MRTI: Pelfrey teen Kaylen Frederick’s surprise star start in USF2000
When going through the 17 drivers to watch in this year’s Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires, we noted several drivers from Team Pelfrey in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires. In USF2000, it was expected that series veterans Robert Megennis and Ayla Agren would lead the team’s charge.
What was not expected was that it’d be the third member of that team who’s actually had the best start of all of them, in 14-year-old Baltimore native Kaylen Frederick.
Yes, you read that correctly. He’s 14. And so far, his finishes this season - 4, 5, 2 and 2 - are only one digit less (13) than his youthful age.
Frederick’s No. 81 Pilot One Tatuus USF-17 Mazda has undoubtedly provided the best surprise start to the year but has spoken to a quick adaptation in learning the tracks, the car and the series. And in a weird twist, the fact he didn’t have past USF2000 experience - save for his debut at last year’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca season finale at September - may have played to his benefit in that he did not need to re-learn how to drive a USF2000 car, whereas Megennis and Agren have after running in the previous generation Van Diemen chassis.
Frederick’s toe-in-the-water debut in Monterey last year at least provided a starting point, but knowing the new car was coming made it easier to step up now. He’d had four days of testing prior to his race debut, and stepped up to USF2000 from Pelfrey’s F1600 program.
He’s not the first driver to do so; Agren did the same after winning the 2014 F1600 title.
“That was pretty much the goal that weekend was to see what everything was like,” Frederick told NBC Sports. “I knew I’d race USF2000 this year. And I wanted to get acclimated to how the series is, how the racing is. It wasn’t the best results. I tried to get used to the track, and that was a very difficult race in that car. I felt a bit more power, but to be fair the 1600 doesn’t have much! So there wasn’t too big of a change.
“But another reason why we moved into USF when we did is we knew the teams would be equal the first year. We thought it would be a great opportunity, and a level field.”
Frederick of course has still gone through the inevitable learning process. His first race in the new car, like everyone’s, came on the streets of St. Petersburg. A crash provided a bit of damage and a minor setback to him, but it also helped teach him where the limit was on his first ever street course race.
“At St. Pete everything felt a bit weird,” Frederick admitted. “It was the first practice session and having a crash, and my first street course ever, it was a lot more to get used to. I wasn’t too comfortable and made small mistakes. But at Barber I felt a lot more comfortable with the car; I felt more at one with it, and pushed a lot harder.”
Nonetheless, Frederick still got out of St. Pete with fourth and fifth place finishes in the two races, and so could afford to look at Barber with a fresh approach.
What followed was a stunning display. Oliver Askew is rated as one of the best prospects the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires has had in years, if not ever, so to see Frederick pushing him as hard as he was last time out in Barber was as cool as it was surprising.
Frederick set the fastest race lap in both races, but was unable to pass the Floridian for the lead. A pair of runner-up results though did the trick nicely.
“The thing that seems to be happening is that the rears seem to wear faster than fronts,” Frederick said. “Our races are only half hour long. Oliver and I were similar at beginning. Towards the end, I was on him the whole time. He was loose in a lot of corners. But I couldn’t make a move. Still, it showed our preseason testing paid off.”
He praised his more experienced teammates who have still helped him through the process this year.
“Since they’ve been to most tracks they have the experience. The first session or before, they give some feedback and answer some questions on the track walk. They’ve been good to compare everything with,” he said.
Frederick enters this weekend on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course second in points, albeit 34 points behind Askew.
So he’s done super strongly to start the season. This is made even more impressive when you consider his karting background came only after foregoing his other love - competitive skiing - and his parents’ background is in motorcycle racing. Frederick explained the backstory from here.
“Before I was born, my parents raced motorcycles. When I was 3 or 4, we started going dirt biking, but one time it rained and we didn’t go. We went indoor karting instead and that was it, I got hooked,” Frederick laughed.
“I got a license for the indoor karting – and I started practicing. Did some WKA events. I actually got first in my first event. We then said let’s continue… and it kind of went from there. We did the bigger SKUSA and ROTAX events, and then into cars.
“I kind of stopped karting after ROTAX events. I had about a year off between. When I hopped in the car, and I wasn’t used to cars in any sort of way, it didn’t feel odd. It was something to get used to. I did pretty well at Skip Barber in Pittsburgh and after that I tested with some 1600 teams. The teams thought I was ready to race.”
The dirt biking background also led to Frederick’s nickname of “K-Rex” being born. It’s a simple combination of Kaylen and his middle name Rex, but invariably, it stuck.
“Some friends and I just made the nickname, and we stuck with it because we put the name out there. It’d be a shame to get rid of it,” he said.
As for the skiing part of Frederick’s background?
“My parents love skiing. They took me to closest hill to ski and I joined the ski team. It’s about an hour away,” Frederick explained. “We started doing some races, but I can’t race as much anymore with missing practice and racing. The people I compete against excel a bit more!
“When I started skiing, it was more for fun, the same as karts. But I liked car racing a bit more, and I really wanted to get into it a bit more. It’s always secondary for me. I never wanted to become an Olympic athlete because I got big into motorsports. The Olympics, I can still watch on TV.”
Of course, we have to come back to the 14-year-old point. Other 14-year-olds - notably Colton Herta in 2014 and Austin Cindric the year before - have raced in USF2000 before. It takes a reminder Frederick is still a student and a teenager still growing up and in school.
“So when I’m gone for weeks at a time, it’s hard to keep with school,” said the high school freshman. “When you’re at the track, you don’t want to worry about school too much. So I get done what I can on trips to the track and put time into school going to the track.
“And in school, no one understands too much about racing, anyway.”
A quick learner though, Frederick will look to continue his rapid start to the USF2000 season this weekend.