MILLER: Racing's best ladder system delivers again

Oliver Askew. Image by RTI

MILLER: Racing's best ladder system delivers again

Insights & Analysis

MILLER: Racing's best ladder system delivers again

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The flawed logic about Indy Lights over the past two years is that it’s a diluted series that doesn’t carry much clout because it didn’t even field 10 cars so why would anyone rate the drivers?

“I love reading the threads on RACER.com because some people don’t believe in the Lights championship because of small field, but the top three-four drivers are damn good and have the means to go to IndyCar,” said Oliver Askew, who captured the 2019 Lights’ title for Andretti Autosport on the strength of seven victories.

“I’ve heard it quite often, especially in Europe where a lot of series have 30 cars, but I think the level is super-high,” said Rinus VeeKay, runner-up in Lights for Ricardo Juncos with six wins. “I think Colton (Herta) and Pato (O’Ward) showed people the talent is here.”

Herta’s historic rookie campaign in IndyCar netted two wins for the teenaged prodigy and O’Ward had been plenty impressive in his short stint here before being signed by Red Bull last spring.

Like Herta and O’Ward before them, Askew and VeeKay pushed each other at every turn this season and they’ve been locked together since USF2000 in 2017. And they’ve both gone from go-karts to IndyCars in only four years.

“It’s been mighty impressive,” said Jeremy Shaw, the founder of the Team USA Scholarship whose passion and hard work at the junior formula levels put Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly and Askew on the fast track to success in open-wheel.

“I don’t think anyone has progressed quicker than Oliver, and he and Rinus mirrored each other up the ladder. They’re beautifully consistent and very good, although I would have liked to see them spend a little more time on the ladder. But these kids today are in a hurry.”

While VeeKay has had the backing of Jumbo since he was in go-karts, Askew’s route was a story that would make Parnelli Jones smile.

“Oliver called me in 2016 and he hadn’t run anything but go-karts up to that point,” recalled Shaw. “I told him ‘I need to see you in a car’ and he needed support from somewhere because he didn’t have any money. He did a Skip Barber School and was fast, so I invited him to a shootout in Florida and he was clearly one of the two fastest kids so we took him to England.

“He was dicing for the lead in the Formula Ford Festival when he pulled the tire off the rim running wide at Brands Hatch, but then he came back to finish second at Silverstone. It was wet and he’d never driven in the rain, and he was seriously impressive.”

Askew’s next eye-opener came at Laguna Seca in the fall of 2016. In the shootout for the $200,000 Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 Scholarship, he won it and took his winnings to Cape Motorsports where he won nine races in a row and the 2017 championship. He used that money to move up to Indy Pro 2000 in 2018, where VeeKay dusted him for the title.

But this year he held off VeeKay by 21 points and earned his $1 million scholarship to complete his amazing ascension. “The only opportunity for me to become a professional driver was the Road to Indy,” said the 22-year-old Floridian. “I haven’t had everything handed to me but you’re not going to make it without the best people working around you, and I’ve been privileged in that regard. Jeremy kick-started my career, [Mazda’s] John Doonan played a huge role, George Ariano funded my karting career for five years, Bob Stellrecht came on board this year to help, and racing for a team like Andretti Autosport was obviously key.”

VeeKay appears set to continue his battle with Askew in IndyCars next year. Image by RTI

Only 19, VeeKay has been nothing short of impressive as he’s racked up 16 Road to Indy wins in three years while also taking the F3 Asian series last winter.

“Oliver and I had a good fight and I think we’ll continue it in IndyCar,” said the native of Hoofddorp, Netherlands. “Ricardo [Juncos] gave me a great car all year and I’m ready to move on. I think I’m ready for IndyCars.”

Both tested an IndyCar at Portland in August, Askew for Chip Ganassi, and VeeKay for Ed Carpenter, and both got high marks.

Askew, who was asked by Arrow SPM if he wanted to take over James Hinchcliffe’s ride in the season finale at Monterey because the team was upset with the Canadian for his spread in ESPN magazine’s annual ‘The Body’ issue, politely declined. He hopes to make his 2020 plans public soon, but a third Ganassi car for selected races and the Indianapolis 500 seems possible.

VeeKay will have Jumbo escorting him into the NTT series next year.

“Jumbo has been with me since I was six years old in go karts, and gotten bigger and bigger,” he said. “They are very good sponsors, very passionate, they’re in Tour de France, a WEC race team, and support Max Verstappen in F1. I’m very lucky and very happy.

“I’m talking with different teams. Ed (Carpenter) is one of them, and as you know that seat is just for the road courses and Indy. My goal is to drive full season and challenge for rookie championship. But I’ll take what I get.”

Herta and O’Ward went from a Lights’ car to an IndyCar with amazing aplomb and proved Triple AAA is great preparation for the major leagues. And there’s no reason to think these next two young stars won’t do the same given the right opportunity.

“That’s the beauty of the Road to Indy,” said Askew. “I went into my IndyCar test thinking it was just another race car and the transition felt seamless. The high-speed corners were incredible and the amount of downforce was impressive, but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.”

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