When your name is Ayrton, and you’re from Indiana, becoming a race car driver is almost a given. For 18-year-old Ayrton Houk, from McCordsville, Ind., it’s been the plan from a very early age. His father Kevin, a former shifter kart racer, put Houk on a dirt bike as a youngster, then in a go kart, and the young Houk knew immediately that this was the right path.
The Mel Kenyan Midget Series champion, Houk also earned five top 10 finishes in six F1600 Championship Series races in 2021. He is also scheduled to contest the Lucas Oil School of Racing Scholarship Shootout in December at Sebring International Raceway as he makes plans for his 2022 racing schedule.
With 2022 (and beyond) in mind, the young racer took on another new challenge last weekend: the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship. Running the test with three-time Team Championship-winning Pabst Racing, Houk takes readers through the weekend as he learned the car, the track, the team and the series – the first rung on the Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires.
My goal for the weekend was just to get a grip on being able to drive the USF2000 car. I was super excited to be out here and wanted to learn as much as I could, because I’d love to get the chance to race in this series.
I was extremely blessed to be running with Pabst. Even last week at the test, I could see how advanced they are with their telemetry, data and coaching. Being with a team like this really accelerated my learning curve and helped me develop in this car the best that I can.
We were lucky with the weather and the timing of the Chris Griffis test to be able to get a short test in the F2000 car at the Autobahn Country Club ahead of the weekend at IMS. The downforce on these cars is insane! I have experience at the track in other cars, so I’d go into a familiar corner thinking “…there’s no way I’m going to make it through this turn at this speed!” – and then it would just hook and go straight through the corner with a ton of speed.
So that was good preparation for the IMS test. The goal was to get used to the downforce and horsepower of the F2000 car, and to learn about what I needed to do to get the lap time out of the car.
Making that adaption from F1600 to the F2000 car was an adjustment, but with the racing I’ve been doing this summer in open-wheel and midget cars, I have been doing a lot of adjusting to different cars.
The midget has a short wheelbase and changes direction really quickly, while in comparison, the F1600 is nice and relaxed and flowing. Going back and forth was a challenge initially, but I learned a lot and that experience paid off last week. I adapted pretty well quite quickly so I was able to jump into the USF2000 car and show some pace.
We treated the first day like a day-long qualifying session. No one is out there just running laps – every driver wants to top the time sheets and one-up the next guy. So with the exception of the first session, which was in the wet, it was about finding the maximum lap time and seeing where we could shave off time.
The first session was only my second time in the wet in a race car. Being on a wet track, I was focused on learning the limits of the car and the track while also learning how to make the most of the downforce. The Pabst team let me learn at my own pace. They put a wet setup on the car and told me to go where the grip was! Looking at the data we looked in-depth at each corner finding where I could save time.
The second session had a bit of everything, with ever-changing track conditions. There was a ton of grip early on the wets, which helped us top the times for the early part of the session by four seconds. Once the track dried, we switched to scuffed tires because it was too cold for sticker tires. That session was about learning how to drive the car on the edge, because there was really no grip! P8 was a strong result, but we still had things on our checklist we wanted to work through.
Going into the final session, I knew I’d have to throw down a good time. We had two sets of sticker tires and I was mentally prepared for a good lap time in the dry conditions – but everyone had the same thought. Even though it’s “just a test,” every driver knows that people are watching what you’re doing. This was my first experience with other cars on track in this series, so it was important to find out how we compared to the field.
As the day ended, I was already looking forward to tomorrow and learning more.
Sunday, the final day. The track was much quicker thanks to it being fully dry (although a bit cold to start!). We started on scrubbed tires so that I could try some of the new driving lines that weren’t available while the track was wet.
We had sticker tires ready for the final two sessions of the weekend, and that’s when it was time to perform. We were ready to lay down a good time at the end of the session, but a red flag came out and the session ended early. Not having that time put the pressure on me for that third session. With two sets of fresh tires, we put our heads down and went at it. Driving an open-wheel car on new grip in warm conditions was a phenomenal feeling. I was able to put a pretty good lap down toward the end, only eight-tenths off the top time. There’s a lot of work to be done, but I made progress as a driver in just one weekend.
I’m so new to the car and new to open-wheel downforce. It was so fast – down the straights, through the corners, and under braking. Everything was accelerated, compared to the F1600 car.
I’m so impressed with how professional the Pabst Racing team is, they were great to work with, especially Burke Harrison, my race engineer, Bob Perona, the team driver coach, Miles, my mechanic and of course Augie (Pabst). And the field is so competitive, lots of really good drivers and the times were insanely close. If we could have found two-tenths somewhere, we’d have jumped up seven positions. And it shows what a good program the Road to Indy is, that all these good drivers want to participate.
I’ve got a lot of work to do now, people to talk to, and emails to send. But 2022 is shaping up to be a pretty cool season for us!