The series has attracted its usual mix of seasoned veterans and ambitious youngsters, ranging from series promoter and long-time competitor Les Phillips, who will turn 70 later this year – and still shows no signs of slowing down – to 14-year-old phenom Conner Ford, who scored a sensational victory in his very first weekend of car racing at Willow Springs one year ago. The youngster from Carson City, Nev., made only a couple of appearances in 2010 but has been busy testing over the winter with the multiple championship-winning PR1 Motorsports team, from Fresno, Calif., and fully intends to challenge for top honors this year.
"I plan to get as much seat time as possible and improve both in and out of the car," says Ford. "I need to learn more about the car and prepare myself for what is to come in the future."
Chinese-American David Cheng is another young man to watch. A relative old-timer at age 21, Cheng won rookie-of-the-year honors in 2009 and finished second in the title-chase last year. This time his eyes are set firmly on winning the championship in another PR1 Motorsports Van Diemen.
"My experience is going to play a big part this year," says Cheng, who was born in Beijing and now makes his home in Sammamish, Wash. "During the off season, I’ve been able to analyze the success and mistakes from 2010 and I think this will only make me stronger going into 2011."
After enjoying some success in karting and the Skip Barber School Regional events, Kyle Kuntze, from Poway, Calif., is stepping up to make his Pacific F2000 debut this weekend, driving a similar Van Diemen for the rival Dave Freitas Racing team, which has relocated over the winter to Santa Fe Springs, Calif.
"I was looking to move up from Skip Barber and I want to be racing in the USF2000 National Championship next season," says 21-year-old Kuntze, "so this just seemed like the right place to gather experience. The series has been extremely competitive throughout the years and has helped develop some great drivers like Robert Podlesni, Patrick Barrett, Joel Miller, J.R. Hildebrand, Dane Cameron and a host of others.
"The first goal is to get through this first race weekend and learn as much as possible. It will be difficult because I haven’t done any pre-season testing but I know the DFR team will provide me with all the tools I need to be successful."
DFR also will continue to field a car for F2000 veteran Ira Fierberg, who last year scored two poles at Willow Springs and feels he is closing in on his first-ever race victory at this level.
"We are going to try to put the #27 Pinnacle Performance/LDF/DFR/Quiksilver Van Diemen on pole and win the race," says Fierberg, from Hermosa Beach, Calif. "I don’t want to get greedy and say we want maximum points for the weekend, but there are two distinct races and the goal is the same for each. Last year we were on pole both races and finished second both times, so for this year we have naturally set the bar higher. Sunday is my (49th) birthday and I would love to celebrate it on the top step of the podium."
Bob Negron is another veteran campaigner who is more than capable of challenging the youngsters. Cisco Systems engineer Negron, 55, from Morgan Hill, Calif., scored three overall podium finishes last year in his self-run #9 Feng Shui Me Baby Van Diemen while winning the Masters class, for drivers aged over 50, in every one of the 12 races.
F2000 is regarded as the first rung on the professional open-wheel racing ladder in North America. The concept originated in England in 1974 and has helped spawn the careers of many of the sport’s top names, including Formula 1 World Champions Ayrton Senna and Damon Hill. It has been equally productive in North America, producing such alumni as Paul Tracy, Jimmy Vasser, Sam Hornish Jr., Buddy Rice, Dan Wheldon and J.R. Hildebrand.
The single-seat, open-wheel Pacific F2000 cars are powered by 2-liter Ford Zetec engines and are capable of speeds in excess of 140 mph. All cars run on Hankook tires supplied by Sierra Tire. VP Racing fuels also is an official provider, along with Corsa Car Care, Porterfield Brakes, Wine Country Motorsports and Buttonwillow Raceway.