Another Step Up the Ladder for Eves in 2020
 December 18, 2019| 
  • Series News
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The USF2000 champion looks back on his title-winning season as he prepares to move up the Road to Indy ladder with Exclusive Autosport

“It was a dream come true - and it was the toughest year of my life.”

The 2019 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship fight delivered riveting season-long drama, with constant momentum shifts and epic highs and lows. When the dust settled on the final race of the season, Braden Eves had taken the title by the narrowest of margins over New Zealander Hunter McElrea – and the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires scholarship that would help the young Ohioan advance up the development series ladder.

Eves’ impressive trajectory over the past two years is well documented: early success as he made the transition from karting into race cars, a Team USA Scholarship nod, an impressive USF2000 debut at the 2018 season finale in Portland – and an aneurysm in his left arm that would require surgery late last year and keep him from fulfilling his Team USA dream. But he had earned the notice of brothers Dominic and Nicholas Cape, winners of a staggering eight straight driver championships, including a dominant performance in 2018 that saw Kyle Kirkwood equal JR Hildebrand’s record of 12 victories in a season. Eves and Cape Motorsports teammate Darren Keane lined up in the 2019 season-opener as two of the title favorites.

RTI_IndyGP_052019_i_5937“I didn’t look at it as pressure,” said Eves, 20, regarding driving for the St. Petersburg-based team. “I looked at it as confidence. I had confidence in myself and I knew I had the right team behind me. I had to do my job and if I did, the team would give me a car that could win a lot of races. That took the pressure off, to be honest, at least early in the season. There was much more pressure late in the year, when I was behind in the championship – no one wants to be the driver who breaks the streak!”

Eves and Keane split the two qualifying sessions at St. Petersburg, each earning their first series pole positions. Eves went on to take both race victories, amassing a championship points lead right out of the gate – surprising even himself.

“I pictured the season progressing well, with me getting more seat time and getting more confident in my driving. I wanted to get good results, to be on the podium and get good points. I knew my teammate would be strong: Darren is especially good on street courses, he had a podium at St. Pete last year. I knew I needed to stay out of trouble and off the walls, so to come away with both wins was a surprise.”

RTI_IndyGP_052019_K__6392Eves’ second sweep of the season came at Indianapolis, the site of his first car race the year before, in the F4 U.S. Championship. To race at the historic track is on every young driver’s bucket list, and Eves appreciated the chance to stand on the top step of that podium.

“I love Indianapolis more and more every time I go there. It’s the place I’ve had the most track time and I continue to have success there (note: Eves topped three of six sessions in his first outing in the Tatuus PM-18, at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test last October). I hope that converts to something even bigger in the future!”

With four wins in four races, it would be understandable for Eves to hope for a repeat of Kirkwood’s performance. Instead, Eves found himself off the podium in six of the next seven races, with the mid-season stretch saved by a come-from-behind victory at Road America.

“Being the ambitious person that I am, I couldn’t help but want to top Kyle’s record from last year. But this series is so competitive that anything can happen. The losing and regaining of momentum went on all season. Hunter and Colin helped Pabst raise their game,  and they came on so strong.”

Eves earned the win at Pabst’s home race at Road America and McElrea returned the favor, taking his first series win at Eves’ home track of Mid-Ohio. McElrea took the title lead with a sweep at Portland but Eves proved the old adage that podiums win championships, recovering to finish right behind McElrea in both races.

“Championships aren’t just about wins: they’re about minimizing the losses when you’re down. You can have the best car in the field, but things happen, and if you finish 10th, that can cost you the championship. You have to push forward.”

The season finale at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca was a microcosm of the entire 2019 season through three days of nonstop action, with incredible highs, gut-wrenching lows. Eves entered the weekend six points behind McElrea, a deficit that increased to 12 points after race one, when McElrea finished second and Eves fourth. But a mechanical issue in qualifying meant that McElrea would start at the back of the 18-car field, with Eves starting third. Knowing that McElrea would be on the move, Eves made a daring pass of both Eduardo Barrichello and Kaminsky to take the lead. He held off all comers for 20 laps to take the championship title by only five points. 

Eves 1The resulting emotional release in Victory Lane told onlookers everything they needed to know about the toll a championship can take, and months later, Eves still struggles to understand how his life has changed.

“I still have trouble wrapping my head around everything. The way the weekend unfolded… even this long after, it’s literally a dream. It was the most difficult weekend of my life after the most stressful build-up of my life. Portland was tough, to be missing those couple of tenths and watching Hunter run away with it. It seemed like nothing we did could bring us closer. We came out of the box at Laguna strong, but with Hunter doing well, we knew we had to get the win to take the championship. I had nothing to lose, so I made a few moves I might not have made early in the championship – but it didn’t matter if I got second or third, all that mattered was the championship. Once I got into the lead, I wasn’t going to let anyone get by.

RTI_Laguna_092019_J__6868“The feeling was more relief at the checkered flag. Last year was so tough for me emotionally, having started out with such a strong performance and then feeling it slipping away. It was such a hard-fought championship and I had so much riding on it. The Road to Indy offers the opportunity to earn your way up the ladder and for many of us, that’s our one shot to make it. The scholarship opens up so many opportunities and took a ton of stress off of me in the off-season.”

But winning the title is only step one: step two is taking that $305,600 scholarship and moving up the Road to Indy ladder. Eves tested with several teams and decided on Saskatchewan-based Exclusive Autosport. The team, owned by Michael Duncalfe, recently completed their own progression up the ladder, fielding an Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires team in 2020 that means they now have squads on all three rungs – a prospect that is not lost on Eves.

RTI_CG_102019_B-0476“They are just as hungry as I am for results. They’ve had great results in the past, but they have yet to win that championship title. Michael wants to grow the team and he believes in them and in me, and that’s extremely important in a championship run.”

Duncalfe joins another Michael as a mentor to the young Eves. Noting that renowned sports car team owner Michael Shank was a graduate of the same high school, Eves wrote him a letter after he’d made his racing debut in 2018. Shank shocked Eves by calling him back shortly after he received the letter and the two have become close.

“He’s an incredible guy, I can’t thank him enough for everything he’s done for me. Whenever I need advice, I go to Michael or (Team USA Scholarship’s) Jeremy Shaw and they always have something to say that helps guide me.”

Both Shank and Shaw will be cheering on their young protégé when the new season opens in St. Pete come March!

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