For many competitors in both the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and even the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Friday at Lucas Oil Raceway will mark their very first competitive outing on an oval track. To aid them with the transition from road racing, reigning Verizon IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden and last year’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion Kyle Kaiser, along with six-time Indianapolis 500 starter Johnny Unser and Gerardo Bonilla, director of competition for the Lucas Oil School of Racing, were on hand at the track on Thursday for the annual Oval Clinic.
The 90-minute discussion was hosted by IndyCar and Andersen Promotions, which looks after all three levels of the globally acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel development ladder.
“It’s fun for me, because it makes you be reflective – you sort of think back to where your mindset was when you were a junior guy,” said Newgarden, who also won the 2011 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship. “There’s a lot you don’t know when you’re starting out on the ovals, so when you hear all this information from someone that’s been successful there, I think it means more, and so it’s really cool for me to be able to do that. Because I remember it — I remember being the junior guy wanting to be in IndyCar one day.”
Led by Bonilla, the clinic included a series of videos covering a wide range of topics including the proper racing line on ovals, overtaking, drafting, handling, restarts and the crucial roles played by spotters. In addition, Newgarden, Kaiser and Unser offered a wealth of advice and information gained from their own experiences.
For example, while discussing how the youngsters should approach the task of finding out what lines to run around the banked 0.686-mile Lucas Oil Raceway oval, Unser implored the spellbound group to “make sure you don’t just use the fast line. You need to know how your car works on different parts of the racetrack.”
“The most important thing, especially on a short oval like this, is experimenting with lines and making sure you’re comfortable running different lines,” added Newgarden. “Being open-minded when it comes to running different lines is really critical. Force yourself out of your comfort zone.”
All three panelists underscored the necessity both for patience and respecting other drivers, “especially when they’re on the outside line,” said Kaiser.
“It takes cooperation to make a pass,” added Newgarden. “You have to work with each other.”
“Oval racing is a real thinking man’s game,” declared Unser.
“There’s a point when you have to give (a position) up,” said Newgarden. “When you give it up, you need to understand you’re not losing – you live to fight another day, or another lap.”
At the clinic’s conclusion, the USF2000 and Pro Mazda drivers dispersed for several test sessions in preparations for the following day’s “Carb Night Classic – The Race Before the 500.”
“I thought it was really good,” said David Malukas, from Chicago, Ill., who will contest the Cooper Tires Freedom 90 Pro Mazda race for BN Racing. “It started off with the basics — and since this is my first time on an oval I really needed to know the basics, because a lot of these things I didn’t really know. I always wanted to ask the questions, but inside I didn’t really want to ask. It was great to hear from drivers who are really at the top of their game.”
“I’ve never met Josef before, so it was nice to see him because I see a lot of him on TV,” said Keith Donegan, from Dublin, Ireland, who earned his opportunity to drive in the USF2000 series with ArmsUp Motorsports as a result of winning last fall’s Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout.
“My first time on the oval is going to be difficult. I did a test last week and I’d never really followed much oval racing, other than the Indy 500, and I have that much more respect now after listening to Josef, Kyle, Johnny and Gerardo this morning. It’s a real steep learning curve, so to hear from guys who’ve been successful on ovals was a great help.”