Sam Schmidt is thoroughly enjoying his finest season of NTT IndyCar Series results to date. After 19 years of team ownership, the former driver has marveled at the performances of rising star Pato O’Ward, who holds third in the championship standings entering this weekend’s Mid-Ohio doubleheader. O’Ward’s rookie teammate, Oliver Askew, hasn’t been as fortunate, but he’s demonstrated plenty of upside between the lumps and lessons 2020 has offered.
For Schmidt, team co-owner Ric Peterson, and their new partners at McLaren Racing, the combined efforts put forth by Arrow McLaren SP have been the big surprise of the year, and with the momentum they’ve generated, keeping the driver lineup intact is the first plan of action when he looks to next season.
“It’s the same old adage, right, of us being a pretty long ‘overnight success,’” Schmidt told RACER. “You see that we’ve relatively solid in playing with the big boys this year, and it was a big leap in hiring both of these young guys. I’d been going after Pato for four years, every August talking to his dad and trying to put together deals, and just couldn’t make it work. So when he became available, that was a no-brainer for us because we’ve been trying to do something for so long.
“And then prior to Pato, Oliver was already signed. I feel really bad for Oliver because with all the testing that’s been cut this year (due to COVID-19), there’s at least seven days of on track testing he hasn’t gotten, and then the track time at the races have been substantially cut. So he’s been doing most of the learning at the races as a rookie, but he’s performed extremely well when he’s been to tracks where he’s raced before. So our plan is to stay the course, as it pertains to these two drivers. We think it’s the future of the company, onward and upward.”
Prior to the wave of changes to the year caused by the coronavirus, AMSP had designs on entering a third Chevy-powered car at select races for Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard managed to join the team for the Indianapolis 500, but the rest of the plan fell through as schedules and budgets were modified, leaving the expansion blueprints largely unfulfilled. Looking to 2021, Schmidt expects the third entry to appear on a part-time basis, and likes the idea of surrounding O’Ward and Askew with a championship-caliber veteran when possible.
With a few veterans calling to inquire about opportunities—from Helio Castroneves to Juan Montoya—Schmidt and AMSP’s leadership are fortunate to have a number of solid options to consider.
“The third car is interesting,” he said. “Because frankly, the reason last fall we went and hired six or seven guys, including Craig Hampson, was the plan to run it at the Speedway, and then run three or four races at the end of the season, because these two full-time cars are pretty full commercially, and just collectively between us and McLaren, it’s really good stuff going on, so a third car for a partial season made sense.
“COVID’s blown that up, but I think all is not lost. I think there’s some stuff we’re working on and we’d love to be a three-car team all year next year. We kept those guys throughout the entire COVID process, and it’s still our intent to get there, whether it’s full season, partial season, or whatever, because that’s where we need to be to be competitive with a three-car team, but we’re also not going to do it without proper resources for the third car.
“I think that would make the obvious choice, right, to not do another rookie right behind them, so it could very well be a partial season where it’s a veteran at the Speedway in the third car and then somebody else in multiple races after the Speedway, or it could be a full season. There’s just a lot of options that were throwing against the wall with anybody that wants to listen. And, there are some drivers out there, not necessarily in this series, but in other series that are becoming available, Helio or Juan Pablo would be absolute animals at the Speedway in a third car, but we’re not in a position to offer them a full season, either.”
With the unexpected availability of Mexican Formula 1 ace Sergio Perez next season, Schmidt also loves the idea of pairing the 30-year-old with his young countryman O’Ward.
“Sure, we are seeing huge interest in Mexico for Pato, and there could be an opportunity there to expand that,” he said.
As the team he founded as Sam Schmidt Motorsports in 2001 approaches a meaningful anniversary in 2021, Schmidt also confirmed his intent to maintain ownership of the team with Peterson, and continue the non-equity alliance with McLaren.
“I think last fall, a lot of people made that assumption that this was a purchase deal with McLaren buying in, but it’s not, and I think we’ve found a really great working relationship with what we’ve been able to achieve already,” he said.
“Ric and I have been together for 2013, we each bring something to the team, and we each desperately enjoy it. We’re not that old, and I think we’ve got many more years here as team owners. And we’re looking at building a new shop, so we wouldn’t be making that kind of capital investment if we weren’t planning on sticking around for a while.”