01.19.2017 – It’s been a long time since there was this much excitement surrounding the first rung of the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires. The arrival of the new Tatuus-built USF-17 to race shops around the country has fueled incredible momentum for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and there are a total of 14 teams that have purchased at least one new car. I’m told that there are indeed a couple of squads that may be looking to sell their new chassis due to unforeseen circumstances, but I’m expecting to at least a dozen transporters in the paddock at St. Petersburg. Surprisingly, the number of confirmed drivers sits at just seven at this time, but with test programs having already restarted in early January, I’m sure the game of musical chairs will begin and we’ll start seeing many more announcements. In fact, I’m expecting to see at least one driver confirmed tomorrow.
The new USF-17 is going to level the playing field in 2017, and we won’t really know who is going to come out of the gate the strongest until St. Petersburg. The following Insider editorial compiles in the information that I’ve been able to gather from my sources during the first two weeks of January.
ARMS UP MOTORSPORTS (2 cars)
The Elkart Lake, WI-based operation took a big leap into the fight in 2016, winning in Toronto with Victor Franzoni. They have purchased two USF-17 cars and have announced one driver at this time, series rookie Devin Wojcik, who made his debut last year at Road America. The team is currently in contact with several drivers to pair with engineer John Walko, who will return to the Arms Up technical lineup for 2017.
Devin Wojcik (confirmed): The New Jersey driver graduated from karting in 2015 and has spent the last two years running Skip Barber. He raced with Arms Up at Road America to get his feet wet ahead of the planned 2017 campaign.
Victor Franzoni (potential): We all know that Franzoni is one of the most talented young drivers in the MRTI, and that he has a desire to move to Pro Mazda. The Brazilian simply does not have the budget however, and should he not be able to assemble the funding necessary to make the jump, we may see him back with ArmsUp to help develop the new USF-17 car.
BRIAN GRAHAM RACING WITH RTD (1-2 cars)
The advance offering of the new Tatuus USF-17 opened the floodgate for new teams, and the last squad to answer the call was Canadian Formula Ford powerhouse Brian Graham Racing (BRG). The veteran team owner has partnered with Mike Maurini of Race Tech Development, as Maurini will manage team management, logistics, PR and social media, as well as driver coaching and video analysis. He will also be able to fuel a potential stream of young drivers, as Maurini also co-owns Team Koene, which is one of the top kart racing teams in the US. BGR with RTD purchased the last two cars that were made available by Andersen Promotions, but their current plan is to start slowly and test drivers for 2018, with the potential for some one-offs this year. That said, I’ve heard that they will be testing a talented karter at the end of the month, so a program for 2017 could still be a possibility.
Roman DeAngelis (potential): The young Canadian driver ran the Ontario F1600 season with Graham last year, and competed in the SCCA Majors in Florida this month as well. I would expect significant testing this year for the accomplished kart racer, in addition to a potential run at his home race in Toronto.
CAPE MOTORSPORTS (2 cars)
The Brothers Cape have won the last six USF2000 championships in a row, and their knowledge of two-liter racing is unrivalled. This year starts with a clean slate however, as the new USF-17 chassis will present every team with a blank sheet of paper and will eliminate the advantage that the Capes had from a set-up notebook 20 years in the making. That said, Cape Motorsports remains the primary title contender, if fueled only by the passion and dedication they have for winning. They know their stuff and are as talented as any team in the paddock and have shown an ability to get the most out of their drivers. They will run two cars in the USF2000 Championship this season and I expect one to be painted Soul Red.
Oliver Askew (expected): The Florida resident was part of the Team USA Scholarship this year, finishing second at the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone. He proceeded to win the USF2000 $200,000 Scholarship Shootout at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and, having tested with Cape at the Chris Griffis Memorial at IMS, I fully expect that they are in the lead for Askew’s 2017 effort in Mazda’s Soul Red scholarship colors.
CARLIN-BENIK (2 cars):
This new program will be a working partnership between junior formula open wheel powerhouse Carlin and one of American karting’s top Cadet/Junior-focused teams, BENIK. With a direct link from karting into the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, the Carlin-BENIK squad should have steady pipeline of quality drivers over the next few years. The team has taken delivery of three new USF-17 cars and I’m told that they plan to run two cars this year. Dutch karting champion Rinus Van Kalmthout ran with the team at the Chris Griffis Memorial test will make his MRTI debut at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in March. The team tested this week at Homestead with Rinus being joined by Carlin British F4 graduate Devlin DeFrancesco. The Canadian announced in November that he will run the EuroFormula Open series with Carlin in 2017. With only two conflicts on DeFrancesco’s EF schedule (Gateway and Watkins Glen), could we see the Canadian do a few USF2000 one-offs in 2017?
