In 2020, the Road to Indy spotlight shone onto Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000. Craig Woollard speaks to the respective champions, Sting Ray Robb and Christian Rasmussen.
2020 threw many curveballs across the globe and motorsport was not exempt. In the couple of days where it became evident to the world that everything was about to shut down, the Road to Indy already had started on-track action. The abrupt halt hugely changed the narrative of the IndyCar support act.
Indy Lights – expected to have been dominated by Kyle Kirkwood – was cancelled altogether as compressed schedules gave priority to series with larger entry lists. Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000 completed schedules that changed regularly, and those expected to be best-placed hit trouble.
In USF2000, Jay Howard Driver Development and Christian Rasmussen were expected to conclude the dominance displayed by Cape Motorsports in recent years. IP2000 was a bit more open – Exclusive Autosport’s Braden Eves was not a clear favourite, but a comfortable one and some very experienced runners were expected to feature heavily.
Indy Pro 2000: Sting Ray Robb comes of age
Juncos Racing’s Sting Ray Robb was in his fourth year in the category, making him more of a mainstay than the current PM-18 car or the IP2000 name. With the hand dealt to some drivers, the line-up changed from the aborted St. Petersburg running of the event. Devlin DeFrancesco had moved over from Europe with juggernaut Andretti, while Danial Frost – set to race in Lights – had taken a step down the ladder and joined Turn 3 Motorsports.
It was those two who impressed immediately. Frost beat DeFrancesco at Road America from last on the grid after a qualifying exclusion, while Juncos’s Artem Petrov took his first victory in the category in the second race in a one-two for the team ahead of Robb.
Eves took a commanding victory in the first race at Mid-Ohio, beating Frost, while Robb could only manage 10th. Petrov became the first repeat race-winner with victory in the second race before Robb took his long-awaited maiden win in the third.
Robb explains to Formula Scout how the weekend turned around for him: “The breakthrough didn’t happen in race three at Mid-Ohio, I think it happened in race one. To start the season, Road America was not very good. We had a fuel pump issue in qualifying, didn’t even get a lap in so started on the last row for race one and ended up finishing fifth in that event, and finishing second in race two [with the grid] based off the fastest lap times in race one.
“Then heading to Mid-Ohio, and it was like the bad luck seemed to follow us there. In race one I ended up finishing 10th. And, at that point, by race two, my team-mate had earned two race wins before I had even earned my first, and he wasn’t a series contender last year. For me, that was a little bit demoralising. After race one, finishing 10th, I felt pretty bad about myself.
“I was obviously frustrated, a lot of times I’m rougher on myself than anyone else is around me because I’m competitive, I want to win. And that 10th place finish was no one’s fault but my own. And so after that race I was frustrated and went for a walk by myself, there’s a park area close to the paddock at Mid-Ohio and I ended up taking a knee out there and I was praying ‘how much more do I have to go through?’. ‘I have given this everything I’ve got and I’m still not good enough’ kind of a deal and it was frustrating.
“It was like the last three to four years I have been working towards this goal and I just can’t seem to get the job done. If it’s not the car falling apart, cars running into the back of me, or flying over the top of me, then it’s just me making mistakes. So, I think at that moment I found peace in everything that had happened and I realised that it was all working towards a purpose and it was creating a level of perseverance in me that some drivers may not be able to handle at this point.
“I think mentally I’ve improved substantially this season, because of that event. And then going two races later and being able to recover from that, that was just the next afternoon.
“For me as a driver, I think that having that recovery helped us a lot during the rest of the season because there were moments during the season where we weren’t the best car, we weren’t the best driver, we had an issue here and there and we were able to recover so well that it kept us in the championship fight.”
Robb started fifth in that race but benefited from a collision between Frost and Pabst Racing’s Colin Kaminsky. He fended off Kaminsky’s team-mate Hunter McElrea for that victory and put himself just a point behind DeFrancesco at the top of the standings.
Dirt track driver Kody Swanson won on his debut in the Freedom 90 at Lucas Oil Raceway, while DeFrancesco got off the mark with a brilliant win in a thriller at Gateway to extend his championship lead. At this point, DeFrancesco had a 25-point lead over Robb, which seemed healthy enough. Eves was a further four back, with Frost and Petrov 30 and 32 behind respectively – all five very much in title contention at this point.
The calendar was ever-evolving too. The second Mid-Ohio triple-header was moved further back in the year, while New Jersey popped up and St. Petersburg became the season finale.
Indianapolis changed the complexion of the season considerably. Eves was injured and ruled out of the rest of the season after a nasty accident. Meanwhile, Robb and Juncos executed the weekend to perfection – taking a triple win and the championship lead with it.
“Going into Indianapolis, I was sitting second in the championship, quite a few points back from Devlin, and we just knew we had to put it all out on the line at that point. So the goal was obviously to win all of those and after that first race I knew we had the car to do it.
“So from then on it was like ‘alright, let’s stay out front the rest of the weekend and just dominate’. That’s what we did. You can’t go into any weekend and assume that you can have a car like that, or be in a driving mode where you can have that confidence doing certain things, but we did on that weekend, so it was pretty special.”
Robb’s team owner Ricardo Juncos has a proud record of success on the Road to Indy, and the unusual circumstances of 2020 allowed him to focus that experience on the IP2000 effort.
“This season he was very involved because he didn’t have any other teams to worry about,” says Robb. “He wasn’t running in Indy Lights, he wasn’t running in IMSA, he wasn’t running IndyCar, he was focused on the IP2000 team, and so that allowed us to utilise all of his knowledge from the past and he was a big part of engineering the car this year.
“When we got to Indianapolis and we did the weekend sweep there, that was largely in part to the set-up that he had developed based off of our feedback and so it was good to see that with him [integrated] the team seems to flourish a little bit better.”
