There were two winners in today’s Cooper Tires Indy Lights Grand Prix Presented by Allied Building Products at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
Teenaged Dutchman Rinus VeeKay drove a flawless race from the pole position to secure a sixth race win of the season for himself and Juncos Racing, but that wasn’t enough to prevent Florida’s Oliver Askew from clinching the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.
Askew’s low-key fourth place finish for Andretti Autosport was all he required to clinch a scholarship valued at a cool $1.1 million to guarantee entry into a minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series races in 2020, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.
Englishman Toby Sowery finished a distant second for HMD Motorsports/Team Pelfrey, while Askew’s Andretti Autosport teammate Robert Megennis completed the podium in third.
Just three short years ago, Askew, now 22, was wondering how, if ever, he could make the transition to junior open-wheel auto racing after a stellar career in karting. The answer came initially in the form of a coveted Team USA Scholarship, which ensured him entry into the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy $200K USF2000 Scholarship Shootout in 2016. After winning that event — coincidentally also at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca — Askew went on to win the 2017 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship, which earned him another Mazda scholarship to step up to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2018.
He had to give best to his perennial rival VeeKay last year, but Askew has bounced back in style. He topped the points table for the first time following a doubleheader sweep at Circuit of The Americas in March and has never been headed since scoring a dramatic last-gasp victory in the season’s crown jewel event, the Freedom 100 Presented by Cooper Tires at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in May.
“Looking back nine months ago, I didn’t even have a ride,” Askew said, “and it was a struggle to put it together since we didn’t have the scholarship from 2018. If you had told me then that I would be the Indy Lights champion, I wouldn’t have believed you. When we won the race in St. Louis, it began to sink in that this was ours to lose. To do this for Andretti Autosport — back-to-back champions — I’m so privileged to have raced with them this year. I’ve learned so much, and I’m ready to go IndyCar racing next year.
“I’ve been so lucky in my Road to Indy career. The Andretti system was very similar to the Cape Motorsports system, so they prepared me very well, as well as the Andretti team prepared me to test an Indy car. That’s the beauty of the Road to Indy: each step is in sync so to go from karts to cars in four years is crazy. But honestly, I’m already thinking about tomorrow, how to execute to be on top of the podium tomorrow. That’s all I’m thinking about — we can celebrate tomorrow night!”
In the race today, though, neither Askew nor anyone else was able to match VeeKay. Ten days after celebrating his 19th birthday, the gifted young man from Hoofddorp, Netherlands, took off like a scalded cat from pole position and was never seriously challenged throughout a somewhat processional 30-lap race. He finally crossed the line a commanding 9.8874 seconds clear of Sowery, whose fourth podium finish from the last six races — including his maiden victory at Portland three weeks ago — elevated him to third place in the points table with just one race remaining.
“I’m happy,” VeeKay exclaimed. “This was all I could do this weekend. I knew Oliver had the championship, so I focused on doing the best I could, and that worked. It’s a tough track — especially when you only have one practice session, but this track rewards my style of driving. It’s a lot of fun, even in a race like this where there was no grip and I was sliding around.
“Today was really about tire management, to start on new tires and stay quickest through the race. The car was tough to drive but I’m happy to show the IndyCar team owners what I can do. Oliver is the champion, but I put myself into the spotlight today.”
Askew, who started third, maintained his position at the start but did not offer up any resistance when teammate Megennis made a nice move around the outside of the Andretti Hairpin on the opening lap. Secure in the knowledge that merely a top-five finish would be enough to ensure that the championship would be beyond VeeKay’s reach, Askew slotted in behind and was content to shadow him to the checkered flag.
Third place for Megennis was enough to claim his fourth Tilton Hard Charger Award of the year. He also closed to within just six points of Andretti teammate Ryan Norman, who fell just over a half-second shy of snatching sixth place from Canadian Dalton Kellett (Juncos Racing) at the finish line.
The 18-race season will conclude tomorrow morning with VeeKay once again on pole position and Askew alongside him on the front row of the grid for the series finale for which the green flag will fly at 9:10 a.m.