Photo: CJ Wilson Racing

New Cayman, new lineup, same big goals for CJ Wilson Racing

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Within the year when “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” premieres, it’s kind of fitting that one of racing’s biggest names is invoking the Dark Side to nickname its new car.

CJ Wilson Racing is, like a young Jedi, continuing to grow into an incredible force in the galaxy – in this case the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge.

And, to improve to the next level, it’s nicknamed its new Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport “Darth Cayman.”

The premise? The stealthy dark grey car looks sinister, badass, and might kill the competition if the rest of the Continental Tire Challenge GS class isn’t careful.

This all becomes funnier when you realize most of the CJWR crew are down-to-earth, fun people who purely love the sport, are good at their jobs and have fun with it too.

“We like the camaraderie on a very high level,” says the eponymous team owner, Wilson, during the Roar Before the Rolex 24 test.

“This is where you can have a lot of fun. Andris (Laivins, team manager) is serious. But we can joke around. We’re a very tight knit team. We have a very cool team environment.

“Which is why people are always kind of sniffing around our space, because they’re like, ‘How are they doing this where they’re laughing and having fun? Wait, their boss isn’t a huge jerk?’ Maybe we can have fun.”

They’re having fun going into the season even though the challenge – no pun intended – is serious for CJ Wilson Racing to win a second consecutive championship, now in a second different class, in as many seasons.

There’s big changes here for 2016. Gone is the team’s tried-and-true Mazda MX-5 – Wilson has parlayed the team’s trajectory at a methodical pace and only switched cars, classes or series when the time is right.

A case in point: CJWR began as a Mazda MX-5 Cup series team. It won races, then the 2012 series championship with Stevan McAleer. By 2013, the team was in the Continental Tire Challenge as well and McAleer’s eventual co-driver Chad McCumbee was winning poles as a NASCAR convert to road racing. Then McAleer and Marc Miller started winning races.

Once the MX-5 Cup program went away, the design was to build and mold the team into an ST class title contender, which McAleer and McCumbee did last year. All the while Wilson and Laivins had the foresight to know Porsche had big ambitions, and a new car coming for GS.

A two-race trial run in 2015 with Miller and Tyler McQuarrie – note the volume of “Ms” in the driving lineup – has now led to this year’s full-on GS effort with “Darth Cayman” and a new lineup of Miller and open-wheel convert Daniel Burkett, who impressed during the Roar test, in the team’s No. 33 ONE Capital Management/Motor Oil Matters Porsche Cayman GT4 Clubsport.

Meanwhile, in his first official test, Burkett was working to ensure his posterior was intact.

“The first time on the banking I was like, ‘What the hell’s going on man?'” said Burkett, who transfers to sports cars after a pair of Prototype Challenge starts and a prior run through the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 and Pro Mazda.

“I couldn’t see what was in front of me. I was like ‘Guys, can we take the banner off?’ It’s been a huge transition. And my butt was pretty sore after the first session, just from all the clenching. But I’ve gotten used to it now.”

Jokes aside, it’s been a big but rapid transition for Burkett into the world of sports cars.

“It’s been a massive learning curve,” he said. “I had a few days at a local track in Austin before we came to this event. The first time I got in the car, I was perplexed at the differences. I was almost like, I don’t want to race this car, how am I ever going to learn, it’s so completely different. That was in the 997.

“So in the Cayman, having the mid-engine, it was a little more like a formula car type feel to it. The Cayman is very easy to point and shoot. It has a very pointy steering to it. It felt like a formula car. I felt right at home immediately.

“I feel like ready to race the car at the end of the Rolex 24 weekend at the end of January. So far I’m loving it, loving the paddock, and loving my new team boss, CJ.”

Wilson noted Burkett’s intense, innate competitiveness as he sought to match Miller first time out in official sessions.

“For Danny to come off and be right near where Marc is out of the gate … his talent is apparent,” Wilson says. “He’s a funny guy. He likes to make jokes. We all do. We keep it loose. Although he tries to keep his bowels tight, we like the car loose.”

For Wilson, who’s now transferred cars from the ST class Mazda MX-5 to the new Cayman GT4, having a readymade car off the shelf is paying dividends already.

“There’s always a thrash to get something ready,” said Wilson, who noted the team only took delivery of the two new Caymans from Porsche on December 23.

“It wasn’t because we had the struggle to build the car to a certain spec like previously with the MX-5s. We’d always have to fix something or improve something before. That’s the nature of building something in your own shop.

“But with the Porsche being a turnkey car, they’ve done such a good job doing a car that can go out and flat out race. We’re not having apparent issues. There’s some little things like teething, checking the oil, it’s all digital – there’s no dipstick, for example – but that’s a bit of a thing. If that’s the biggest problem you’re having in the weekend, you’re good.”

Wilson wants competition as right now the GS class is heavily Porsche dominated, with the new Cayman GT4 and a handful of older Porsche 997s.

“It’s a really good car. I hope some of the other manufacturers take this as a positive indication it’s good for them to be in the series. Porsche comes out with a new car and sells four, five, six or seven, whatever it is, right away.

“If another manufacturer does that it’ll make the racing better. That’s why ST is so cool, and GT is cool. Here’s five, six, seven brands, and body styles, and we need that. Variety is the best thing for racing overall.”

Variety is good. “Darth Cayman,” though is also good within the GS field and arguably one of the key cars to watch this year as it seeks another championship with its new puzzle pieces.

Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew ready for IndyCar ride

Road to Indy
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Provisional Indy Lights champion Oliver Askew has done nothing but dominate the 2019 season, winning seven of the 16 races run so far and finishing on the podium in all but two of those events.

Now all the 22-year-old Floridian needs to do to formally clinch the 2019 title is simply start the final two races of the season, both of which will be held this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.

For Askew, his maiden Indy Lights season will likely be one he’ll never forget. 

“It’s been a dream come true,” Askew told NBC Sports. “Being with the championship-winning team from last year, we had a really good shot at winning it again for Andretti Autosport. It’s very rare that we show up to a track and struggle to find speed. 

“That’s a fantastic feeling, especially as a driver. That gave me a lot of confidence and hopes of holding the million dollar check at the end of the year. That was the goal going into it.”

This weekend, Askew will accomplish said goal. The championship will not only bring him a sense of pride, but also the opportunity of a lifetime. 

As an award for being crowned the Indy Lights champion, Askew will be awarded a scholarship that guarantees him entry into a minimum of three NTT IndyCar Series events next year – including the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. 

Time will only tell which team Askew will race for in IndyCar next season, and whether or not Askew’s rookie campaign will be a full-time or part-time affair, but Askew’s performance during the last few seasons in the Road to Indy system has certainly drawn attention of IndyCar’s top team owners.

In August, Askew had the chance to drive an Indy car for the first time in his career during a test session at Portland International Raceway, driving the No. 9 PNC Bank Honda usually piloted by Scott Dixon.

“It was an opportunity with Chip Ganassi Racing that I was very fortunate to have,” Askew said. “I think with my experience in the past couple of years with Cape Motorsports and this year with Andretti Autosport, going into that test was very helpful.

“Going into the test, it was more of trying to treat it as just another day at the racetrack, when it really wasn’t. It was a fantastic opportunity for me – a great experience – and I hope I can take that into my rookie season next year in IndyCar.” 

The final two races of the 2019 Indy Lights season will take place this weekend on Saturday, September 21 at 6 p.m. ET and Sunday, September 22 at 12:05 p.m. ET. Both races will air live on NBC Sports Gold.

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