Third full year, and first real chance, for Saavedra to shine in 2014

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Sebastian Saavedra enters 2014 in a bit of an odd position.

The Colombian is only 23, but 2014 will mark his fifth different IndyCar season, and third full one. In each season, he’s been with a different organization.

He made his Indianapolis 500 debut in 2010 by accident – literally – after he crashed late on Bump Day. But enough other cars withdrew their times to see Saavedra’s time still eligible for the field of 33. His debut was also the first race for Bryan Herta Autosport in the series.

Later in 2010, he started the season finale for Conquest Racing, which helped propel him into a full-time seat for 2011. With limited funding available, Saavedra struggled but occasionally overachieved despite missing two end-of-season races.

In 2012, he made a decision mature beyond his years, to step back to Indy Lights and learn more. In an AFS/Andretti Autosport entry, Saavedra won several races and had poor luck. But he got the chance at three more IndyCar starts with the same program, and again, did enough to merit some consideration for 2013.

So 2013 arrived and Saavedra entered the lair of Dragon Racing, but under controversial circumstances as an 11th hour replacement for Katherine Legge in the TrueCar-backed Chevrolet. Yet out of the gate, Saavedra turned in some sterling qualifying performances that left teammate Sebastien Bourdais scratching his head. Bourdais’ program improved in the second half of the year while Saavedra’s went the opposite direction entirely, in part due to crew changes.

You could argue for 2014, as Saavedra enters the AFS-backed KV Racing second seat – ironically as Bourdais’ teammate again – that he’s in exactly the same boat as the second KV driver last year, Simona de Silvestro (and yes, the names are confusingly similar).

Like de Silvestro, Saavedra has not had a full-season, top-flight opportunity and should improve from what was a trying previous season. Yet the field is so deep that given the lateness of this program coming together, it could take a few races for driver-and-team to hit their stride.

As it is, Saavedra’s relationship with Gary Peterson, through two Andretti stints and now for KV, has been the guiding force of his career.

“When I came from Europe in 2009, Gary was pretty much like my second dad, having my first dad present here of course,” Saavedra explained during IndyCar media day in Orlando.

“We built a very strong relationship.  He took me below his wing to develop me inside his driving development program. We come through since then.”

The step down to Indy Lights was something Saavedra had to do to stay in the frame. In recent years, he’s been the only example of a driver willing to make that decision rather than explore other series.

“It was that or doing nothing at all,” he admitted. “But it came with the opportunity to make ourselves stronger with AFS and Gary Peterson, trying not only to prepare, but keep learning.  At that time, being 20 years old, I had the opportunity to take chances, and still can.

“Now looking back, this is a reality because of those days.”

The KV/AFS partnership came together quickly, but KV team co-owner Jimmy Vasser has said this winter it is important to maintain teammate continuity. Saavedra learned from Bourdais last year, although both are optimistic they can forge their own paths this year to push the team forward.

“I’m actually being forced to,” Saavedra joked about working with Bourdais.

“No, we built a really great relationship last year. I think I respect Bourdais a lot and he respects me. I think that’s the key to building a great partnership with your teammate.

“I think we were able to understand each other and see development-wise that we needed each other to move forward. So I think it makes it a lot easier to have somebody by your side. As Jimmy said, you broke those barriers of who the heck is by my side. Definitely it’s a plus to have him on my side, something that is already natural.”

The “move forward” that both Saavedra and KV need to target in 2014 is an improved qualifying effort. Saavedra was tied for the worst qualifying average in the field in 2013 – 17.7 – with nary a Firestone Fast Six appearance and no starts better than 18th in the final 10 races.

The flashes of speed in the first half of nine races included five starts of 11th or better, with a best of sixth at Milwaukee.

He also only has two career top-10 finishes from 38 career starts. Those numbers can only improve if the qualifying does.

Road and street course qualifying was an area KV struggled in 2013. Both de Silvestro and Tony Kanaan had occasional highlights, but combined for only three Fast Six appearances between them.

Because Saavedra’s 2013 was such a struggle, he does enter 2014 from a position of strength knowing that he has nowhere to go but up. And Vasser expects his pair of “Sebs” to do just that.

“Jimmy sees Bourdais with a lot of respect, of course.  He saw me as the youngster that pretty much still has no limits,” Saavedra said. “He’s demanding a lot, of course. But that’s something we’re very welcome to.”

NHRA: Looking at where things stand at midpoint of Countdown

Top Fuel's Antron Brown has been the most dominant driver in the current NHRA Countdown to the Championship.
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The NHRA is now halfway through its six-race Countdown to the Championship and there have been a number of surprises – both good and bad – thus far.

When the series gets back to racing next weekend at Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, those drivers who have dominated their respective categories in the Countdown so far stand a good chance of pulling away.

Not to mention potentially see several drivers start falling by the wayside and be eliminated.

