WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Rinus VeeKay came from behind at the famed Watkins Glen Int’l road course to secure an emphatic victory in the 14th and final round of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda on Saturday.
The 16-year-old’s joy was tempered because he knew that second place was more than enough for fellow rookie Oliver Askew to secure the championship and a Mazda Scholarship worth almost $400,000 to ensure graduation to the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, the next step on the Mazda Road to Indy open-wheel development ladder, in 2018.
VeeKay’s teammate, Calvin Ming, vaulted from sixth on the grid to finish on the podium for the sixth time during another strong rookie campaign.
The pressure was palpable during qualifying, with every championship point crucial for the two title contenders. After being comfortably fastest in the opening practice session on Friday, VeeKay, who trailed by 13 points, had opted to run a minimum of laps in the second session to ensure he would have two virtually brand-new sets of Cooper tires – one for qualifying and another for the race.
Then Askew stepped up in qualifying, posting a new lap record even faster than the old Pro Mazda mark to snatch his eighth pole of the season. VeeKay tried his best but came up just over a tenth of a second shy to ensure the two rivals would start side by side on the front row of the grid.
Askew took full advantage by leading from the start, only for VeeKay to challenge him on the outside line into turn one. Askew wisely didn’t force the issue and it was VeeKay who emerged in the lead. Indeed, the young Dutch sensation was never seriously threatened as he romped clear, turning a string of consistently fast laps to take the victory by a commanding 9.6053 seconds.
“I’m happy but I could be happier. I hadn’t really planned to pass Oliver at the start but I saw him brake for the inside and I went for the outside and all of the sudden I passed him,” said VeeKay. “We had a good race down the back straight but I didn’t want to give the position back. I think he backed off to be sure of the position for the championship, but I put my head down and got away from the field. I will take some time in the off-season and figure out what I want to do next year. I definitely want to stay in the Mazda Road to Indy. I don’t know where on the ladder but I think we will move up. It was a great season, with 12 podiums out of 14 races with three wins, so I cannot thank the Pabst team enough for giving me a great car and getting better every weekend.”
Askew was more than content to run in second, secure in the knowledge that after already earning one championship point in qualifying, all he required was a fourth-place finish to achieve his goal. He did so by seven points, 351-344.
“I’ve dreamed about this moment for so long. It’s such a huge weight off my shoulders, to be champion,” said Askew. “My learning curve has been really steep this year but I’ve had so many great people around me who have helped me progress. I learned something every day at the racetrack. The priority was to finish on the podium in case Rinus won and got maximum points, and we did that. I just did the best I could to keep Calvin behind me. I can’t thank the Cape team enough. We started on the wrong foot this weekend but once again when it counted we got pole and I had a great car. I’m so happy to be able to continue my relationship with Mazda and Cooper Tires, they’ve helped me so much. Thanks also to Team USA Scholarship for giving me the opportunity, and Rising Star Racing. This is not going to sink in for a while – I can’t wait for next year.”
Ming remained close behind in third but was never quite close enough to challenge.
Kaylen Frederick, the youngest driver in the field at age 15, finished fourth for Team Pelfrey, while David Malukas, charged from 14th on the grid to fifth.
Rinus VeeKay, Oliver Askew, Calvin Ming, Kaylen Frederick, David Malukas, Andres Gutierrez, Kory Enders, Darren Keane, Lucas Kohl, Robert Megennis, Alex Baron, Callan O’Keeffe, Phillippe Denes, Bruna Tomaselli, Parker Thompson, Dev Gore, Jayson Clunie, Niall Murray, Zach Holden.