ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Rinus VeeKay drove another exemplary race under sunny skies this afternoon to win the second leg of the Pro Mazda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg Presented by Allied Building Products. The Dutch prodigy remained unflustered after a miscue at the initial start which caused his Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18 to be shuffled back in the pack after having claimed the pole position during qualifying yesterday morning. The officials wisely red-flagged the race and ordered a complete restart, after which VeeKay maintained a slender advantage over BN Racing’s David Malukas throughout the remainder of the 25-lap contest to claim a hard-earned victory – his second in as many days – on the challenging, 1.8-mile downtown street circuit.
VeeKay’s Juncos Racing teammate, Brazilian Carlos Cunha, completed the podium.
Following an initial wave-off due to some debris on the track, the 16-car field was in perfect order as it exited Turn 14 in anticipation of the green flag. Unfortunately, a communication glitch resulted in some confusion at the start, whereby Harrison Scott (RP Motorsport Racing) leapt from seventh on the grid to the lead while VeeKay, the polesitter, found himself shuffled all the way to 12th as the field crossed beneath the starter’s stand.
The race was reset after a handful of laps, with VeeKay regaining his rightful position and the remainder of the field taking the green flag in single-file order. VeeKay, 17, who finished second in last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda – the first step on the world renowned Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder – immediately took off into the lead but was unable to shake off Malukas.
Oliver Askew (Cape Motorsports) initially ran a close third until clipping the wall in Turn Eight and knocking his car’s suspension out of alignment. The reigning USF2000 champion held the remainder of the field at bay for a couple of laps but his task was clearly a step too far, and by Lap 11 he had slipped to seventh, which he maintained to the finish.
The battle at the front remained intense as Malukas placed the leader under intense pressure. VeeKay, though, was up to the challenge, and even after a late full-course caution after Malukas’ teammate, Kris Wright, crashed in Turn Nine, VeeKay held on to win by just over a half-second.
Cunha, once he had found a way past Askew, charged hard in a distant third place and gained the additional bonus point for posting the fastest race lap at 1:09.2714 (93.545 mph).
Scott, from Chelmsford, England, couldn’t quite match that pace in fourth, primarily due to a front wing that had been damaged during the early stages, but looked set to maintain that position until the wing failed altogether at the final restart, dropping him to the back of the pack.
Idaho teenager Sting Ray Robb inherited fourth after another strong drive for Team Pelfrey. He was followed by yesterday’s second-place finisher Parker Thompson (Exclusive Autosport) and Askew, who was shadowed by teammate Nikita Lastochkin, the Team Pelfrey pair of Andres Gutierrez and Rafael Martins, with Englishman James Raven rounding out the top 10 for DEForce Racing.
VeeKay’s perfect weekend, allied to difficulties at one stage or another for most of the other pre-season favorites, ensured he will travel to the next two rounds of the championship at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama on April 20-22 with a healthy 19-point advantage, 62-43, over fellow rookie Thompson, with Cunha just one point further back in third.
Rinus VeeKay (#2 Jumbo Supermarkets/La Place Restaurants/KNAF Talent First-Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “This is amazing, just like last year when I won both races at Road America and was fighting with David! But both of us were confused at the start because the green came so early, so everyone passed us. I’m happy that the series saw the mistake and gave us a chance to recover. I had a comfortable gap through the race and when I saw the yellow flag I thought ‘oh, no!’ I knew the restart had to be very good and I did get enough of a jump to stay in front. The team gave me a great car, but I want to thank Elite Engines as well. I had trouble before the season started and they helped me get over it. It’s amazing how quick this car is so thank you Tatuus and Mazda! It’s magic, driving it.”
David Malukas (#79 HMD Trucking-BN Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “I was focused on Rinus so I didn’t jump the start, and we just got swallowed up. I’m happy they redid the start. I had to try to keep everyone behind me on the restart and try to stay with Rinus. And honestly, on the restart, I was more worried about getting caught by the people behind me than trying to catch him. I knew we were quick so I was able to keep that battle going. You can’t win the championship the first weekend, but you can really hurt your chances. I joined mid-season last year in USF2000 so I tried riskier moves, but this season we’re going for the championship so I’m making more mature decisions and strategies. That worked today.”
Carlos Cunha (#1 Juncos Racing Tatuus-Mazda PM-18): “We had such a crazy day yesterday so this was much better, even with the confusion at the start. I was one of the fastest cars on track, but I was stuck behind other cars. The last restart was hard, it was difficult to stay behind Malukas. We had a couple problems this weekend, so I had to work very hard knowing that I didn’t have luck on my side. It was difficult at the start, because I didn’t understand what happened, so I just kept driving. But I stayed focused the entire time and I am happy to come away with a podium.”
About Pro Mazda:
The Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires debuted in 2013 as a new series, replacing the Star Mazda Championship which ceased operation in 2012 after 22 years. The series is sanctioned by INDYCAR and owned and operated by Andersen Promotions. It is the second official step on the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires ladder system with the series’ champion awarded a scholarship package from Mazda to advance to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires competition the following year. For more information, visit promazdachampionship.com
About Mazda, Mazda Motorsports:
Mazda Motorsports boasts the most comprehensive auto racing development ladder system of any auto manufacturer in the world. The Mazda Road to 24 program offers a number of scholarships to advance drivers up the sports car racing ladder, beginning with the Global MX-5 Cup series and culminating with the Mazda Prototype team. The Mazda Road to Indy is a similar program that includes Mazda-powered categories of USF2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. In grassroots road racing, more Mazdas race on any given weekend in North America than any other manufacturer. Mazda is also the title sponsor of the renowned Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Monterey, Calif. Follow all of the latest news at MazdaMotorsports.com
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About Cooper Tire & Rubber Company:
Cooper Tire & Rubber Company is the parent company of a global family of companies that specializes in the design, manufacture, marketing and sale of innovative, great-performing tires that you can count on to last for thousands of miles, getting you where you need to go, and back again. Cooper is proud to be the spec tire for all three levels of the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, a development program within the Verizon IndyCar Series. Cooper tires can also be seen on the track as a sponsor in the short course off-road TORC Series. Headquartered in Findlay, Ohio, Cooper, with its subsidiaries, has manufacturing, sales, distribution, technical and design operations in more than one dozen countries around the world. To connect with Cooper, visit www.coopertire.com