Let’s take a look at each of the four pro classes and analyze the haves and have not’s thus far:


Biggest surprise: Antron Brown. It’s not so much a surprise that Brown is leading the standings, but it’s more so the way he’s doing it. The 2012 Top Fuel champ has been on fire, having won all of the first three Countdown races and a personal-best seven races overall this season. Brown set a NHRA record of 12-0 in final elimination rounds this past Sunday at Reading, Pa. You can’t get much more perfect than that. Brown has been so dominating that only teammate and defending eight-time champ Tony Schumacher is within reach points-wise. The other eight drivers still in contention are between 194 and 274 points behind. At the rate he’s going, Brown could potentially clinch the championship in the second-to-last race at Las Vegas.

You Go Girl: Brittany Force, daughter of 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ John Force, has been a surprising upstart in the Countdown. While she’s 194 points behind Brown, Force is ranked third heading to Texas. She’s shown significant confidence and moxie in the first three races and if she keeps it up, she could potentially overtake Schumacher at some point for second place.

Different Team, Same Drive: Shawn Langdon lost his ride at the worst possible time, just before the Countdown began, when team owner Alan Johnson suspended operations. But give credit to fellow team owner Don Schumacher, who “borrowed” Langdon from Johnson for the Chase to replace Spencer Massey, who was released just before the Chase. Langdon has done well, but time is running out if he hopes to make one last shot to win yet another championship.


Biggest surprise: Del Worsham won the first two races of the Countdown and appears headed towards becoming only the third driver in NHRA history to win both a Top Fuel and Funny Car championship in his career. Worsham has been absolutely solid this season.

That’s The Fact, Jack: Jack Beckman has enjoyed arguably the best season of his career, a complete turnaround from last year’s draining struggle. Having left John Force at the end of last season, co-crew chiefs Jimmy Prock and John Medlen have reinvigorated both Beckman and his car. Worsham has been strong, but Beckman is only a mere 16 points back in second place. And with his win this past Sunday at Reading, momentum could potentially turn in Beckman’s direction heading to Texas.

The Numbers Game: Kudos to third-ranked Matt Hagan (90 points behind Worsham) and fourth-ranked Tommy Johnson Jr. (-98) for their strong efforts in the Countdown. Ditto for Ron Capps (105 points behind Worsham) and John Force (-150), who are both still within striking distance. However, two drivers have uncharacteristically struggled thus far in the Countdown: Alexis De Joria (ranked ninth, 207 points back) and Robert Hight (10th, 221 points back). Unless they right their respective ships, they run the risk of being eliminated at Las Vegas.


Biggest Surprise: Chris McGaha (third, 104 points behind series leader Erica Enders) and rookie Drew Skillman (sixth, -173) have definitely opened eyes this season, with each earning wins thus far in the Countdown. Also enjoying a strong run in the Countdown and a welcome resurgence overall this season is veteran racer Larry Morgan (fourth, 145 points back). Enders could potentially have her hands full in the final three races to keep these three hungry drivers at bay.

You Go Girl: Defending champ Enders has looked cool, calm and collected – just like she did en route to becoming the first female Pro Stock champ last season. With a 72-point lead over former champ Greg Anderson, Enders has become one of the best drivers when it comes to reaction times at the starting line, having won close to a dozen or more rounds just because she got the jump on her opponent at the so-called “Christmas tree.”


Biggest surprise: It would be hard to find two riders who have not been more surprising than Hector Arana Jr. (ranked third, 101 points back) and Louisiana alligator farmer Jerry Savoie (fourth, 119 points back). Arana is one of the most promising young riders on the circuit, while Savoie – after a 30-year layoff from racing – is proving that 53 (years old) is the new 23.

Back in the saddle again: Andrew Hines is gunning for his fifth bike championship, and second straight, and has done what he’s needed to do thus far in the Countdown. While Arana and second-ranked Eddie Krawiec (-89) are proving to be formidable foes, Hines appears to be ready to start pulling further away for the title.

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NHRA: New book a celebration of life, love and drag racing

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The overpowering smell from nitromethane that powers Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars in the National Hot Rod Association oftentimes brings fans to tears after getting a whiff of the stuff.

Now there’s a new inspirational book that will also bring tears to the eyes of die-hard drag racing fans.

Veteran crew chief Jim Oberhofer has released “Top Fuel For Life, Life Lessons From A Crew Chief,” a touching homage to both his late wife and persevering and overcoming adversity in the highly competitive world of NHRA drag racing.

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Oberhofer wears a number of hats as vice president of one of the sport’s most veteran and successful teams, Kalitta Motorsports, including serving as crew chief for Top Fuel driver Doug Kalitta’s dragster.

Oberhofer relates a number of stories about overcoming adversity in the book, but none more touching than how he watched his beloved wife “Tammy O” lose a long and painful battle to stage 4 metastatic lung cancer.

While Oberhofer has spent his life using wrenches and tools working on 10,000-horsepower engines, his new book shows that he is also a very gifted writer.

Known in the sport as “Jim O,” Oberhofer describes the fight his wife went through in gritty and descriptive prose, but with a foundation built upon what the love of his life meant to him – and continues to mean to him more than two years since she passed away.

“When you take a long hard look at your life, I guarantee you that being a winner has little to do with crossing the finish line,” Oberhofer said. “After many mistakes and a whole lot of heartache, I learned that happiness comes from a deeper, simpler place. That’s the big win.”

“Top Fuel For Life” is available on Amazon for $19.95.

Follow @JerryBonkowski