Third generation racer Nicolas Giaffone captured his fourth win of the season – and third in succession for DEForce Racing – following a spirited drive this afternoon in USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires competition. There was little breathing room throughout the opening round of the Cooper Tires VIR Grand Prix tripleheader for the 18-year-old from Sao Paulo, Brazil, who rebounded from a crash in practice earlier in the day.
Jack Jeffers, from San Antonio, Texas, claimed his third podium of the season for Exclusive Autosport with Quinn Armstrong, of Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia, rounding out the top three with his fourth podium for DEForce Racing.
Ethan Ho of DC Autosport displayed consistent top-five pace during the trio of test sessions Friday on the challenging 3.27-mile road course. The 17-year-old Korean-American based in Los Angeles posted only the 10th fastest time in practice Saturday morning, but when it counted in qualifying, he laid down a fast lap early. His time of 1m55.327s was matched, precisely, on the final lap by Joey Brienza of Exclusive Autosport, but it was Ho who was credited with his first Cooper Tires Pole Award.
After a solid start, Ho came under attack almost immediately from a charging Jeffers, who had lined up third on the grid and displaced Brienza in the opening turns, and then Giaffone, who started fourth but had moved into second by lap three.
Ho’s podium hopes were extinguished on lap five when contact from VRD Racing’s Max Taylor – who had dropped a wheel off track – resulted in a spin and the loss of seven positions.
Lap six proved to be a pivotal point in the race as a brief rain cell moved into the area, catching several drivers out and necessitating the caution flags. The running order for what would be a five-lap dash to the finish saw Jeffers leading Giaffone followed by Hudson Schwartz (VRD Racing), Lucas Fecury (DEForce Racing) and Armstrong.
More USF Juniors!
USF Juniors season reaches halfway mark at VIR
Giaffone takes back to back USF Juniors sweep at Barber
USF Juniors return to action at Barber with IndyCar
A tremendous battle ensued between Jeffers and Giaffone when the field went back to green on lap 11, with Giaffone managing to finally make his pass for the lead stick with three laps to go. Armstrong was able to work his way by Schwartz and Fecury, who lost ground after contact with Brienza but still managed to finish fifth behind Taylor and earn the Tilton Hard Charger Award. It was also an impressive drive from Taylor, who had dropped back to 11th at one stage, and set the fastest lap of the race.
“We started the day with a crash in practice, which was unfortunate, but it showed me once again how good my team is and how good they are working under pressure,” Giaffone said. “I have never been to VIR before and the team had never been here with this car, so I think we did an amazing job in setting the car right for qualifying and then setting the car even better for the race. The race here is difficult because the draft keeps everyone kind of close. You can be a half-a-second faster but you won’t be able to pull away. This made things interesting with the rain. Overall, a pretty solid race. We still have two to go and I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but it is very good to be starting the weekend P1.”
Brienza’s promising day from a front-row starting spot ended with an unrepresentative 14th-place finish after suffering right-rear tire damage.
Giaffone now holds a 40-point edge in his quest for a Discount Tire Driver Advancement Scholarship valued at $241,800 which will enable the series champion to progress onto the next step of the USF Pro Championship ladder in 2024.
Another PFC Award went to winning car owners David and Ernesto Martinez of DEForce Racing.
The action will continue with two more races Sunday. The first is slated to start at 9:10 a.m. EDT, with the finale set for a green flag at 12:55 p.m. As usual, full coverage can be found on the free USF Pro Championships App, YouTube channel and the usfjuniors.com website.