Soto-Schirripa, Wheldon Share USF Juniors Race Wins at VIR
 June 16, 2024| 
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ALTON, Va. – The battle for this year’s USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire championship – and a scholarship valued at $263,700 to graduate onto the next step of the USF Pro Championships driver development ladder, USF2000, in 2025 – is heating up nicely. The points order fluctuated wildly as a hectic Continental Tire VIR Grand Prix tripleheader weekend unfolded at VIRginia International Raceway, with every one of this season’s drivers changing positions at one point or another. But once the dust had settled, the narrowest of victories in the final race by VRD Racing’s Sebastian Wheldon, from Coral Gables, Fla., was enough to vault him back atop the standings by a solitary point with eight of 16 races now in the books.

Fellow Floridian Augusto Soto-Schirripa also tasted the fruits of victory for the InterMS team.

Brazilian Leonardo Escorpioni (Zanella Racing) and G3 Argyros (Jay Howard Driver Development) claimed their first podium finishes in Race 2, while title contenders Jack Jeffers (Exclusive Autosport), from San Antonio, Texas, and Saturday’s winner Max Taylor (VRD Racing), from Hoboken, N.J., could barely be split from Wheldon in a climactic photo-finish finale.

Spare a thought for Israel’s Ariel Elkin, too, who displayed prodigious pace throughout the weekend for InterMS, briefly grasped the championship lead on Saturday, and was unfortunate to be shuffled out of contention in both of Sunday’s races.

Elkin started at the front of the 23-car field yesterday morning having earned his third Continental Tire Pole Award during qualifying on Saturday afternoon. He was then embroiled in a titanic scrap for the first five laps with teammate Soto-Schirripa, Jeffers and Jay Howard Driver Development stablemates Liam McNeilly, from Brentwood, England, and Ayden Ingratta, from Kingsville,Ont., Canada.

Unfortunately, a series of incidents led to a flurry of full-course cautions and even a red-flag stoppage before Soto-Schirripa emerged on top when the race was called one lap short of the scheduled 15-lap distance. His maiden victory was nonetheless extremely well deserved.

Argyros and Escorpioni took the checkered flag in second and third, although their positions were later reversed following a stewards’ inquiry which determined that Argyros’ final pass had been completed moments after the yellow flags flew.

Saturday’s polesitter, Bruno Ribeiro, from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, was credited with fourth for DEForce Racing ahead of Taylor, whose win in Race 1 catapulted him into title contention, and Diego Guiot, from The Woodlands, Texas, who earned by far his best finish of the season in sixth for Zanella Racing.

Of the other contenders, McNeilly and Jeffers collided while battling for the lead in Turn Three, with Elkin also taken out as an innocent victim, while Wheldon slid off the road at Turn 11 and fell to the back of the field.

Brady Golan emerged from the carnage to claim the Tilton Hard Charger Award after rising from 22nd on the grid to seventh.

Astonishing work from the InterMS crew saw Elkin’s badly damaged car back together again in time for the final race, for which he also earned the Continental Tire Pole Award by virtue of having set the best of each driver’s second fastest laps during the second qualifying session on Saturday.

Elkin led the opening six laps before another red-flag interruption following contact in Turn 14 which resulted in Soto-Schirripa’s retirement due to extensive damage.

A couple of action-packed restarts led to a one-lap shootout to the finish with Taylor, Jeffers and Wheldon all leading at one point or another during the hectic final 3.27 miles. Incredibly, the trio crossed the line virtually as one with Wheldon declared the winner by a scant 0.047 of a second over Jeffers with Taylor just 0.010 of a second farther back in third. Wheldon’s triumph represented a remarkable turnaround after incidents in both of the opening two races of the weekend.

McNeilly somehow brought his car home in fourth, despite losing his front wing during one of the earlier scrapes, as Canadian teammate Ingratta finally earned a finish worthy of his speed in fifth. Guiot once again finished in sixth.

Exclusive Autosport’s Joao Vergara, from Sao Paulo, Brazil, took home the Tilton Hard Charger Award after improbably rising from 23rd and last on the grid to eighth at the finish.

The day’s two PFC Awards went to Juan Garavaglia of InterMS and VRD Racing’s Dan Mitchell as the winning car owners.

USF Juniors will return to action at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course where they will share the billing with the two other steps on the USF Pro Championships ladder, USF2000 and USF Pro 2000, all in support of the INDYCAR NTT SERIES on the weekend of July 6-7.

Provisional championship points after eight of 16 races:
1. Sebastian Wheldon, 163
2. Max Taylor, 162
3. Ariel Elkin, 149
4. Liam McNeilly, 144
5. Augusto Soto-Schirripa, 135
6. Jack Jeffers, 122
7. Joao Vergara, 84
8. Bruno Ribeiro, 79
9. G3 Argyros, 75
10. Ayden Ingratta, 74

Race One Quotes:

Augusto Soto-Schirripa (#24 InterMS Tatuus JR-23): “The race was pretty hectic since the beginning. We kind of fell back on pace at the start of the race but it was like yesterday, I knew if I kept it there and waited for the race to unfold that I could take advantage of anything that happened and that’s what we did. We have a fast car and a great team that supports me every day. Hopefully, you will see me again on the podium later today.”

Leonardo Escorpioni (#55 Pier 1/Mensalize-Zanella Racing Tatuus JR-23): “I knew from yesterday that if I just kept my nose clean I could get through the field. From experience, racing with a lot of these people in go-karts and before, I knew they were super aggressive so I knew if I just kept my nose clean I could get up there. Yesterday I was up to sixth and then went off. Honestly, not being really aggressive and being patient and letting the race play out paid off.”

G3 Argyros (#3 Positive Energy-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus JR-23): “I started ninth yesterday and made it up to fourth and thought today maybe we could challenge for a win. I kept my head down and knew it was going to be a long race here. We worked our way through the field and we were smart and just drove clean. I expected problems to happen to other people with contact. I am a little disappointed it finished under caution but super excited for the team and I to get a podium. Honestly, a great result for me and everyone on the podium.

Race Two Quotes:

Sebastian Wheldon (#98 Gainbridge Andretti-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “Overall, I think the weekend went okay considering I had two DNFs which is not great for the championship, but I am happy to walk away with first place at the end of the weekend. I would like to thank all of my competitors and the crew from my team.”

Jack Jeffers (#92 Corpay Cross Border Solutions-Exclusive Autosport Tatuus JR-23): “We definitely had a fast race car, one of the fastest out there. If I fell back, it was just about moving my way back forward. It is an easy track to pass on, but a hard track to pull away. It is really thinking ahead and thinking about the long game. Four one-hundredths is a heartbreaker but after how this weekend has gone, points are just what I need. It’s not like I need a win, I just need points in the bag. We are here to win championships and not just races. I would like to give a huge thank you to Michael Duncalfe, Josh Cooley, Louis Foster for the coaching, Lou (d’Agostino) for his engineering, the whole Exclusive Autosport tent, Corpay Cross-Border and my parents.”

Max Taylor (#33 PINK ETF/Susan G Komen Foundation-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “I had a really solid race. Starting from eighth in the field, I was able to get myself up into P4 and throughout the rest of the race, there was a safety car mess to be honest. It was definitely a wild race. I was able to hold on and get into the lead and go back and then lead. I was really thinking about the long run there. The guys ahead of me were racing really hard, and sometimes finishing P3 is alright when you are going for a championship and that’s just what I am doing. I would like to thank the whole VRD team for an incredible weekend. I am happy for Sebastian that he got the win, and a thank you to everyone who helped me including my parents.”

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