But the event was marred by Eves’ monster accident, which left him with several fractured vertebrae. “It’s never a good feeling as a driver when you’re watching a fellow competitor stuck in the car. We only did around 12 laps at Indianapolis during that first race until his wreck happened. And I could see, we were under caution but every time we drove by, they weren’t getting him out of the car.
“So, I was worried… I was asking on the radio ‘Is he okay? Is he breathing? Is he awake? What’s going on?’ It’s scary when you’re looking at a driver like that and you’re wondering what’s going on. It’s someone you’re competing with but it’s more than that, it’s someone you can respect and you kind of consider what that is like if that happened to you in that instance. And to see his championship run cut down early is very disappointing but I’m glad to see him returning next season. It was good to hear him and see him at the next couple of races seeing that he was OK – injured, but OK.”
British F4 convert Manuel Sulaiman took his maiden victory at the rescheduled Mid-Ohio round, while Robb continued his strong run with victory in the second race (which had to be attempted twice due to rain) and a fourth place in the first. DeFrancesco, however, had a nightmare of a weekend. A DNF in the first race, and a miserable second, gave Robb a huge 49-point lead, and every opportunity to wrap up the title at a New Jersey triple-header.
“We anticipated rain sometime during the second day there [in New Jersey]. We qualified second to Devlin, and it was like 0.008s apart for quali one.
“Race one, we made a tyre strategy call that we thought would be interesting to see how the weather handled, but we ended up saving our new tyres for the following day and Devlin went on new tyres and we were actually pretty quick on the used tyres.
“We ended up having an extra set compared to him going into the second day. For qualifying two, most drivers went new-new, so sticker-sticker, in that session. We made the call to save yet another set and just use one set of stickers, and we outqualified everyone by some crazy amount because we just nailed the set-up perfectly and had a really good lap.
“In race two, we were the only driver on new tyres, and I think everyone else anticipated that it would be raining that session. It did sprinkle a little bit, but we were lucky enough to have that weather hold off for us and once I was out in the lead there was no catching us. New tyres are worth around 1.1s a lap around there for the first few laps, so I was able to jump out into an early lead and settle in from there.
“Race three was a completely different race though. We had drivers pitting during race two to set a good laptime because there’s no qualifying three, [the grid’s] based off your fastest lap time in race two. I ended up qualifying second for race three, starting on the outside, and it poured rain. Absolutely poured rain. I got a ton of wheelspin off the line, fell back to like fifth or sixth, and my team-mate and Devlin at some point during the race were battling it out in front of me and ended up taking each other out.
“From that point I was sitting I think fourth, and the team told me ‘OK so if you finish sixth, seventh, whatever [the position needed] was, you’re gonna win the championship’.
“‘OK, sounds good, that’s awesome’. But knowing myself I was feeling competitive and I could see I was chasing third down.”
With a podium finish, Robb had clinched the championship and had no pressure heading into the final round at St. Petersburg. The wins were shared between Robb and first-time winner McElrea – last year’s USF2000 runner-up concluding a strong rookie campaign with a decent end of the season.
USF2000 – Rasmussen survives mid-season scare to beat Barrichello
Six races into the USF2000 season and the clear stand-out driver was Rasmussen. After all, he had won all six on the bounce. Title success almost seemed like a formality, but a mid-season struggle at Indianapolis and Mid-Ohio allowed Pabst Racing’s Eduardo Barrichello and Cape Motorsport’s Reece Gold to take a brace of wins apiece and thrust themselves into title contention.
“[Confidence] was very, very high,” the young Dane explains to Formula Scout regarding that early run. “I thought that nobody could beat me, so I think it was kind of almost a good thing that in the middle part of the season that we struggled a little bit.
“I was always working hard but you can’t forget that nothing is over until it’s over.
“We definitely had a great season, won the first six races, had a huge points lead that shrunk down to I think only a three-point lead at one point.”
“We came to Indianapolis with a set-up for the car that we thought would work. We were very quick there for the Chris Griffis test and we just wanted to replicate what we did there and try to continue with that. But all of a sudden that just didn’t work. So we had to come out with a completely new set-up with the car and that just took a little while to get going.
“Mid-Ohio, we had the pace all weekend but honestly I think I just made some mistakes I shouldn’t have. And that made that weekend not the greatest. We did have a win in the last race, and I think I learned from those experiences in the first two races in Mid-Ohio where I made mistakes by myself.”
Rasmussen’s lead was slashed considerably but winning the final Mid-Ohio Race and two of the three races at New Jersey Motorsports Park (plus a second-place) allowed him to clinch the title with a round to spare.
That dramatic title-deciding race was affected by rain, and featured Rasmussen making moves around the outside of fast corners, and rivals Barrichello and Gold slipping down the order which placed him in a position to capitalise. Where Rasmussen was pressured by DEForce’s Cameron Shields in the second race, he was almost half a minute ahead of his title rivals in the third race, and nearly 10 ahead of Cape’s Josh Green.
Barrichello, son of Formula 1 great Rubens, won the one New Jersey race that Rasmussen did not, and had a strong run to secure second in the championship some 41 points shy. Gold’s results fell away slightly as he slipped to third, ahead of team-mate Michael d’Orlando – who triumphed at Indy himself. Two first-time winners emerged in the final round at St. Petersburg in the form of Exclusive Autosport’s Christian Brooks and DEForce Racing’s Kiko Porto.
You can hear extended interviews with Sting Ray Robb and Christian Rasmussen below (through Anchor) as the latest episode of the Formula Scout Podcast, or find it on Breaker, Google Podcasts, Overcast, Pocket Casts, RadioPublic, Castbox, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.