best-ever Road to Indy starting position.
“I’m super happy,” said Brooks. “To go one-two with my teammate Matt (Round-Garrido) is such a confidence booster. We had a strategy to get the top two spots and we executed that. The car was on rails and you can’t ask for much more than that, especially here. The team has worked day and night and it’s paying off – one-two in USF2000 and one-three in Indy Pro 2000, and I think it’s just the beginning. It’s nerve-wracking, going into qualifying with just one practice and so many rookies in the series, and not knowing when red flags are going to come out. Track position is everything here and it feels good to have it go our way this time.”
Michael d’Orlando (Cape Motorsports), from Hartsdale, N.Y., will share the second row of the grid for Race One with fellow New York karting graduate Josh Green (Turn 3 Motorsport), from Mount Kisco, N.Y.
After setting the pace in practice, Porto’s efforts in the first qualifying session were thwarted by a red-flag stoppage which left him a slightly disappointed sixth on the grid. But the Brazilian’s trademark smile returned later in the afternoon when, following another red-flag interruption, he nailed his final lap just as the checkered flag flew to claim his own Cooper Tires Pole Award.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” said Porto. “We had a difficult start to the day in the first qualifying: we made some mistakes on the setup and then the red flag came out on my best lap, so that was disappointing. We changed the car for the second qualifying session, put on new tires – and the red came out again. So I only had one lap, and it was a miracle lap, to put it on pole. But I love this track – I like the street circuits, but St. Pete especially. It’s where I had my first win! It’s going to be hard at the start tomorrow, there are so many fast guys behind me, but we’re prepared to go after another win.”
Kiko Porto is your Pole winner for race two of USF2000!
— USF2000 Series (@USF2000) April 23, 2021
Brooks, who had been fastest up until that point, had to be content with second on the grid, narrowly ahead of Round-Garrido. Green once again was fourth fastest after turning the tables on d’Orlando in fifth.
Porto’s DEForce Racing teammate Prescott Campbell, from Newport Beach, Calif., will have his work cut out to maintain his championship lead after qualifying only 10th and 16th for the two races.
Tomorrow’s activities will commence with the second Indy Pro 2000 qualifying session at 8:00 a.m. The pair of 20-lap USF2000 races are due to start at 10:55 a.m. and 5:20 p.m., sandwiching the first Indy Pro 2000 race, over 25 laps, at 11:50 a.m. and the opening 35-lap Indy Lights encounter at 3:20 p.m. The second championship races for both Indy Lights and Indy Pro 2000 will take place on Sunday.