The story heading into the final race weekend of the 2016 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda season is that once again, a driver from Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing will win the championship for the sixth consecutive season.
But the question that lingers from here is which one of two it will be.
Series sophomores Anthony Martin, a 21-year-old Australian and Parker Thompson, an 18-year-old Canadian, are both mature beyond their years and entered as preseason favorites.
Yet only one of them will follow in the heels of Nico Jamin (2015), Florian Latorre (2014), Scott Hargrove (2013), Matthew Brabham (2012) and Petri Suvanto (2011) as the USF2000 champion, and earn the Mazda Advancement scholarship that goes with it.
Contrasting styles and contrasting fortunes have led to where they sit now. Martin, on the heels of a pivotal three-race sweep at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and six wins overall in the last eight races, leads Thompson by 21 points (347-326).
Cape went through a bit of a shocker at the season-opening weekend at St. Petersburg, because between these two and third driver Nikita Lastochkin – also a series sophomore – they scored a combined zero podium finishes.
But since, they’ve combined to win 11 of the next 12 races, tilted seven-four in Martin’s favor.
Perhaps the first turning point came at Lucas Oil Raceway, the lone oval race on the calendar, back in May. Thompson had won three of four races on the Barber Motorsports Park and Indianapolis Motor Speedway road courses, and held a 28-point advantage over Martin at 150 points to 122.
However, Martin seized the momentum by better taking advantage of slower traffic on the 0.686-mile oval, and snatched what seemed a sure victory from Thompson away from the Canadian. That’s vaulted him into his current run, where with the six wins and a second in eight races, he’s now outscored Thompson 225-176 since that point.
It’s been a fascinating year of growth for both drivers, joining USF2000’s consistently dominant team after stepping up from single-car programs in 2015.
Martin overachieved with John Cummiskey Racing and scored a number of podiums en route to rookie of the year honors; Thompson learned and developed with John Church’s JDC Motorsports team, which has long been a hotbed of producing young open-wheel talent. They finished fourth and fifth in points, impressive efforts for both.
There have been moments where Thompson’s had an edge off the trailer while others, Martin has meshed better with the changing conditions. Case in point was at Mid-Ohio, where Thompson had a great test a few weeks earlier but was unable to match up in race conditions. Martin fared better, and edged ahead.
Both have also had to overcome adversity at various points this season, and Thompson is in the point where he’ll have to overcome going into Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
Martin’s setback occurred in Toronto race one. He crashed in practice and hurt his left hand, needing to ice it and wear a brace the remainder of the weekend. A further crash in race one knocked him back to a 17th place DNF, and Thompson won the race. But Martin took a key a pivotal second place finish in race two, ensuring he wouldn’t miss a race and got 26 points that went with it.
Thompson now faces the uphill battle after a puncture in race one of three at Mid-Ohio cost him a sure podium finish and dropped him to 17th place. In that one race, a 20-point lead he had on Martin entering the weekend turned into a nine-point deficit. Successive runner-up results ensured a bit of damage limitation, but at six points per race lost, Thompson now enters this weekend 21 down to Martin.
A year ago at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Martin finished second and Thompson fifth in race one, which was both drivers’ best finishes of the weekend.
Martin heads back to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca after a month at home in Perth, Australia, where he works as a mechanic for Goldfields Compressor Hire, where his father Michael is managing director (more here from Martin’s “Meet the Contenders” feature). Outside the cockpit, he relishes the effort involved in keeping massive air compressors and boosters up and running in the recovering Australian mining industry.
But in it, he’s had advice this year from of all people, 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series champion Will Power – Martin’s countryman and native of Toowoomba, Australia. Power stopped to see Martin and his No. 8 Burgess BLA entry during the weekend multiple times.
“Yeah, I’ve watched it with interest, actually, because Jordan Lloyd is from Toowoomba, which is my hometown,” Power said during the Mid-Ohio weekend. “I’ve actually seen him when I’m in Toowoomba. It’s very cool to see him doing well, and you’ve got Luke Gabin, he’s from Perth, and Anthony Martin, he’s doing a great job leading the championship.
“He’s really, really come on strong. Yeah, I saw him win another race today, which is awesome. But yeah, they’re doing really well. Really well, really happy to see that, and I hope one of them wins the championship this year and gets to go on to the next series. Yeah, it’s good to see some Aussies coming through.”
Said Martin of the driver he hopes to emulate: “We’d been pulling up in front of the IndyCar box there where he was. He’d come up after every race. Which was quite cool. Today, he said you’re 21 points ahead, and focus on not making mistakes. Coming from Will Power, that’s huge as he has a lot of experience in this sport. So I take everything I can get.”
Thompson, meanwhile, has had a busy month in the interim since Mid-Ohio. He was nominated as a finalist for the Team Canada Scholarship, and received a local award from his hometown of Red Deer, Alberta.
All the while, he’s also trying to raise enough funding for next year to continue his career – regardless of if he wins the title or not and overcomes the points deficit. He drives the No. 2 Weyburn Energy/Uber entry (his Meet the Contenders is linked here).
“My mindset is to stay positive at this point,” he said. “Like you’ve mentioned, I had a great consistent season, up until Road America, I’ve qualified top-two every race. It’s always a mix in racing where it’s 50 percent driver, and 50 percent car. Sometimes stuff fails, and it’s up to luck. Mid-Ohio was a solid weekend. I didn’t put a foot wrong. But unfortunately we come out with a 20-point deficit. We see how fast points go.
“To be completely honest, I’m gonna be working to find sponsors. I’ve got a month-long break before Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. It’s difficult for the championship; I’m not a shoo-in. So I have to cover myself for next year. We’ll have to work hard.
“I’ll take some time to rest, decompress, and then get back on the wagon.”
Thompson explained how open the data sharing process is at Cape between the two drivers, who were friends first before battling for the title.
“When I was in karting in Europe, we never shared information,” Thompson said. “At Cape, we’re totally open, which means the guy you’re racing for the championship knows every single move you’re making. He knows exactly what you’re doing with your feet and exactly what you’re doing with your steering wheel. I know every change Anthony makes to his car; I know every problem he’s had. The data doesn’t lie, and I think that makes it a really fair fight. Whoever wins the title, we’ll come out of the season knowing a lot more about how to be a race car driver – and that will help our careers down the road.”
The battle between the two has closely resembled the 2012 title bout between Cape teammates Brabham and Spencer Pigot, both of whom have made their IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 debuts this year.
While only one can take this year’s USF2000 crown, don’t put it past either of them emulating the Australian and American stepping up through the Mazda Road to Indy from here in the years to come.