CLERMONT, Ind. – Manuel Sulaiman (Indy Pro 2000) and Christian Rasmussen (USF2000) earned poles during Road to Indy qualifying in advance of Friday’s Carb Night Classic at Lucas Oil Raceway on Thursday evening.
The two Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires races will share the billing with the Dave Steele Classic USAC Silver Crown Series event Friday night.
The opening five rounds of this year’s Indy Pro 2000 championship have already provided enough excitement to make up for much of the disappointment caused by the delayed start to the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four different winners have emerged, and the intensity of the competition has ensured that the top five drivers are all blanketed by just 13 points heading into the first of the year’s two oval races.
However, none of those five will start on the front row of the grid for Friday’s Cooper Tires Freedom 90.
Instead that honor will fall to a pair of rookies. Sulaiman claimed his second Cooper Tires Pole Award for DEForce Racing after turning a two-lap average of 118.056 mph, which ended up being just good enough to edge out USAC Silver Crown Series kingpin Kody Swanson, who has a wealth of experience at Lucas Oil Raceway – but none in rear-engined open-wheel cars.
“We worked hard all day and we had a competitive car all day; we were always there in the times,” said Sulaiman, who also started from pole in one of the races at Road America last month. “We did some race runs to get everything right, and some quali runs, and the car felt amazing. The conditions changed a lot through the day, especially once it started getting dark, and the lap times got faster. We’re really happy and I’m very proud of the job the team did, especially for my first time on an oval in this car. I raced here in USF2000 last year so at least I know what to expect. This track is really small and to pass is difficult, so I’m glad to start up front. This is only my second oval but I think I’m starting to like it.”
With the qualifying order determined by championship points, Swanson had been first out onto the race track for qualifying, with each driver set to complete two laps around the high-banked oval.
After gaining his very first experience of a rear-engined car during a recent test at Toledo (Ohio) Speedway, Swanson gradually worked his way up to speed during today’s three practice sessions, and really gained the attention of his rivals by ending up with the third fastest time at 21.2095 seconds.
He wasn’t done. Swanson took advantage of the cooler evening conditions to go faster again on each of his two qualifying laps, 20.9765 and then 20.9094, to set an impressive benchmark with an average speed of 117.920 mph. It was to remain good enough for an outside front row starting position.
“What an interesting day,” said Swanson, who will pull double duty Friday by also racing in the Silver Crown division. “Getting comfortable was tough – I’ve been to this racetrack a lot but never in a car like this so what is required of me as a driver is totally different. I struggled to trust the downforce and that high, arching entry that these Indy Pro 2000 cars run. We had good test sessions this morning, making good improvements in the third session, but we didn’t know what to expect from qualifying. It’s a lot of experience you’ve got to gain in two laps. But to start out from scratch and not know what to expect to being on the front row is really exciting.
“I’m ecstatic for the team and myself to be that high on the starting grid, but to be that close to the pole is a little disappointing, to not get it. I’m really thankful for the opportunity that everyone has given me. It’s a lot to get used to, including the tires – I’m used to bias ply tires and these Cooper Tires are radials so it’s something that requires experience and trust, and that’s what I was working on today. To be on the front row is really something, and I’m really thankful to the whole team.”
Sting Ray Robb will start third on the grid alongside 2019 Lucas Oil Raceway Indy Pro 2000 winner Danial Frost. Devlin DeFrancesco completed the top-five.
In USF2000, Rasmussen was the last driver to venture on track for his qualifying effort. That ended up not mattering as the championship leader held serve to claim his fifth pole of the season.
Rasmussen’s opening lap of 22.7084 seconds represented an average speed of 108.753 mph, and even though he was one of only three drivers not to improve on his second flying lap, the overall average of 108.708 mph was still good enough.
“It was a good day,” said Rasmussen. “We worked hard on the car all day, figuring out the setup, getting the car where it’s supposed to be. The guys did an amazing job again. This was my second time qualifying here so I knew what to expect. The track got a little bit better toward the end of the session, as the sun came down. I put two good laps together and got another pole, which was great. It’s harder to pass here than even some of the road courses.”
Reece Gold qualified second to complete the front row. He was followed by Jack Miller, Michael d’Orlando and Christian Brooks.