Rinus Van Kalmthout (confirmed): Van Kalmthout confirmed his participation in the 2017 USF2000 program at the launch of the USF-17 at Indy in May, and then announced his signing for Carlin in late August.
EXCLUSIVE AUTOSPORT (2-3 cars)
Michael and Kimberly Duncalfe’s operation has been a top-notch, race and championship-winning F1600 squad since it debuted in 2013, and they’ll make the step into the MRTI arena this year with three USF-17s and the potential to run a trio of drivers. Along with their loyal EA mechanics, the team has brought in series veteran Jay Green on a multiple year contract to be the US2000 crew chief. I’m hearing that the team is preparing to make a big announcement this week, confirming their first full-season driver.
Jayson Clunie (expected): The Canadian ran with the team in 2014 and won the Formula Tour F1600 Masters Championship, and then ran a limited schedule of SCCA Formula Continental and F2000 Championship Series races in 2015 and 2016. I fully expect that we’ll see Clunie run a handful of USF2000 races with the team this year, depending on his business commitments.
DE FORCE (2 cars)
The brand new team – launched by David and Ernesto Martinez – has taken delivery of two cars and will be ready to make their series’ debut at St. Petersburg in March. The team competed at the Pro Mazda finale at Mazda Raceway last fall with Kory Enders and Moises De La Vera, and both drivers are confirmed for the 2017 season of USF2000 competition.
Kory Enders (confirmed): Enders finished with a best result of eighth at the Mazda Raceway finale last year and is currently competing in the Toyota Racing Series in New Zealand to gain much-needed track time
Moises De la Vara (confirmed): De La Vera has run in Mexican NACAM F4 (2015-16) and US F4 series (2016), and scored a best finish of sixth in the Pro Mazda finale at Monterey last September
GROUP A RACING (1-2 cars):
The Long Island, NY based squad has a long history in American motorsports including F2000 and TransAm racing, and they have two new cars in their shop ready to go for the 2017 season. The team recently ran Lucas Oil School of Racing series champion Mathias Soler in a testing outing at MSR Houston, where they operate their program in the winter. They’re extremely excited by the performance of the new car and co-owner Jonathan Scarallo will get behind the wheel next week to continue the team’s set-up development. They also have a potential driver testing for the team at the end of the month.
JOHN CUMMISKEY RACING: (2 cars)
In their USF2000 series debut in 2015, John Cummiskey Racing showed their abilities when they ran Anthony Martin to the Rookie of the Year honors, a season that was highlighted by tremendous consistency and not a single mechanical failure. Last year, Cummiskey campaigned Norwegian Ayla Agren and Brazilian rookie Lucas Kohl to a total of 15 top-10 finishes in 2016. I spoke with John this week and he’s excited about the season and the new car, as two USF-17s are prepped and ready to go. The experience team owner is talking with several drivers, but nothing has been put into place as of yet. Cummiskey has a tremendous resume, working with the likes of Penske Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing, and his car prep is second to none. I’m rather shocked that he doesn’t have drivers lining up to get the chance to pilot his machinery.
NEWMAN WACHS RACING:
The announcement that Newman Wachs Racing would be returning to open wheel formula car competition was certainly welcomed news for those who recall what they accomplished in Atlantic Championship competition. Eddie Wachs has a deep passion for the sport, and Team Manager Brian Halahan knows his stuff, so I expect the team to challenge right out of the box. They signed one of the top rookies from 2016 in San Diego’s Dakota Dickerson, and they completed their first test outing last week and the results were extremely positive. The team is planning to run three cars but could do a fourth if the right opportunity presented itself. I’m told that a second driver could be signed as early as Friday, but Halahan was tight-lipped when we spoke.
Dakota Dickerson (confirmed): The Californian has signed to run USF2000 in 2017 and Pro Mazda in 2018, and this stability should give him great confidence this season. He has tested with the team and is extremely positive about his expectations for new year.
