The opening two weekends of the new NTT IndyCar Series season on the Streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., and at Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, provided a perfect opportunity for several former Team USA Scholarship winners to strut their stuff. Indeed, Josef Newgarden (IndyCar), Oliver Askew (Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires), Matthew Brabham (Stadium SUPER Trucks) and Braden Eves (Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship) all have taken an early lead in their respective title chases.
Here, Askew, who has stepped up this year to the top rung of the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel ladder, recounts the impressive start to his 2019 campaign:
Ever since I was about 14 years old, becoming a professional racing driver has been the absolute dream. Back then I thought it was all about talent, and thought that if I could win every regional and national kart race I entered, the auto manufacturers and IndyCar scouts would come knocking on my door.
If you know racing, though, then you’re probably laughing right now because you know how far that is from reality. A McLaren or Red Bull contract at age 14 would have been sweet, but, looking back at the path I’ve taken to get to the point I’m at today and the people I’ve met along the way, I wouldn’t change a thing.
A wise man once told me to leave myself no other option but to achieve my ultimate goal. Risky, I know, but I think this mindset has taken my attitude and determination to another level. I am still very far away from achieving my racing goals but I think we have made a huge step forward over the opening months of 2019 – first, signing with Andretti Autosport to compete in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires series; and now leading the points championship heading into the month of May at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Both the Team USA and Mazda scholarships are what gave me the chance to step foot into the Road to Indy at the beginning of 2017. Without them, I probably would never have made it this far. Despite Mazda leaving the stage at the end of last year, its impact will continue to be felt for some time. Moving forward without the scholarships was going to be hard, but, like John Doonan, director of Mazda Motorsports U.S., has always said, success in motorsport is all about the people and process. Fortunately, we have some great people helping this program move forward.
The start of the 2019 season has been really positive. Pre-season testing was limited on my side so I feel like the more seat time I get, the more comfortable I am driving the Dallara IL-15 on the edge. My engineer Doug Zister has won three Indy Lights championships and has worked with top drivers like Josef Newgarden and Colton Herta. He’s extremely knowledgeable and has been so helpful getting me up to speed in this new environment.
My teammates Ryan Norman and Robert Megennis are always near the top of the speed charts, too. It is always nice to bounce questions off one another and move forward as a group, and we seem to have a healthy relationship so far between the three of us.
We just concluded rounds three and four of the 18-round championship at Circuit of The Americas, the inaugural event for Indy Lights and IndyCar on the purpose-built Formula 1 facility. My goal was to bounce back from a disappointing weekend at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg where, despite showing good speed by finishing third in Race 1 and qualifying on pole for Race 2, I got tied up in an incident on the opening lap, losing valuable points.
Moving forward, I wanted to put my stamp on this championship and show that we’re real contenders. We practiced Friday morning with a version of the car we’d tested at COTA about a month prior, and after ending up at the top of the time sheets, it seemed that all the homework we’d done in our time away had paid off.
We carried that same momentum into qualifying and topped both sessions by some margin. Starting from pole is usually a huge advantage in Indy Lights — particularly if you can make it through the opening lap cleanly.
COTA is a track where you can race, with long straights preceding slow-speed second-gear corners and a the 50hp push-to-pass feature on the IL-15 offering even more opportunities to overtake.
There was plenty of action in both races. Luckily in Race 1 we pulled away from pole over the first five laps and eventually let the field fight for second place, with a lead of 24.68s at the checkered flag. It was one of the largest margins of victory in the history of Indy Lights, and, as it was my first ever Indy Lights win, it gave all of us in the Andretti Autosport team a lot of confidence.
Still, there was another race and it was important for us to execute and complete the weekend sweep with a full 64 points. And we did — though it wasn’t without a fight from my teammate, Robert Megennis, who started next to me. I was a bit too nice and left the door open for him to overtake me at the start going uphill to Turn 1. I still had some juice left over from Race 1 so I was able to get back by him using push-to-pass on the long back straight into Turn 12, and race on to complete the weekend sweep and take over the championship points lead.
It was hard to let all the different emotions sink in on the podium. I don’t think I’m fully satisfied and there is obviously a big job ahead. This is just the beginning and we must keep our heads down.
It was an unbelievable weekend to say the least. I have to give a massive shout-out to everyone on the Andretti Autosport Indy Lights team especially my mechanics Dave Mehan, Nate Steadman and Ryan Liddy. It was great to get a pair of wins for those guys after all the effort they put in to making the No. 28 car an absolute bullet.
I’d also like to send a special thanks to my sponsors and supporters, the Borg Family, Index Invest, Bob and Sharon Stellrecht, the Stellrecht Company, Justin Bruns, Joacim Borg, Wavelength Images, Chris Wheeler, Bell Racing USA, Billy Deakins, Sparco USA, Jeff Dickerson, Joey Dennewitz, Don Rohr, Spire Sports & Entertainment, Bommarito Automotive Group, SimMetric Labs, SAFEisFAST.com, the Team USA Scholarship, Studio 52, Young Adventurers, Coastal Performance, and last but not least my family and local support group.
I am really looking forward to the next few races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway GP circuit in May. I will be spending the next month in Indianapolis training at Pit Fit and hanging out at the Andretti Autosport headquarters.
Before that, I will be at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach to attend the Road Racing Drivers Club dinner and cheer on my IndyCar teammates on a track where Andretti Autosport and Alexander Rossi had great success last year.