Home Featured The drivers who spent 2023 trying to forge an IndyCar future

The drivers who spent 2023 trying to forge an IndyCar future

by Ida Wood

Photo: James Black

Indy Nxt and USFP2000 is where drivers aiming for IndyCar go to race. Who starred in the two series in 2023?

After 2022 Indy Nxt champion Linus Lundqvist failed to land a spot on the IndyCar grid by the start of the 2023 season, it put pressure on the feeder series to ensure the same would not happen again next year.

Lundqvist eventually did make it to IndyCar in August, substituting for an injured Simon Pagenaud, and by the end of the month had been snapped up by Chip Ganassi Racing for 2024. Ten days after that, Lundqvist’s status as reigning Indy Nxt champion ended as Christian Rasmussen was crowned. It only took him a month-and-a-half to get his 2024 IndyCar seat.

Rasmussen won the title by a sizeable 65 points, but his title fight with Hunter McElrea went all the way to the final race.

The season had begun with Andretti Autosport’s rookie Louis Foster, the reigning USF Pro 2000 champion, taking pole in St. Petersburg but it was HMD Motorsports’ Danial Frost who came from seventh on the grid to win.

There were five caution periods in the opening 40-lap race, and Frost took the lead from rookie Nolan Siegel after the last one. Jacob Abel had led before that, sweeping past Foster and HMD’s Rasmussen in one move on a restart then building a gap of over three seconds. Foster reeled him back in before another caution period, but then made a mistake on the restart and dropped down the order.

The race was neutralised once more, and Rasmussen challenged Abel for the lead on the restart but Siegel passed both. Frost then managed to find a way through too, and on the final restart he had the opportunity to pass Siegel and made the most of it. With so many drivers having battled for the win, it dissolved many pre-season title predictions.

Rasmussen took a lights-to-flag win at Barber Motorsports Park to claim the points lead, then Juncos Hollinger Racing’s Matteo Nannini did the same on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course but was only on the grid for three more rounds.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Travis Hinkle

Foster took two poles in Detroit despite damaging his suspension in qualifying, but in race one he was spun around by McElrea early on. He got a stop-go penalty, promoting HMD pair Reece Gold and Siegel to the front. After several battles, Siegel eventually managed to pass, but a gearbox issue with two corners left of the race meant the win went to Gold.

Siegel got redemption by winning race two, putting him within two points of championship leader Rasmussen.

Ganassi junior Kyffin Simpson was the surprise pole-sitter at Road America, but on a damp track hit the grass exiting turn one of the race and his car went into the air. Gold took the lead, ahead of Foster and Siegel. Rasmussen lost the points lead by crashing mid-race, by which point Siegel was already in the lead. He went on to win, and top the points table, with Abel and McElrea making their way onto the podium.

Rasmussen pipped Foster to pole at Mid-Ohio by 0.01 seconds, and the latter passed him to win when rain began to fall in the race. Siegel spun down to 15th as the track being more slippy, but remained on top in the championship.

Next up was the first oval race of the year at Iowa Speedway, where Abel took pole for his family’s Abel Motorsports team but was beaten to victory by Rasmussen, who became points leader once more.

That proved crucial for the next round on the streets of Nashville, as wet weather meant qualifying was cancelled and the championship standings set the grid. Rasmussen therefore started on pole, and converted it into his third win of 2023.

Laps led in 2023

1 Rasmussen 275   2 McElrea 80   3 Siegel 67   4 Foster 52   5 Gold 41   6 Matteo Nannini 35   7 Abel 28   8 Frost 2

Photo: IndyCar

McElrea became his closest title rival by winning on the second visit to IMS, holding off Foster and then his other Andretti team-mate James Roe Jr.

Rasmussen once again profited from a rain-cancelled qualifying to start on pole for the Gateway oval race which was delayed so much it took place at night due to the day being so wet. There was lots of battling, and Rasmussen got a big confidence boost by winning again ahead of Foster and McElrea.

Three races over two rounds remained, and eight drivers were still in title contention.

Foster took a lights-to-flag win at Portland, while Rasmussen and McElrea were among the drivers caught up in a multi-car collision at the first chicane. Siegel finished second, and Rasmussen recovered to fifth to grow his points lead over retiree McElrea as the title fight was reduced to five names ahead of the double-header Laguna Seca finale.

McElrea pipped Rasmussen to pole for race one, then Rasmussen pipped McElrea to pole for race two. They retained their positions in both races, which meant Rasmussen took the title. His winning margin of 17.88s in the title decider was achieved while driving “at 89%”, although McElrea had a delaminating tyre from lap two onwards.

Siegel edged Foster to third in the standings, and therefore was the top rookie, while Frost was not a podium threat after the season opener until Portland and he came sixth in the points table.

Ganassi promoted Simpson to an IndyCar seat for 2024 despite ending his second Indy Nxt season 10th in the standings, and three-time W Series champion Jamie Chadwick had a best finish of sixth in her highly-publicised rookie campaign.

McElrea has secured a seat in the IMSA Endurance Cup but no IndyCar plans announced yet, while Siegel, Foster, Abel, Roe and Gold will join Chadwick in staying in Indy Nxt next year. Abel and Foster were fastest in post-season test sessions at Barber last month, contested by 21 cars.

