Hughes Dominates Scrappy USF Pro 2000 Opener in St. Petersburg
 March 9, 2024| 
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Just as he did one year ago, Australian Lochie Hughes arrived at the opening race of a new season on the unforgiving streets of St. Petersburg as a rookie and promptly scored an emphatic debut victory. This time, after stepping up from USF2000 to USF Pro 2000, the next level on the highly acclaimed USF Pro Championships Presented by Continental Tire open-wheel driver development ladder, Hughes led throughout a crash-marred 24-lap opening leg of the Foundation Building Materials USF Pro 2000 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg race to take the checkered flag for Turn 3 Motorsport. Impressively, it was the team’s third successive triumph in the opening round of the season.

Christian Brooks, from Santa Clarita, Calif., couldn’t quite match his result from 2023, when he took the victory, but was relatively content with second place after switching across to the defending series champion team, Pabst Racing. New Zealander Liam Sceats rounded out the podium for TJ Speed Motorsports as six different teams were represented in the top six positions.

Hughes, who completed the 2023 season third in the USF2000 title-chase, laid out his stall early. He was fastest in the traditional Spring Training preseason test at NOLA Motorsports Park just over a week ago, and continued that form onto the 1.8-mile, 14-turn street circuit in downtown St. Pete. After setting the pace yesterday morning in practice, Hughes repeated the feat later on Friday in qualifying to secure the Continental Tire Pole Award.

His advantage was never seriously threatened today. Hughes cemented his position in the lead at the start, and was clearly unfazed by an early red-flag stoppage due to a heavy crash in Turn Nine on the opening lap as he stayed out in front at the restart.

Hughes quickly pulled away from his pursuers, led by Brooks, who had jumped from fourth to second at the first corner, and had stretched his margin to almost three seconds before the caution flags waved again.

Another couple of incidents resulted in the race finishing under yellow, but it made no difference to Hughes, who never looked in any danger of ceding his position at the front.

A brilliant start saw Mexico’s Ricardo Escotto jump from eighth on the grid to fourth, behind Sceats, whom he later passed for what would have been a fine podium finish for BN Racing had it not been for an error in Turn Four with just two laps to go. Escotto’s unfortunate mistake enabled Sceats to take a strong third in his first race in North America.

Local driver Nikita Johnson, from nearby Gulfport, Fla., also impressed while finishing fourth. The VRD Racing youngster fell to eighth in the early skirmishes, but put his head down and posted the fastest lap of the race – worth one extra championship point – to finish on the heels of Sceats and just ahead of Braden Eves (Exclusive Autosport), from Indianapolis, Ind., who marked his return to the category after an enforced one-year absence by finishing fifth ahead of Canadian Mac Clark (DEForce Racing).

Hunter Yeany, from Virginia Beach, Va., also drove well in a second TJ Speed Motorsports entry, executing several impressive passes to work his way from 15th on the grid to seventh.

A little farther back Jorge Garciarce, from Guadalajara, Mexico, earned the Tilton Hard Charger Award for DEForce Racing after rising from 20th on the grid to 11th.

For the third successive year in St. Petersburg, Peter Dempsey earned the PFC Award as the winning car owner.

Race Two of the double-header opening round of the season will start tomorrow at 8:00 a.m. with Hughes once again set to start at the front of the field.

Provisional championship points after 1 of 18 rounds:
1. Lochie Hughes, 32
2. Christian Brooks, 25
3. Liam Sceats, 22,
4. Nikita Johnson, 20
5. Braden Eves, 17
6. Mac Clark, 15
7. Hunter Yeany, 14
8. Frankie Mossman, 13
9. Nicolas Baptiste, 12
10. Ethan Ho, 11

Lochie Hughes (#44 Turn 3 Motorsport Tatuus IP-22): “It was an eventful race, but you just had to manage it really. It is always tough into Turn One here – a big braking zone on a part of the track you really don’t drive on so it is very dusty and very slippery. It was just about getting through Turn One in the lead. I was able to pull a gap but it just felt like Safety Car after Safety Car, and that meant I had to keep leading at the restarts. With the big, long straight here you are quite vulnerable into Turn One. I can’t thank Turn 3 (Motorsport) enough. They gave me an awesome car and I just had to bring it home. I am very happy to start the season like this.”

Christian Brooks (#19 BUCKED UP/Deploy Surveillance-Pabst Racing Tatuus IP-22): “The race was good to say the least. We got off to a good start from fourth and was able to get around the outside of a couple guys and get into second. We were lacking a little bit of pace compared to Lochie, but we’ll make a couple of changes for tomorrow. I think we are in a decent starting spot for tomorrow.  The win is there. We just need to make sure we hit the car right, hit the driving right and take another shot at it tomorrow.”

Liam Sceats (#Tony Quinn Foundation/Omega Rental Cars-TJ Speed Motorsports Tatuus IP-22): “The race went well. At the start we gained a position but lost it at the same time. I had a good launch but Lochie covered the inside so I really couldn’t get through. From there, we had really good pace and I think we had stronger pace than Brooks and I think I just needed a half car length more to make a move. I had a few looks but it wasn’t enough. I am really happy with the car and race pace that TJ Motorsports gave me and hopefully we can go two steps more tomorrow.”
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