MONTEREY, Calif. – Braden Eves had only one thought on his mind entering this morning’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca: He needed to win. Eves, 20, from New Albany, Ohio, trailed New Zealander Hunter McElrea by 12 points. He was well positioned on the starting grid, lining up third, while the unfortunate McElrea was 18th and last after being hobbled in qualifying by a broken throttle position sensor. But while many of the front-runners had the advantage of a fresh set of Cooper tires on a track that is notoriously hard on tires, Eves would have to make do with used rubber.
Undaunted and completely fired up, Eves vaulted from third to first on the opening lap, then held off a series of challenges throughout a thrilling 20-lap contest to claim the victory – his sixth of the season – and put the championship beyond the reach of McElrea, who could manage no better than seventh.
Yesterday’s winner Christian Rasmussen, from Copenhagen, Denmark, drove another excellent race to climb from 10th on the grid to second for Jay Howard Driver Development, while McElrea’s Pabst Racing teammate, Colin Kaminsky, from Homer Glen, Ill., capped a strong season with another third-place finish.
Remarkably, Eves’ crown was the record-extending ninth in a row for Florida-based Cape Motorsports, although Pabst Racing gained some consolation by securing its third successive Team Championship.
The initial start was clean with Kaminsky – on pole for the third time this season – maintaining his advantage as the field headed downhill toward Turn Three. Eves tucked in behind Kaminsky, edging ahead of first-time front row starter Eduardo Barrichello (DEForce Racing), from Sao Paulo, Brazil, then dived boldly to the inside in the middle of the corner to wrest away the lead. It was a forceful maneuver but crucial to Eves’ title aspirations. Kaminsky was forced to run wide over the exit curbs which enabled Barrichello to regain second place.
The yellow flags waved shortly thereafter following an incident in Turn Three involving Jak Crawford (Cape Motorsports), from Houston, Texas, who had started fifth but was obliged to restart well adrift of the field. After one more lap behind the Pace Car, Eves continued to lead from Barrichello and Kaminsky, although it wasn’t long before Rasmussen entered the picture, too, after a typically bold opening few laps which saw him gain four positions on the opening lap and then two more at the restart.
Eves remained under intense pressure, initially from Barrichello and then from Kaminsky, who dived past the Brazilian under braking for Turn Two on Lap Eight, with Rasmussen also following suit. Two laps later, Rasmussen displaced Kaminsky from second and then posted the fastest lap of the race as he closed onto Eves’ tail. It seemed to be only a matter of time before the Dane would make his move but Eves was up for the challenge and Rasmussen held enough respect not to attempt anything too rash.
Kaminsky, though, remained right behind in third, and on Lap 14 managed to sneak back past Rasmussen at Turn Three. By now there were five cars in the lead train, with Eves battling for his life to fend off Kaminsky, Rasmussen, Barrichello and Zach Holden (Legacy Autosport), from Greenfield, Ind., who had made good progress from eighth on the grid.
Rasmussen was the next to make a move, diving past Kaminsky under braking for Turn Two. The pass initially cost him a little ground to Eves, but he was back on the leader’s tail with three laps still remaining. Eves, though, was up to the task. The Ohioan was inch perfect, despite the pressure, never allowing Rasmussen to get close enough to make a late lunge, and the victory – and the championship – was his. Cape Motorsports also secured another PFC Award as the winning team.
Second place for Rasmussen – his seventh podium in the last eight races – was enough to secure third place in the championship over Kaminsky on a tie-break.
Barrichello equaled his best finish with fifth, right behind Holden, while Darren Keane (Cape Motorsports), from Boca Raton, Fla., maintained sixth ahead of the classy McElrea, who had driven his heart out from the back of the field but ultimately came up an agonizing five points shy in the championship chase. His consolation was a Tilton Hard Charger Award and the knowledge that Pabst Racing had wrapped up another Team Championship.
Braden Eves (#8 MDRN Livery/Community Choice Financial-Cape Motorsports Tatuus USF-17): “That was the hardest race of my life, without a doubt. Everyone around me [at the start] had new tires. I had used tires, but I had to win to win the championship. I had to go for the lead in the first corner, and the guys behind put pressure on me the entire race. I’m so happy to finish with the form we had earlier in the season. We started off so well, but it felt like it was slipping away, which put so much pressure on me. I got a stroke of luck, with the issue he had in qualifying, but Hunter did an incredible job. I have so much respect for him, he really pushed me. This was the hardest year of my life by a mile.
”This is everything I’ve dreamed about all my life. I have to pinch myself, to make sure I’m not still dreaming! I’ve been trying to make a career in racing and the Road to Indy is how you do it, it gives opportunities to people with talent who earn their way up the ladder. All that matters now is that I’ll be racing next year in Indy Pro 2000.”
Christian Rasmussen (#6 JHDD/CSU One Cure/Lucas Oil-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus USF-17): “I started 10th because of the mechanical issue we had in qualifying but I could feel from the start that the car was so good. I got up to second and managed to make a move on Braden, but he ran me wide. He’s fighting for the championship, so I get it. I was happy to get third in the championship. The second half of the season was very good for me. People are starting to recognize me, so I hope that helps with our plans for next season. I am trying as hard as I can to stay on the Road to Indy.”
Colin Kaminsky (#23 Slick Locks-Pabst Racing Tatuus USF-17): “I got a good jump at the start. I wanted to hold the white line because drivers in this series will make you pay if you give them the white line. I went to turn in to cut the apex and I guess my tires weren’t warmed up and under me. By the time I got alongside him, he ran me off the road a little bit and I was back to fourth. But it was a really tough race between the three of us. We were on sticker tires and even though the Pabst crew gave me an unreal car, it was one of the hardest races I’ve driven. I knew it would be hard to catch those two. It’s so hard to not win the championship; the Pabst team has worked so hard for all four of us. It was hard not to deliver for them today but I just didn’t have it. We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished but it’s tough to deal with.”
Hunter McElrea (#22 Mazda/Doric NZ/Miles Advisory Partners-Pabst Racing Tatuus USF-17): “It’s hard to put into words, I’m so disappointed. My team and I did our job, the only thing that didn’t go our way was luck. Unfortunately, what happened in qualifying two told the story, but sometimes it goes like that. It doesn’t take away from the kind of year we had. We dominated the second half of the year. Driving the Soul Red Mazda car on the Road to Indy, that’s a dream come true. I can’t thank Mazda Motorsports and Pabst Racing enough for making this possible for me. We did the job we needed to do, we just missed out. It’s just a bit raw right now. I love being in America, chasing my dream, racing in IndyCar events. I’ll do everything I can to be back next year.”