2023 Indy Nxt standings
Pos Driver Team Wins Poles FL Points
1 Christian Rasmussen HMD 5 3 5 539
2 Hunter McElrea Andretti 2 2 4 474
3 Nolan Siegel HMD 2 1x 2nd 2 415
4 Louis Foster Andretti 2 4 2 410
5 Jacob Abel Abel 2x 2nd 1 397
6 Danial Frost HMD 1 1x 3rd 361
7 James Roe Jr Andretti 1x 2nd 1x 2nd 335
8 Reece Gold Juncos & HMD 1 2x 3rd 334
9 Ernie Francis Jr HMD 1x 3rd 1x 6th 300
10 Kyffin Simpson HMD 1x 2nd 1 283

USF Pro 2000

The rung below Indy Nxt attracted 12 full-time drivers, and four of the nine race-winners were part-timers. The would-be champion was almost clear from the outset though, as Pabst Racing’s Myles Rowe won three of the first four races.

Christian Brooks won the season opener in St. Petersburg from pole, but the Turn 3 Motorsport driver only did one other round and came 22nd in the standings. Jay Howard Driver Development’ Ricardo Escotto was the next driver to beat Rowe to victory in race one at IMS, but that was his sole top-five finish and he ended up 13th in the championship.

Then it was Exclusive Autosport’s Joel Granfors, who came from 18th on the grid to win race two and followed that up with second place in the Freedom 90 on the Indianapolis Raceway Park oval. That race was controlled by his team-mate Salvador de Alba. With an eye on next year, 2022 GB3 runner-up Granfors missed the final two rounds while still in title contention.

At Road America the wins were shared by USF2000 champion Michael d’Orlando and ex-Formula 2 racer Lirim Zendeli, with Rowe returning to the podium in race one to grow his points lead over Francesco Pizzi who had one podium from eight starts.

Rowe may have looked comfortable at the top of the points table, but with each weekend it was hard to predict who would be fighting at the front. This was shown best in qualifying at Mid-Ohio. D’Orlando led a top four covered by 0.1s in Q1, and Rowe topped Q2 by 0.0109s and with a gap of just 0.0991s to seventh place.

In race one d’Orlando converted his pole into victory in dominant fashion, although had to handle a red flag interruption, and in race two Rowe held off DEForce Racing’s Kiko Porto – who moved past Granfors into second in the standings.

D’Orlando and Rowe brought home the wins again in Toronto, but it was a more chaotic weekend for both. Rowe got two poles, but crashed out at the very end of Q2. His car was not too damaged so he took his pole spot for race one, and he led until the race was red flagged so drivers could change to wet compound tyres due to the arrival of rain.

Photo: Gavin Baker Photography

The track was soaked by the time the race restarted, with lap 21 taking place behind the pace car. Rowe found out how difficult it was being first into the corners at racing speeds as he went too deep at turn three. He stopped and reversed his car without any further drama, but dropped to 10th. D’Orlando inherited victory, and Rowe finished seventh as others made errors.

Granfors took back second in the standings by finishing fourth, but dropped to fifth in the points after race two. He retired in a lap one crash, as Rowe grew his lead over Porto by winning.

Several series regulars were absent when USFP2000 returned from its summer break to race at Circuit of the Americas, but in their place were as many debutants. Mac Clark and Nikita Johnson were among those and immediately impressed, with Clark leading Porto and Johnson in qualifying. Porto passed Clark on lap one and took his first win in over a year, with the other two making the podium on their debut.

Race two pole went to Porto, but 15-year-old Johnson became USFP2000’s youngest ever winner after battling hard against Porto and Clark. Rowe finished fourth and sixth in the two races, having 23 points cut off his lead but with 58 still in hand.

D’Orlando denied Johnson pole by 0.07s in qualifying for the Portland finale, and in race one the field went from 19 down to 12 cars on the opening lap as multiple crashes took place at the first chicane. Cutting the corner entirely helped d’Orlando avoid the chaos and keep the lead, and the clear-up took so long the race was red flagged on lap six. He cut the chicane again when action restarted, this time copping a penalty that lost him positions, and Porto benefited to beat Rowe to victory.

Rowe made history in race two by becoming the first African-American champion of a single-seater series in the USA, finishing third behind d’Orlando and Johnson, who won the final race.

The scholarship for winning the title has helped Rowe already secure his 2024 Indy Nxt seat with HMD, with the next highest-placed graduate being Jonathan Browne who came eighth in USFP2000 standings and will be Rowe’s team-mate.

2023 USF Pro 2000 standings
Pos Driver Team Wins Poles FL Points
1 Myles Rowe Pabst 5 4 3 391
2 Kiko Porto DEForce 2 2 1 327
3 Salvador de Alba Exclusive 1 2x 3rd 2 291
4 Michael d’Orlando Turn 3 4 6 1 288
5 Francesco Pizzi TJ Speed 1x 3rd 1 2 259
6 Lirim Zendeli TJ Speed 1 1x 3rd 1 258
7 Jace Denmark Pabst 1x 2nd 1 1 252
8 Jonathan Browne Turn 3 2x 3rd 1x 5th 230
9 Jack William Miller MVM 2x 3rd 1 212
10 Joel Granfors Exclusive 1 1x 2nd 1 206