Askew, O’Ward Deliver Positive Performance Under Texas Heat
Texas Motor Speedway throws enough variables at an NTT INDYCAR® SERIES team at the best of times. But, 2020 is anything but normal times.
So the usual degree of difficulty facing Arrow McLaren SP heading to Texas entering the new season opener Saturday night at Texas Motor Speedway got ratcheted up a notch… or five… or seven.
Arrow McLaren SP arrived in Texas after delaying the start of the 2020 season three months earlier, facing exceedingly limited practice time, Pato O’Ward’s INDYCAR oval race debut and Oliver Askew’s INDYCAR series debut at one of the most challenging circuits on the calendar.
Naturally, most people would have been shocked had Arrow McLaren SP’s potent pair of freshmen – O’Ward and Askew – delivered good results given these added factors.
Well, let’s make that most people not directly associated with the Indianapolis, Ind.-based team. With clear goals to complete every lap and finish in the top 10 established going into this unusual set of circumstances, Askew and O’Ward delivered on almost every expectation.
“We’re going to hammer in their head to use the first three-quarters of the race to get used to running around 25 cars, and then go race hard after that,” said team owner Sam Schmidt prophetically before Saturday night’s race. “It’s a long race, but everyone is in the same boat. I think as long as our guys stay out of trouble, we should have a pretty good result.”
Combined, Askew and O’Ward completed 399 of 400 laps and had an average finish of 10.5, just missing out on the team’s goals by the slimmest of margins.
Askew, the 2019 Indy Lights champion, finished the race in ninth place, gaining 11 positions from a 20th place start. Fellow Indy Lights champion O’Ward, who started the race two spots higher than his teammate, gained six spots to finish 12th. View Lap by Lap Analysis
Askew’s ninth place finished allowed him to join O’Ward, who also finished ninth in his NTT INDYCAR® SERIES debut, in a club of Indy Lights champions to finish in the top ten in their debut race. The last time that an Indy Lights champion finished with a result better than ninth in their debut was in 1996 when Greg Moore finished seventh in his first INDYCAR race.
“Success is where preparation and opportunity meet,” is an oft-heard axiom throughout the INDYCAR paddock. That’s likely because the axiom was first uttered by three-time Indianapolis 500 champion and two-time series champion Bobby Unser. But it’s also because it’s 100% true.
Arrow McLaren SP gave both drivers an incredible opportunity by hiring them, and both drivers were prepared for the 2020 season opener.
“I think it was a positive start to be fair,” said O’Ward. “Seeing how we went into everything, I think we were as prepared as can be. I had no idea what to expect from Texas Motor Speedway, since I’d never been there.”
“I was surprised at how well prepared I was going into it,” echoed Askew.” It didn’t feel like my first race. That was a positive point.”
What experience O’Ward and Askew lack in INDYCAR has been augmented by a trio of veteran drivers they have available to them. Team owner Sam Schmidt, sporting director Gil de Ferran and 2018 INDYCAR rookie of the year, Robert Wickens are all able to provide unique perspectives and help with differing areas, whether on-track or off-track. Askew, who shared a mutual spotter with Sebastien Bourdais, also called on the four-time INDYCAR champion for advice.
“I spoke to a few different people,” said Askew when asked about who he talked to about Texas Motor Speedway. “I spoke to (Robert) Wickens the most. He is the most natural person to approach, for obvious reasons. He is a good friend of mine and a mentor to the team as well as a mentor to both Pato and me.
“I spoke to a couple of spotters. I spoke to Bourdais on the phone on Thursday afternoon. I spoke to Gil. His approach outside of the car is second to none. I called as many people as I could to get as much information as possible. Gil has seen it all. He’s been in those situations, and he was a rookie once before as well, and Bourdais and Robert have recent experience in the car.”
“It was really nice to have input from Sam, from Rob and Gil,” shared O’Ward. “Those three really helped in everything that they told me, and I was prepared and knew what to expect.
“What’s super nice to have Gil around for is that he was a driver. He knows exactly how we feel. He’s very calm; he’s very understanding. He and Rob are both so technical; they are just great guys to have around. I feel like Oliver and I are lucky to have these guys on our side.”
The pair of drivers were thrilled with the race pace exhibited by their Chevrolet powered Arrow McLaren SP machines, but since there was little opportunity to pass on the renowned speedway, they were not able to fully take advantage of the quick race cars the team’s engineers gave them.
The track conditions meant that fast in and out laps combined with perfect pit stops were one of the few areas where passes could be made on Saturday night.
For O’Ward, these were his first oval pit stops in INDYCAR, and for rookie Askew, his five pit stops were his first pit stops, period. Both crews performed outstandingly, gaining their driver’s positions in nine of ten pit stops.
“It surprised me a little bit personally because I was very cautious on pit-in,” said Askew, whose Bob Jansen led crew gained him 13 spots on pit road. “But, it also doesn’t surprise me because I know my pit crew is in the top three, if not the best out there. It was really good to see, though. I know I have a lot of time to gain on my pit-in and my approach to the (pit) box.”
O’Ward’s No. 5 crew, led by Dave Higuera, gained the sophomore driver a total of five spots on pit road, only losing one position on their second pit stop.
The three-month wait to get their season started will turn into what is sure to be an equally agonizing but much less time-consuming weeks-long wait before Askew and O’Ward have a chance to celebrate Independence Day at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. With hundreds of Road To Indy tests, practice and race laps and two wins apiece on the 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course, the learning curve should be far less steep for the pair of drivers.