All photos courtesy United Autosports

United’s ‘other American:’ Will Owen’s rapid rookie growth in ELMS

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United Autosport nearly completed an LMP2 and LMP3 title sweep in the European Le Mans Series this season, with American drivers figuring in both Ligier prototype lineups for the Zak Brown and Richard Dean-led, Anglo-American squad.

Certainly while American drivers Sean Rayhall and John Falb had significantly more sports car experience under their belt and time together as a collective unit, their LMP3 title wasn’t a massive surprise and spoke to both drivers extracting the maximum with their team all year. Rayhall recapped the ride for NBCSports.com all year.

However in LMP2, seeing a lineup with sports car veteran Filipe Albuquerque paired with rookies Will Owen and Hugo de Sadeleer, each transitioning from open-wheel racing, a title didn’t seem as viable a prospect. This group not only had to overcome the experience deficit but also a pace one, with the new-for-2017 LMP2 chassis locked into a homologation and the Oreca 07 a clear pace-setter over the Ligier JS P217, the next generation chassis from Onroak Automotive after its Ligier JS P2 premiered to great acclaim in 2014.

The hurdles got cleared quickly. United opened its 2017 account with a bang and a sweep of the Silverstone opener, with an LMP2 win overall in dramatic late-race fashion and an LMP3 win and third place.

Owen, the 22-year-old Texan who now lives outside Denver in Castle Rock, Col., couldn’t have asked for a more dream start, and especially after so few previous sports car races. He debuted with Flying Lizard Motorsports in NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill in December 2016, and then made a one-off IMSA bow with the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Ligier JS P217 Gibson entry at Long Beach a week before Silverstone in April.

While the series and tires were different, getting one race under his belt in the otherwise identical car for his ELMS debut was pivotal for Owen and as he explained, a good opportunity to get his feet wet from procedural and strategic standpoints.

Owen at Long Beach. Photo courtesy of IMSA

“Looking back, (Long Beach) was super helpful,” Owen told NBC Sports. “That was by far the event where to be honest, I’d been in over my head! When you’re in a debut like that, you’re learning the car, you’re learning endurance versus sprint, and you’re learning the procedures. It was super tough but great preparation for what was to come.”

Owen could rely on Albuquerque, the rapid Portuguese star, to assist in his and de Sadeleer’s respective growth and development. Albuquerque at one point was an Audi factory ace and now will be full-time in two series in 2018 – continuing with United’s LMP2 entry in all but one race and full-time in IMSA with the No. 5 Mustang Sampling Racing Cadillac DPi-V.R.

Richard Dean with drivers Owen, Albuquerque and de Sadeleer on Silverstone podium.

“Filipe was my driver coach, and taught me to do almost everything,” Owen explained. “He was a huge part of the driving side. He showed how to set up a sports car, how to go to the team and ask for changes. The key is how can we make the whole package better and make a compromise?

“His approach to tuning the car was one of the biggest things I learned. Not to date him (Albuquerque is only 32, matching United’s car number), but he’s been racing literally longer than we’ve been alive! So having his experience and everyone in the team has so much. Anything we come across, they know how to handle it.”

Learning the car was one element but as an American racing abroad in-between studies (Owen takes classes at TCU when his schedule allows) and an internship in Dallas, learning how to manage time and travel to-and-from Europe was one of the keys to his season.

European drivers that race in America are regularly accustomed to the jetsetting, and are primarily based there. There’s fewer Americans that go the other way, but the nature of the only six-race ELMS schedule helped Owen ease into the back-and-forth travel rather than feel it was overkill.

“Traveling to Europe from America was a big challenge actually. I wouldn’t have wanted to do too many more trips,” Owen said. “You’re not only traveling but you have to get ready to go to a track on a new weekend and get up to speed straightaway – that is where I really learn. There’s trade-offs. The ELMS provides a really good amount of racing, and you still get quite a bit of testing.”

The classic morning Le Mans shot.

Continuing with the learning mantra, there was nothing that could have prepared Owen for his maiden 24 Hours of Le Mans experience.

“Does madness and craziness summarize it?” Owen laughed. “You don’t understand the significance until you do it.

“The last part of the race was a blur, and there’s so much pressure. You’re tired, not enough to where it affects your driving, but you get out of the car and the transition from adrenaline to ‘I need a nap’ is almost instant! It’s so crazy on another level compared to any other event.

“I’m so thankful and proud of how we performed. A perfect race of execution like that was great; everyone was so happy and with fourth, we did the best we could.”

Fourth may not sound like a result worth celebrating but again it’s worth considering the hurdles at play. The Oreca was the pacesetter for the top dozen cars and Albuquerque had worked a minor miracle for the straight-line speed deficient Ligier to even qualify 15th in the 25-car class; Orecas locked out 13 of the top 14 spots on the grid. Ending fifth in class and sixth overall after the avalanche of LMP1 retirements, and best non-Oreca, was more than could have been hoped for.

With one of Vaillante Rebellion’s cars disqualified, that promoted the United entry up to fourth and fifth, respectively. Albuquerque joked that one more disqualification was tempting to think about to provide them a podium.

Red Bull Ring saw United again sweep both LMP2 and LMP3 in same race.

United’s LMP2 team had two wins from the first three ELMS races, with a second win coming at Red Bull Ring, but a tough race at Monza was sandwiched in-between. United had a shot at the ELMS title heading into the Portimao, Portugal season finale but came up short by 12 points.

The loss stung for Albuquerque, who’s become something of an eternal bridesmaid in that series. Hard-luck second and third place finishes occurred with Jota Sport in 2014 and 2015 before this year’s runner-up.

Alas, Albuquerque, Owen, de Sadeleer and Phil Hanson are all part of United’s 2018 ELMS LMP2 lineup. Owen, together with his managing outfit Speed Group, worked together to complete the deal over the final couple ELMS races.

There’s a key 24-hour race to prepare for first, though, coming in January from the shores of Daytona Beach. The Rolex 24 at Daytona will see Owen part of a lineup with de Sadeleer, Paul di Resta and a fourth driver to be named later in one of the two Ligiers.

Oh yeah, and the other car has young guns Hanson and Lando Norris sharing their car with a certain two-time Formula 1 World Champion in Fernando Alonso. All have tested at some point, in Portimao, Paul Ricard or Daytona in recent weeks.

Owen, who’s doesn’t get too high or low at any stage, downplayed the extra media attention that’ll be expected to hit the United garages in Daytona.

“I haven’t thought about it too much, but you can’t let it distract you,” he said. “It’s a good thing obviously. I haven’t thought if it would be a bad thing. They had Jeff Gordon last year and that was pretty mad, wild; maybe a little too crazy.”

What’s been cool for Owen, who was a solid prospect in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires after three years in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, has been his embrace of sports car racing and not feeling as though he’d left open-wheel racing behind to shift.

“Reflecting back, it’s still all happened quickly time-wise in the grand scheme of things as you process and think it over,” Owen said. “It’s crazy to have done what we did this year with no sports car experience for Hugo and I. The more time goes on, I learn to value a year like this one.

“Between my dad, Toni (Calderon) and United, they’ve all pushed so hard and worked to help get to where we are now. Everything I’ve gained this year was immense. I’ve come a long way since Laguna (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) last year. If I can keep making gains, that’ll be huge.”

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”