Zendeli and TJ Speed Claim First Win in USF Pro 2000
 June 18, 2023| 
  • Series News
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – German-based Albanian rookie Lirim Zendeli scored an accomplished maiden  USF Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires victory for himself and his team, TJ Speed Motorsports, in this morning’s dramatic second leg of the L&W Supply Grand Prix of Road America.

Brazil’s Kiko Porto fought his way impressively through the field from 13th on the grid to finish second for DEForce Racing, while Ireland’s Jonathan Browne further exhibited the global appeal of the USF Pro Championships by rounding out the podium for Turn 3 Motorsport.

Remarkably, there wasn’t a repeat podium finisher in either of this weekend’s two races apiece for USF Pro 2000 and the junior open-wheel development series, USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires.

TJ Speed Motorsports is new to USF Pro 2000, but has gained success in every other series it has contested in recent years. This morning, the Pittsboro, Ind.-based team’s trio of rookie drivers all enjoyed a taste of success. In addition to Zendeli’s victory, Christian Weir, from Naperville, Ill., claimed the Cooper Tires Pole Award – the eighth different driver in nine races to secure a pole this season – while the third member of the team, Francesco Pizzi, from Rome, Italy, posted the fastest lap of the race.

Unfortunately, Weir’s hopes of a maiden win were dashed even before the green flag when he and fellow front row starter – and yesterday’s winner – Michael d’Orlando (Turn 3 Motorsport), from Hartsdale, N.Y., came together at the apex of Turn 14 on the parade lap. Weir continued a lap in arrears after repairs were made to his car, but d’Orlando played no further part in the proceedings.

Zendeli, who qualified third, instead took control from the start and led virtually throughout the 15-lap race. He eventually took the checkered flag a comfortable 3.5879-seconds clear of the rest. But there was much more to the story than that. Following a brief full-course caution due to a multi-car incident in the midfield, Zendeli and Pizzi, who charged from sixth to second on the first lap, came under intense pressure from behind, with Browne and championship points leader Myles Rowe (Pabst Racing with Force Indy), from Brooklyn, N.Y., snapping at their heels.

Pizzi briefly found his way into the lead at Turn Five, only to slide a little wide at the exit which allowed Zendeli to draw alongside as the leaders headed up the hill toward Turn Six. Zendeli late-braked his way back to the front, and while Pizzi set the fastest lap in pursuit of his quarry, he was unable to shake off Browne, who continued to pile on the pressure.

The battle between Pizzi and Browne enabled Zendeli to make his escape over the final few laps, although behind him, Porto, too, had worked his way steadily into contention.

With one lap remaining, Porto first managed to sneak past Pizzi at Turn Three. Then at the end of the ensuing straightaway, at Turn Five, he out-braked Browne for second place, where he would remain. The 2022 USF2000 champion’s performance comfortably earned him the Tilton Hard Charger Award.

Rowe fought his way back to fourth, ahead of a fading Pizzi, after being shuffled down the order to sixth at the mid-race restart, which enabled him to further stretch his points lead in the quest for a Discount Tire Driver Advancement Scholarship valued at $664,500 to ensure graduation to INDY NXT in 2024.

TJ Speed’s Tim Neff claimed the PFC Award of the season as the winning car owner.

The second half of the 18-race USF Pro 2000 season will commence with another double-header event at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Lexington, Ohio, on June 30 and July 1.

Provisional championship points after 9 of 18 rounds:
1. Myles Rowe, 209
2. Francesco Pizzi, 161
3. Kiko Porto, 159
4. Joel Granfors, 154
5. Salvador de Alba, 142
6. Jonathan Browne, 142
7. Jace Denmark, 124
8. Reece Ushijima, 122
9. Lirim Zendeli, 116
10. Jack William Miller, 116

Lirim Zendeli (#10 Vexavit/Ajdini Spedition-TJ Speed Motorsports Tatuus IP-22): “The race was really tough. It was confusing at the beginning because my teammate had contact with Michael [d’Orlando], so I was the leader from third already on the first corner. I had a great first lap so I could settle myself and see how things were going, but then the slipstream effect was just too huge and I couldn’t escape. I tried to do everything I could in case my teammate behind me made a mistake so I could at least get away so there is no slipstream effect any more. But the whole race he was behind me and he was really fast. I did perfect laps with no mistakes, but still it was not enough to escape. At the end finally he did a mistake and from there the last few laps were a bit easier for me. I am really happy.”

Kiko Porto (#12 Banco Daycoval/Petromega-DEForce Racing Tatuus IP-22): “This second place feels like a win after the horrible qualifying that we had. I made a mistake on the last lap after the red flag and started in P13. I knew the only way to go to the front was to be a little more aggressive on my side and that’s what I did. Also, I was very careful in the brake zones. I know a lot of guys with the draft are going to make mistakes and that’s what happened. I really used my calmness mixed with my aggressiveness to avoid contact. I had two big moments that I avoided. I am very happy with the team. They worked a lot to give me the best car for the race, and it’s very good to be back on the podium. Let’s go for it at Mid-Ohio.”

Jonathan Browne (#2 Human Centered Movement/CRPS Awareness-Turn 3 Motorsport Tatuus IP-22): “The race was pretty hectic. I meant to start fifth but ended up starting third. I don’t know what happened. I just settled in and kept my position. I knew it was going to come down to the final laps and I just had to be patient. It got a bit dicey towards the end, but I am happy to bring home my first podium.”
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