ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Two weeks ago, Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires veteran Parker Thompson wasn’t even sure he would be on the grid this season.
How quickly things can change.
After concluding a late deal to join debutant team Abel Motorsports, Thompson came from behind to take the checkered flag comfortably clear of impressive rookie Rasmus Lindh Friday in the Indy Pro 2000 opener on the Streets of St. Petersburg.
Lindh’s teammate, Sting Ray Robb matched his career-best finish in third.
Unlike the earlier Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship curtain-raiser, the start for Friday’s opening round of the newly rebranded Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires was relatively clean. Thompson, mindful of the notoriously problematic turn one, elected to take a conservative approach which allowed an opportunist Lindh, who qualified second, to drive around the outside and assume the lead at turn two.
Robb, who started fourth, also snuck past last year’s USF2000 champion, Kyle Kirkwood in the opening sequence of turns, whereupon Kirkwood’s attempt to regain third place in turn five resulted in contact between the pair and a broken front wing for Kirkwood.
Lindh, who finished second in last year’s USF2000 Championship, also as a rookie, put his head down on the opening lap to open up over two seconds on the field, but it didn’t take Thompson long to reduce that deficit to just a few car lengths. Robb, too, followed in Thompson’s wheel tracks such that the three leaders were back in nose-to-tail formation as they completed the fifth of 25 laps.
Their battle was then interrupted by the first of two full-course cautions. Kirkwood’s troubled Indy Pro 2000 debut had ended prematurely in turn three after he had slid almost to the back of the field and then made additional contact with Parker Locke, who was fortunately able to continue unscathed.
Lindh picked up from where he left off at the restart. So, too, did Thompson, who, on lap 15, used his superior traction out of the final corner to gain a run on race leader Lindh, then take the lead in style under braking for turn one.
One more brief interruption, when Kory Enders dropped out of eighth place in turn 10, proved to be of little consequence to Thompson, who powered away at the restart to finish 1.3238 seconds clear of Lindh. Robb took the flag close behind in third, chased by Singaporean rookie Danial Frost, who had started sixth for Exclusive Autosport.
“This is huge for us, especially since we’re under the pressure of a one-race deal,” said Thompson. “It’s great to finally stand on the top step of the podium, since a win in St. Pete has always eluded me. It’s one of my favorite races and I’m always fast here but somehow I haven’t won it, so my mission is complete. I knew how good the car was; the Abel Motorsports guys gave me a rocket ship. I knew I was faster than Rasmus, though he did a better job at the start, but I worked him over, used my experience and the raw pace of the car to come through with the victory.”
Nikita Lastochkin earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from eighth on the grid to fifth. Along the way he had been embroiled in an entertaining tussle for position with Frost and Mexican Moises de la Vara, who briefly ran as high as third before slipping to sixth at the finish.