PABST RACING (2-3 cars):
Over the past two seasons, the Augie Pabst-led and Tonis Kasemets-engineered team has become one of the leading USF2000 operations, capable of race wins every time they drop the transporter door. Pabst has three new USF-17s in his Oconomowoc, WI shop and is close to signing his first two drivers for the upcoming season. As usual, Augie isn’t saying much and that speaks to the ultra-competitive and cutthroat nature of team ownership. That said, I’ve been able to find out that one of the drivers will be entering his sophomore season in the USF2000 series and that the other is a rookie. The team is in talks with a third driver as well. Pabst ran Jordan Lloyd, Yufeng Luo and Garth Rickards in 2016, winning at St. Petersburg to begin a solid season. Rickards is off to Indy Lights with Carlin for 2017 and Lloyd confirmed with me that he simply doesn’t have a full budget at this time. Luo’s plans for the new year are unconfirmed. So, Pabst Racing will roll into the new season with a fresh driver line-up, backed by the same stout technical staff that have made them one of the top teams in the paddock.
RJB MOTORSPORTS (1 car):
The Sturgis, MI-based operation made its series debut last season with Clint McMahan and Michai Stephens, and will be back in 2017 having purchased a single USF-17. Team owner Fred Edwards introduced his driver Chandler Horton at the Performance Racing Industry (PRI) show in Indianapolis in December.
Chandler Horton (confirmed): The son of IndyCar Director of Engineering Jeff Horton will enter the USF2000 program with significant karting and Formula Ford experience. It will be interesting to see how the rookie takes to the new USF-17 with his second-year team.
TEAM PELFREY (3 cars):
Team Pelfrey’s trademark black and yellow cars are easy to spot on the racetrack, but not just because of their livery. They’ve stepped up their USF2000 game over the past two years and have put their rookie drivers in the top-10, and on the podium in 2016. Freshman Robert Megennis won the USF2000 Rookie of the Year title last year, and for the first time since they joined the series, Team Pelfrey will have a sophomore driver in their car for a season thanks to Megennis’ return. We all know the worth of a year’s experience at any level of the MRTI, so this will likely be the team’s most successful season thus far. They have done well in graduating drivers from the F1600 program into USF2000, and will aim to do the same into the new PM-18 in Pro Mazda next year.
Robert Megennis (confirmed): The young pilot from New York was ultra-impressive in his Rookie of the Year winning season and must be considered a title contender as he is confirmed in his return to Team Pelfrey and USF2000.
Kaylen Frederick (potential): Frederick raced with the team in F1600 last year and did well, winning at Pittsburg, and we hear that he will likely re-sign to pilot a USF-17 this season.
POTENTIAL UNSIGNED DRIVERS:
Parker Thompson (rumored): Top-quality experienced drivers will be a hot commodity coming into 2017, with a new car adding to the mix. Thompson has two strong seasons of USF2000 under his belt and battled for the championship last year. I’m told that an announcement could be coming soon.
Kyle Kirkwood (potential): I spoke with Kyle this week and while he continues to make the USF2000 series his target, he is still working diligently to come up with the necessary funding. The Team USA Scholarship winner showed his immense talent overseas in October and would be a great addition to the USF2000 series in 2017.
Dev Gore (expected): I can confirm that the 19-year-old Florida karter will indeed make the jump to the USF2000 program in 2017, although he is not yet ready to announce his team at this time. Gore won the MTRI / Maxspeed Driver Advancement Award, which put him behind the wheel of a JDC Motorsports Van Diemen at the Chris Griffis test in October.
Luke Gabin (potential): The Aussie has been a top driver in the series for two years, since making his debut in 2015 with Mazda scholarship backing. Gabin raced with JAY Motorsports last year and was often among the fastest on the track, and his experience is no doubt an attractive quality that could be leveraged by many teams. I spoke with Luke and he said that he’s very close to having something in place for the full season, but nothing is finalized.
Calvin Ming (expected): Ming was one of the top drivers in the F1600 Championship Series last year with Team Pelfrey, finishing fourth overall with wins at Watkins Glen, Mid-Ohio and New Jersey Motorsports Park. Calvin let me know that he’s tested with several teams and will most likely be participating in the USF2000 Championship in 2017.
Phillippe Denis (potential): I have spoken with Denis on numerous occasions and he is very focused on putting together a USF2000 program for 2017, but the search for the necessary funding continues
Ayla Agren (rumored): I’m hearing word that Agren may be returning to the USF2000 program for a third year, and this would be a big story as she would definitely become a contender for the championship.
Lucas Kohl (rumored): I’m hearing that the Brazilian is talking to team owners about a potential return to the USF2000 program for 2017, but I have not been able to lock down anything solid.