Nikita Johnson of VRD Racing has taken the USF Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires by storm on his debut race weekend at Circuit of The Americas. The 15-year-old from Gulfport, Fla., not only becomes the youngest winner in the category but also becomes the first driver to win on all three levels of the current USF Pro Championships Presented by Cooper Tires ladder.
A graduate of USF Juniors — the first step on the driver development ladder – Johnson is a full-time competitor in USF2000 competition and currently lies third in the standings with one tripleheader race event remaining at Portland International Raceway next weekend.
Yesterday’s race winner Kiko Porto finished second with DEForce Racing teammate Mac Clark third in his second USF Pro 2000 start.
Porto started on pole – earning his second Cooper Tires Pole Award of the season — with teammate Clark alongside. Johnson and championship points leader Myles Rowe of Pabst Racing with Force Indy rounded out the second row.
While Porto had a good start, the battle was on immediately between Clark and Johnson. After a back-and-forth tussle, Johnson emerged the victor and the opening five laps saw a great battle at the front between Porto, Johnson and Clark with the trio building a three-second gap to the rest of the field.
Johnson was able to take the lead from Porto on lap 7 and as the margin continued to build from the top three to the rest of the grid – increasing to over 17 seconds at the checker — all eyes were on the battle from fourth through seventh between Ricardo Escotto (Jay Howard Driver Development), Salvador de Alba (Exclusive Autosport), Lirim Zendeli (TJ Speed Motorsports), Rowe, Michael d’Orlando (Turn 3 Motorsport), Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing) and Francesco Pizzi (TJ Speed Motorsports).
“I started P3 and we got to second on the first corner. I stayed there for a little bit to try to figure out where Kiko wasn’t the best and where he was faster than me,” related Johnson. “I adapted to the car and the track and caught Kiko and ended up passing him in Turn 1 from a few car lengths back. I used the sun to my advantage as it kind of blinded us, and just stuck it down the inside and made it stick. I got in front and tried to defend to take the air off his wing. I controlled the race from there. I mean our car was just amazing, it was such a rocket.”
After Escotto retired with a mechanical issue, Zendeli managed to fend off the efforts of de Alba to secure fourth place followed by Rowe in sixth and then d’Orlando, Denmark, Pizzi and Jack William Miller of Miller Vinatieri Motorsports, who claimed the Tilton Hard Charger Award with a gain of six positions.
Dan Mitchell of VRD Racing took home the PFC Award as the winning team owner.
The battle for the Discount Tire Driver Development Scholarship — valued at $664,500 to advance to Indy NXT in 2024 — will head to Portland International Raceway next weekend for the tripleheader season finale — the VP Racing Fuels Grand Prix of Portland. A total of 99 points are on offer.
Provisional championship points after 15 of 18 rounds:
1. Myles Rowe, 333
2. Kiko Porto, 275
3. Salvador de Alba, 245
4. Lirim Zendeli, 225
5. Michael d’Orlando, 224
6. Francesco Pizzi, 218
7. Joel Granfors, 206
8. Jace Denmark, 199
9. Jonathan Browne, 188
10. Jack William Miller, 183