Myles Rowe and Michael d’Orlando both achieved their goals during this afternoon’s exciting second leg of the VP Racing Fuels Grand Prix of Portland. Pabst Racing with Force Indy’s Rowe, from Brooklyn, N.Y., clinched the USF Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires championship – as well as a lucrative Discount Tire Driver Development Scholarship valued at $664,500 to ensure graduation to Indy NXT by Firestone in 2024 – with a well-judged third-place finish, while d’Orlando once again demonstrated his own credentials with a flag-to-flag victory for Turn 3 Motorsport.
With his accomplishment today, Rowe becomes the first African American to win a U.S. open-wheel championship.
Sandwiched between the pair was 15-year-old Nikita Johnson, who completed an exhausting but auspicious day for himself and VRD Racing by finishing hot on d’Orlando’s tail in second.
For the second straight day, d’Orlando started at the front of the pack after turning the best second-fastest lap of all drivers during yesterday’s lone qualifying session to secure yet another Cooper Tires Pole Award. He duly maintained his advantage at the start, although, incredibly, it was TJ Speed Motorsport’s Lirim Zendeli, who emerged in second following a spectacular start from sixth on the grid. Zendeli braved it out around the outside of several rivals at the initial right-handed corner at the Festival Curves before slotting into second at the ensuing left-handed Turn 2.
Saturday, in stark contrast to the mayhem which had taken place just 24 hours earlier, all 17 protagonists made it through the initial sequence of corners intact. They then proceeded to entertain an appreciative crowd throughout an all-green 30-lap race.
D’Orlando soon began to put some daylight between himself and Zendeli. The gap had grown to just over two seconds inside the first 13 laps, when Johnson took advantage of worsening oversteer on his adversary’s Tatuus IP-22 and – for the second time in a little more than half-an-hour – produced another impressive overtaking opportunity in Turn 1 to snatch second place.
Johnson had eschewed the chance to stand on the podium following a fine drive in the preceding USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires race, instead hopping directly into his USF Pro 2000 steed and once again putting on a show of his capabilities.
A series of consistently fast laps saw d’Orlando stretch his lead to as much as three seconds at the halfway point, although Johnson turned up the wick in the closing stages and narrowed the gap to less than one second with three laps remaining. The pressure was on, but d’Orlando managed his pace perfectly, made not the hint of a mistake and took the checkered flag a scant 0.2529s clear of Johnson for his fourth win of the season.
Rowe once again drove a sensible race, following Johnson past Zendeli on the 14th lap and then inching clear to finish third. Rowe’s result was more than enough to put the championship title beyond the reach of his main rival, DEForce Racing’s Kiko Porto, who remaining trapped behind Zendeli in fifth. Jace Denmark (Pabst Racing), also was in close attendance at the finish line.
“All of these competitors are so tough,” Rowe said. “We knew after last year and finishing second in the (USF2000) championship, especially being so close to taking it, that we had to start off strong. That’s exactly what we did. We put in the work, we persevered and we came through. It is all thanks to everyone that supports me, everyone that is out here watching and pushing me, on down to my family – my mom and my dad for putting in the blood, sweat and tears – Roger Penske and Penske Entertainment, Force Indy, Pabst Racing and Augie Pabst, Sparco, Bell Helmets, NXG and all of the crew. It wouldn’t be possible without them.
“They have really pushed me along and really given me such extraordinary support. I am just at a loss for words. It feels almost like it has been a two-year championship from trying to bounce back after last year. It took a mental strain on us all but I am just so happy to deliver this for the team. I am thrilled that we are able to enjoy it finally.”
Jack William Miller earned his third Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from 11th on the grid to eighth for his family-run Miller Vinatieri Motorsports team.
Turn 3 Motorsport’s Peter Dempsey picked up another PFC Award as the winning team owner, and both he and d’Orlando, whose fond memories of Portland included clinching last year’s USF2000 championship, will have one more opportunity to stand on the top step of the podium when tomorrow’s season finale is set to see the green flag at 3:15pm PT.