Hughes and JHDD Dominate St. Pete Streets in USF2000
 March 4, 2023| 
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Australian rookie Lochie Hughes romped to a conclusive victory in this afternoon’s Cooper Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the opening round of the new USF2000 Presented by Cooper Tires season. Hughes, from the Gold Coast of Queensland, Australia, clearly took a shine to the bayfront street circuit, and under a gloriously sunny sky, swept a flag-to-flag debut victory for Jay Howard Driver Development.

Teammate Evagoras Papasavvas, from Loveland, Ohio, capped a tremendous day for former USF2000 and INDY NXT champion and NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver Jay Howard by fighting his way past local driver Nikita Johnson (VRD Racing), from Gulfport, Fla., to capture second position just five laps from the finish. Johnson completed the podium in third.

Hughes, the winner of last year’s F4 United States Championship powered by Honda, set the scene for his triumphant debut by posting the fastest lap during qualifying yesterday to capture the Cooper Tires Pole Award. Johnson, the youngest driver in the field at just 14 years of age, started alongside on the front row for today’s 20-lap race with VRD Racing teammate Sam Corry, from Cornelius, S.C., and Papasavvas sharing row two.

The 21-car field made it cleanly through the tight and often tumultuous Turn One, with Hughes maintaining his lead, but just a quarter-mile later in Turn Three, both Zack Ping (VRD Racing), from Buford, Ga., and Avery Towns (Exclusive Autosport), from Allen, Texas, separately clipped the tire barrier at the exit of the corner and retired moments later with badly damaged suspension.

After four laps behind the Pace Car, Hughes leapt away in the lead and immediately pulled out a small but appreciable gap over Johnson, Corry and Papasavvas. Next time around, Papasavvas executed the first of two impressive passes as he scythed cleanly past Corry under braking for Turn One.

Hughes edged away gradually in the lead, finally taking the flag with a margin of victory of 2.4846 seconds.

Behind, though, there was action aplenty. One slight slip from Johnson was all it took for the inspired Papasavvas to sneak through into second place, leaving Johnson to complete a memorable day in front of a throng of local supporters by finishing third.

The top three finished well clear of the rest, who, remarkably, were led by Simon Sikes. The native of Augusta, Ga., had started way back in 15th after making a mistake and catching the wall in qualifying. Pabst Racing worked its usual magic by undertaking major repairs, whereupon Sikes, who arrived at the event as one of the favorites for top honors, repaid the team’s faith by gradually working his way through the field.

Sikes’ final victim was Corry, whom he dispatched on Lap 16. Sikes then posted the fastest lap of the race with just one circuit remaining to claim one more championship point. He also took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award.

Corry held on for fifth at the finish ahead of Nicholas d’Orlando (Exclusive Autosport), from Hartsdale, N.Y., Trey Burke (Future Star Racing), from Alvin, Texas, and New Zealander Jacob Douglas (Exclusive Autosport).

Jay Howard secured the first PFC Award of the season as the winning car owner.

The green flag for the second round of the 18-race season, the Discount Tires Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, will fly at 8:00 a.m. EST on Sunday. Sikes will start from the pole by virtue of the fact his fastest race lap was faster than all other drivers’ second fastest laps set on Friday in qualifying.

Provisional championship points after 1 of 18 races:
1. Lochie Hughes, 32
2. Evagoras Papasavvas, 25
3. Nikita Johnson, 22
4. Simon Sikes, 20
5. Sam Corry, 17
6. Nicholas d’Orlando, 15
7. Trey Burke, 14
8. Jacob Douglas, 13
9. Andre Castro, 12
10. Joey Brienza, 11

Lochie Hughes (#8 JHDD/CSU One Cure/Lucas Oil Products/LHP-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus USF-22): “I couldn’t ask for a better race. I started on pole and built a gap on the first lap and just managed the race really. I didn’t make any mistakes. I probably could have pushed a bit harder, but the goal was to just get the win. I sacrificed a starting position for tomorrow, but I am over the moon to get this race win. This is my first time on a street circuit. It takes a little bit to get used to it, but I am loving it.”

Evagoras Papasavvas (#6 JHDD/CSU One Cure/Lucas Oil Products/LHP-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus USF-22): “I was in fourth for a little bit. I had a pretty decent start and didn’t lose or gain any positions. I stayed in fourth and got as close as I could and made the move for third. I followed second place around for a bit and kept the pressure on and he made a mistake. I took advantage of that mistake and got myself into second and ran a smooth race from there. It was a great way to start the season.”

Nikita Johnson (#17 Allen Exploration, LLC/Walker’s Cay-VRD Racing Tatuus USF-22): “The race was pretty good. We ended up P3 after starting second. We lacked a bit of pace in the very beginning of the race, but towards the middle we were pretty fast and I was trying to catch Lochie. Then the tires started falling off because we were running old tires, and third place caught up to me and I fell back. I tried to catch him, but at that point my tires were pretty cooked and I just tried my best to keep third.”

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