Danish driver Christian Rasmussen and Jay Howard Driver Development both made the step up to Indy Pro 2000 for 2021, and their lack of experience was no barrier to either continuing their title-winning form
Winning one rung of the Road to Indy ladder is tough enough. To win two in a row is a very impressive feat, and winning three in a row was simply unheard of before Kyle Kirkwood came around. Christian Rasmussen has now won two on the bounce – the USF2000 title as a sophomore and then Indy Pro 2000 title as a rookie – and he now targets the famous treble.
But the story of how he won his second title in as many years is one of overcoming strong opposition, and bouncing back from one of the roughest shunts on the IndyCar support bill this year to secure the crown and the crucial prize money that will allow him to fight in Indy Lights in 2022.
Rasmussen and JHDD were among the logical title favourites for 2021, along with two of the Dane’s old sparring partners. Exclusive Autosport’s Braden Eves beat Rasmussen to the USF2000 crown in 2019, and was returning from a broken neck sustained in a horrendous crash last year, while Pabst Racing’s Hunter McElrea split the pair in 2019. Both were in their second year. Eves’ team-mate Artem Petrov and Juncos Hollinger Racing’s rookie Reece Gold were also likely title threats.
For Rasmussen, however, it was clear that the title was the target once more as he moved up with the Jay Howard Driver Development team he became champion with. But JHDD was also new to IP2000, and was also expanding into Indy Lights.
“I think the approach was definitely to try to go for another championship, to go for the two in a row,” Rasmussen said to Formula Scout.
“We did a lot of testing in the pre-season trying to prepare ourselves for the challenge, but you never really know until the first weekend.”
“I think the transition from USF2000 to IP2000 is actually really good. You can definitely feel that the power increases but together with the power that increases, also the grip level increases. So it’s very balanced out. Just bigger tyres, more downforce and obviously more power, but for me, it felt pretty natural to go into a new car.
“I’ve always been in the mindset of you wanna be ready for that next step and I truly believe that I was and I showed that as well this year. I was very, very happy with the season and I’m looking forward to next year.”
And that first weekend was a strong indication of the results that were to come. While it was Eves and McElrea that shared the spoils, Rasmussen proved right away that he was able to be at the front with two fastest laps and race two pole at Barber Motorsports Park.
“The thing is that you just never know,” he said when asked whether he expected the early speed. “When you look back at my first year in USF2000, it was kind of the same thing. We started off a little bit slow, and then gained momentum at the end of the season. This year we were fortunate enough to be quick right off the bat.
“In the first weekend I actually rolled over the finish line first in race two but because of a little penalty, I got down to second instead. But just showing on the first weekend of the year that we were so strong definitely gave confidence into the rest of the season and we just continued at it, working hard, I worked hard in the gym, and the guys worked hard on the car getting it to where we wanted it to be and it ended out being great in the end.”
In round two in St. Petersburg, Rasmussen won and kept his victory on this occasion. He carried that form onto Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course, where he won twice. One of his highlights of the year, however, came at the next round.
“I think the oval, Lucas Oil Raceway, was really good running second and taking the one opportunity to get past for the lead, and being able to make that stick as well was very important.”
He would also speak highly of the second oval at Gateway, later in the year, where “after not qualifying very well, I started at the back and actually fell back at the start, but made a massive overtake into turns three and four, and ended up second in the race after being down in ninth.”
After that came Road America. The first race there marked just one of two retirements Rasmussen had, after being involved in an almighty accident on the fast, flowing road course with Jack William Miller. It was a narrow escape in a halo-less car.
“Of course it’s challenging,” Rasmussen said of his mindset after the crash. “It’s definitely challenging for the boys to get the car ready first of all. But for me, I’m pretty good at putting those things behind me and focusing on the job that I have to do.
“It’s a very important skill for a race driver to have and I think I’m pretty good at that. Even though it was quite a nasty crash, he was an inch from hitting my helmet and really close but at the end of the day you’ve got to be able to put those things behind you and perform and that’s what we did.
“I drove a good race on the second day there and ended up winning. It also kind of showcased my ability there, that you are able to put those things behind you because there are a lot of drivers that might not be able to do that in the same way. A very good weekend and I’m very happy with how it went from there.”
This all gave Rasmussen a healthy points lead, despite a straight-line speed disadvantage, but his rivals started to bite back soon after. Eves triumphed at Gateway, with Gold, Petrov and McElrea each winning at New Jersey to set up a five-way title showdown at Mid-Ohio.
“The mindset going into the [final] weekend was just finishing in front of those I needed to finish in front of. In the first race, I was running second for the most part and I don’t know if Petrov, who was in first, missed a gear or had a mechanical issue or what, I don’t know. But all of a sudden he slowed down on the straight and I went to the inside.
