Wheldon Dominates Clean and Green NOLA USF Juniors Opener
 April 6, 2024| 
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NEW ORLEANS, La. – Second-generation racer Sebastian Wheldon this afternoon romped to an emphatic USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire debut victory to kick off this weekend’s busy Continental Tire Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park. Wheldon, 15, from Coral Gables, Fla., claimed the lead shortly after the start from polesitting Englishman Liam McNeilly (Jay Howard Driver Development), and quickly pulled away to an unassailable lead for VRD Racing.

McNeilly eventually secured second position after a thrilling battle with Wheldon’s teammate, Max Taylor, from Hoboken, N.J., as an impressive 25-car field provided some superb action during an all-green flag 12-lap race on the 2.74-mile road course just a few miles from downtown New Orleans, La.

After regularly topping the timing charts during the pre-season Spring Training test at NOLA last month, McNeilly, 17, from Brentwood, England, continued his fine form by claiming the first Continental Tire Pole Award of the new season. McNeilly maintained his edge at the start, but Wheldon, who started second, remained alongside his rival on the outside line as the two leaders negotiated Turn One, which in turn gave him the advantage – and the lead – at Turn Two.

Taylor, who lined up fifth on the grid, also muscled his way past McNeilly on the opening lap, which allowed Wheldon to consolidate his lead. He never looked back. Wheldon turned a series of fast, consistent laps to extend his advantage to almost eight seconds before finally heeding the instructions from race engineer/driver coach Jacob Loomis and eventually taking the checkered flag some 7.6285 seconds to the good.

Taylor for many laps managed to resist the pressure from McNeilly and hold onto second place, despite the JHDD Tatuus JR-23 exhibiting considerably more straight line speed. Finally, with three laps remaining, McNeilly executed a fine outside-line pass under braking for Turn One, then edged clear to cement his runner-up finish.

Taylor next came under attack from Brazilian Vinicius Tessaro (DEForce Racing), Jack Jeffers (Exclusive Autosport), from San Antonio, Texas, and Israeli Ariel Elken (InterMS), who rampaged through the field following a qualifying that left him a distant 14th on the grid. Taylor barely managed to hold off Tessaro for third on the dash to the line, with Elkin capping a fine performance by usurping Jeffers with three laps remaining.

Brazilian Bruno Ribeiro (DEForce Racing) narrowly edged G3 Argyros (Jay Howard Driver Development), from Newport Beach, Calif., for seventh after a race-long battle as another Brazilian, Leonardo Escorpioni (Zanella Racing) and Canadian Ayden Ingratta (Jay Howard Driver Development) completed the top 10. However, Ribeiro later was assessed a five-place penalty for being out of position at the start which relegated him to 11th in the final results behind fellow Brazilian Joao Vergara (Exclusive Autosport).

The Tilton Hard Charger Award was earned by Exclusive Autosport’s Evan Cooley, from Frankfort, Ill., who worked his way to 14th place after having started last following some problems in qualifying, while the PFC Award for the winning car owner went to VRD Racing’s Dan Mitchell.

The opening weekend of the USF Juniors Presented by Continental Tire season will conclude with two more races tomorrow. The starting lineups will be set following another split qualifying session, starting at 8:00 a.m., with the races due to start at 11:45 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. CDT.  Live coverage of all sessions will be available on the USF Pro Championships App and on the series’ website, www.usfjuniors.com.

Provisional championship points after 1 of 16 races:
1. Sebastian Wheldon, 32
2. Liam McNeilly, 26
3. Max Taylor, 22
4. Vinicius Tessaro, 19
5. Ariel Elkin, 17
6. Jack Jeffers, 15
7. G3 Argyros, 14
8. Leonardo Escorpioni, 13
9. Ayden Ingratta, 12
10. Joao Vergara, 11

Sebastian Wheldon (#98 Gainbridge Andretti-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “The race went really well. I was able to lead early on at the start and just create a big gap on the field. The car felt really good. We’ve had a fast car since practice, and it felt amazing. It feels good to start the season like this and I gained a lot of confidence and should be good for the next round.”

Liam McNeilly (#9 Acclaim Contracts/Wolf International-Jay Howard Driver Development Tatuus JR-23): “I didn’t get the best of starts. I didn’t realize how strong the slipstream was going down into Turn 1 and got passed. I managed to get back by [Max] after a bit of contact – a bit questionable from his side – but it was a good first race and I am looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

Max Taylor (#33 PINK ETF/Susan G Komen Foundation-VRD Racing Tatuus JR-23): “I had a really good start. I knew the VRD car was going to be very fast coming into this race. I capitalized on a good start and got around a few guys and got  up to second. I was able to fend off Liam McNeilly and allow my teammate to get a good lead. Unfortunately, I dropped off a bit and let him go, but still held onto third in the end.”
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