Photo: Team Pelfrey

MRTI: Team Pelfrey primed for big first full season in Indy Lights

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It’s a mix of new and old blended together for Team Pelfrey ahead of its first full season in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, with the Dale Pelfrey-owned squad forging full speed ahead with a projected two-car program.

The genesis of Pelfrey’s Lights team – which is a different entity from the Pelfrey Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires, Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and F1600 programs – originates from Pelfrey wanting to get closer to IndyCar, but trying to figure out the best path forward in which to do so.

Following the acquisition of 8Star Motorsports, including all crew, assets and equipment and the Pompano Beach, Florida-based workshop, Team Pelfrey’s Lights program has its systems engaged as it looks ahead to 2016.

According to Team Pelfrey team manager Gary Neal, the timing was right for this opportunity to materialize after the 8Star team starred in a partial 2015 schedule with Sean Rayhall and Scott Hargrove driving.

“Dale was interested in starting a new team, or a new venture in Indy Lights on his own, but then was looking at partnering with Enzo (Potolicchio) about 8Star Motorsports,” Neal told MotorSportsTalk.

“In the period of four days, he came to the conclusion he’d like to own a team rather than partner. He’d made the decision to acquire the team, including keeping me as director of ops and Yves (Touron) as engineer. We closed two weeks after the initial meeting.

“It’s not an expansion so much as an extension. Dale owns this team outright, and Nigel (Tuckey) has more (of a leadership role) in Team Pelfrey (other teams).

“He was interested in the fact that it’s a new car, with a new lifespan ahead of it. Dale wanted to get back closer to IndyCar, the next level below IndyCar. He’s run a quality organization. His business has always been founded on quality relationships.”

The 8Star team had one of the new Dallara IL-15 Mazda chassis and following the purchase, Pelfrey purchased a second chassis outright. Both cars are targeted to race for the full season.

Compared to more Indianapolis area-based teams, having a Florida base is beneficial for Team Pelfrey in the winter when it comes to testing.

“We have two really good tracks with Palm Beach and Sebring (International Raceways), within two hours of the shop,” Neal said. “And Homestead is a good track also. But not as good as PBIR.

“It’s a 50-50. Teams based in Indianapolis have less travel costs during year. But in winter mine are cheaper than theirs. It doesn’t make much difference than Indianapolis during the races. Maybe some races, my truck arrives home a day later than Indianapolis. It doesn’t compromise us any.”

Neal confirmed he’s tested Hargrove and 2015 FIA Formula 3 European champion Felix Rosenqvist over two days of testing at Palm Beach International Raceway. Juan Piedrahita has also been linked to a seat, but nothing is confirmed yet.

“We actually ran two days in Palm Beach, one day with Scott Hargrove and Felix Rosenqvist,” Neal said. “Scott jumped back in and was up to speed. Since he’d tested at Palm Beach, he knew what the car was going to do.

“What we’d learned from the season and with Sean developing the car further it was a newer setup, and it was improved from the beginning of the year. There were five other cars on the track but I know we were competitive.

“Felix, he’s the F3 champ and has won Macau the last two years. He’s a very competent driver. It would be great if we can get him in the car.”

The team’s planned deadline for naming drivers is just prior to the single-day oval test at Phoenix International Raceway, February 25. Neal noted the importance of the test because 8Star didn’t run the short oval races last year.

“Everybody would loved to have had our seats done before Christmas, but there’s still a bunch of time,” Neal said. “My deadline is the 19th or 20th of February, right before the Phoenix oval test.

“For the team, it’s crucial we make that test because we miss the short ovals last year.

“We need a driver. Scott is high on our list… and he’s one of our targets. We’re working hard to get with Scott to see if we can get him in the car. Continuity is important. Changing during the season doesn’t help anybody.”

Anyone who will have paid attention to 8Star’s sports car program, owned by Enzo Potolicchio, would not have been surprised at the quality of the effort turned in last year in Indy Lights.

Pelfrey’s more of a known name within the open-wheel world compared to 8Star, but Neal says he and the small team’s background – they only have three full-time staff members – make up for quantity with quality and heart.

“My engineer and I came home to open-wheel racing,” Neal said. “He’d been an engineer in IndyCar (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing most recently) prior to coming to 8Star. I’d been at McLaren, and also Chip Ganassi Racing in IndyCar racing. We had the experience. A race car is a race car.

“Open-wheels, or closed wheels, it’s the experience we bring. Methods work. Were quite competitive with the IMSA Lites cars when we ran them. Those procedures work for us. We had some good drivers as well. It’s all part of the chemistry.

“We want to run a quality team. We don’t want to make up the numbers.”

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”