“I was kind of gifted that race a little bit, but at the end of the day it was our time to get a little bit of good luck my way, so we got that race and it just ended up being that I had to start the race [to be champion] and I feel like we put way too much into that. Why? At the end of the day you never just not start a race, it’s very, very rarely that happens.”
That crucial win gave the bizarre scenario where, by just starting the final race of the season, Rasmussen would be crowned champion. It’s exactly what he did, but only after remarkably not qualifying. He went out in tough conditions in the final race of the Tatuus PM-18 and put it on the podium from last place – a drive fitting of the champion.
“We ended up not doing the qualifying, just because it was in the rain, it was just too risky to start it for something to happen and not be able to start the race. So didn’t qualify, and obviously you start last when you don’t qualify. Was kind of anxious about getting those two pace car laps out of the way, and I knew I had won the championship.
“But I knew once I took the green flag, I was the champion and from there on it was about going out and enjoying my last race in IP2000, do as good as a job as I can. It was tricky conditions, we were all starting on rain tyres but on a drying track, so at the end, it was almost a fully dry track. It was a really fun race.”
There were elements of the game that weren’t perfect this year, perhaps expected from an all-rookie combo, but where they excelled was in race management, putting in the quick laps when it mattered and by getting the important results.
“We could have improved on the qualifying pace,” Rasmussen admitted. “That’s partly on my shoulders but also the car was just better in race trim. And as you saw I got the fastest lap award, so I had a lot of fastest race laps. Very good in the race runs, in the longer runs. We didn’t drop off as much on the tyres as everybody else did, that was also a strength from this year.”
Of his rivals, Rasmussen felt it was “cool” to get one over on those who pipped him back in 2019.
“Yeah, it’s actually fun to look back at, because all of a sudden you’re racing a small group, it’s not everyone that advances, but there’s that small group of people that I raced back in 2019, some of the people that I raced in 2020, all moving up into Indy Pro, so it was actually fun to see.
“We’ve had some good battles throughout the times and hopefully will continue to do in the future as well. It ended up being Braden who won the championship in 2019 with McElrea getting second in the championship and me third, so it was kind of cool to turn that around with me first, Braden second and McElrea third this year.
“They both raced Indy Pro last year, so it was really awesome to go in as a rookie and beat them… I read an article about Hunter, he’s doing the test in Indy Lights so we’ll see. Hopefully, we can continue that rivalry, hopefully, I can be on top next year as well, that’s definitely the goal. It’s definitely enjoyable to race good drivers.”
To be honest, [the emotions of winning the title compared to USF2000 are] exactly the same. If I hadn’t have won the championship last year, I wouldn’t have been able to be in Indy Pro this year and [it’s] given me the opportunity to win this championship and in the same way this year, if I hadn’t have won the scholarship and won Indy Pro, I wouldn’t have been able to continue into Lights.
“It’s very important, it’s crucial for my career, without having huge financial backing, to be able to progress through the ladder anyways. It’s a great opportunity, but I think also with the ovals it’s kind of overlooked in Europe and the rest of the world and I think the rest of the world should really look at the US for being in front on that front, for giving some young drivers a possibility to be there without it being a playfield for the richest drivers in the world, it’s actually the best drivers you can find.”
Experience pays off in 2021 USF2000 fight
Rookies won just two of the 18 races in USF2000 in 2021, and none of them had a major challenge for the title. Instead, it was down to experienced drivers, some making far bigger steps from 2020 to 2021, that made up the title fight in a year where several drivers had strong runs but it was the one who was towards the head of the pack throughout who came out on top.
The early part of the year went the way of Pabst Racing’s Yuven Sundaramoorthy and Exclusive Autosport’s Prescott Campbell, winning five of the first six races between them and asserting themselves at the forefront of the championship.
The subsequent rounds, including the higher points-paying one on the Lucas Oil oval, showcased the dominant theme of the season. Cape Motorsports – the team famed for its demolition of the opposition in this series – and its driver Michael d’Orlando, and DEForce Racing’s Kiko Porto won the next seven of eight races between them, taking it in turns at the top step of the podium. Porto took four wins, while d’Orlando took three (including Lucas Oil). The one race they didn’t top was the Road America race two, with incredible racing all the way from the drop of the green to the chequered flag. That was won by Cape’s Thomas Nepveu.
While neither Porto nor d’Orlando would win the final four races, Porto entered the final round at Mid-Ohio with a healthy enough points advantage to take the title with relative ease regardless of what d’Orlando could do. A brace of third places was more than enough (particularly with d’Orlando’s second and fourth places), to secure the crown in his second season.
D’Orlando was title runner-up, ahead of Sundaramoorthy and team-mate Josh Pierson, who was winless but consistent. Turn 3 Motorsport’s Josh Green won the wet finale to take fifth from the absent Christian Brooks, who won both St. Petersburg races but only made the podium twice after that before skipping the final round. United States Formula 4 graduate Spike Kohlbecker was the top rookie in the standings in seventh, and had one podium to his name.