LEEDS, Ala. – Braden Eves made a perfect return to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship presented by Cooper Tires Saturday, scoring a dominant victory from the pole.
It was the first of two races comprising the Indy Pro 2000 Grand Prix of Alabama presented by Cooper Tires at Barber Motorsports Park.
Eves, 21, controlled the pace in the early stages before edging clear of Exclusive Autosport teammate Artem Petrov.
Rookie Reece Gold completed the podium after his Juncos Racing teammate Manuel Sulaiman was disqualified for an infringement discovered during post-race technical inspection.
Eves, the 2019 Cooper Tires USF2000 Champion who won in only his third Indy Pro 2000 start last year before being sidelined by a neck injury sustained in a crash on the Indianapolis Grand Prix road course, set the ball rolling Friday by beating Parker Thompson’s three-year-old lap record to grab the Cooper Tires Pole Award.
Eves was content to be cautious in the opening laps, secure in the knowledge that overtaking is notoriously difficult on the sinuous 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park road course and anxious not to put too much strain on his tires.
He gradually built up his speed, turning faster laps on each of the first nine laps by which time he had managed to stretch his margin over Petrov to just over a second.
Eves continued to extend his lead before taking the checkered flag 4.2740 seconds clear of his teammate.
“That was just amazing. It’s so hard to pass here, so I knew that if I got through the first lap, I should be okay,” Eves said. “Winning the season opener is big when you’re making a championship bid and that’s what we’re after this season. Before my USF2000 title, I won the first race as well and while I’d love to go four-for-four this year, like I did then, it’s going to be tough tomorrow. But I’m so happy, incredible job by Exclusive Autosport. Our first front row lock-out and our first one-two finish … so massive thanks to the team.
“Thanks as well to Artem. We’ve worked hard all off-season and it really helps to have a good teammate to push each other. It’s so great to be back here with the NTT IndyCar Series and with all the fans here – it adds a lot of emotion to the win.”
Sulaiman moved up one position on the third lap after finding a way past New Zealander Hunter McElrea.
He was never able to put any serious pressure on Petrov but remained just a second or so ahead of teammate Gold, who drove a strong race on his Indy Pro 2000 debut to become the best-placed rookie finisher, well clear of fellow USF2000 graduate Cameron Shields.
English rookie Enaam Ahmed – driving for the Italian-based RP Motorsport USA team, which was making its return to the series after being unable to travel last year due to the pandemic – earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award by racing from 13th to fifth.
Ahmed’s final victim, a handful of laps from the end, was the unfortunate McElrea, who had been struggling with handling difficulties following an early incident. The disappointed Kiwi finished just ahead of Pabst Racing teammate Colin Kaminsky.
Jacob Abel, Flinn Lazier, and Hunter Yeany completed the top 10.
Last year’s USF2000 champion, Christian Rasmussen finished an unrepresentative 13th for the Jay Howard Driver Development team, although he had made his way from sixth to fourth in the first few laps before incidental contact forced a pit stop to change a cut tire.
Rasmussen did claim some consolation with The Ticket Clinic Fastest Lap Award, also worth an extra championship point, as he annihilated the old lap record with a new best of 1:16.8238 (107.779 mph).
Rasmussen also will start race two from the pole position by virtue of claiming the second Cooper Tires Pole Award of the year during a separate qualifying session Friday afternoon.
Braden Eves, Artem Petrov, Reece Gold, Cameron Shields, Enaam Ahmed, Hunter McElrea, Colin Kaminsky, Jacob Abel, Flinn Lazier, Hunter Yeany, Kyffin Simpson, Enzo Fittipaldi, Christian Rasmussen, Wyatt Brichacek, James Roe, Jack William Miller, Manuel Sulaiman.