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MRTI: Inside Pabst Racing’s season of success

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The Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires will be profiling teams, team owners and team personnel over the offseason and the first such story its done is on Pabst Racing. The Oconomowoc, Wis.-based operation captured the team championship in this year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda series, courtesy of the efforts from its trio of Rinus VeeKay, Calvin Ming and Lucas Kohl.

MRTI’s Pabst Racing feature is below.

When Pabst Racing took the stage at the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires season-ending awards dinner, it was the culmination of over 20 years of dedication to nurturing the careers of young racing talent, and a lifetime devoted to motorsports. Winning the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda Team Championship highlighted a season that team owner Augie Pabst describes as one of the most successful – and enjoyable – of his life.

Augie Pabst III literally grew up at the racetrack. The son of Augie Pabst Jr., a successful sports car driver and racing team owner (detailed in the autobiography Augie Pabst: Behind the Wheel), young Augie spent his youth cleaning wheels and helping his father’s team until he was old enough to begin his own racing career. He went to the Skip Barber Racing School at Sonoma Raceway, then raced SCCA Spec Racers, Shelby Can-Ams and the precursor to the current USF2000 series. He earned his two best series finishes at St. Petersburg, Fla. – a track that would later feature prominently in the team’s history.

Pabst began working on customer cars out of the team’s shop in Oconomowoc, Wis., in 1996, and at the end of the 1997 season decided to focus solely on the race team and preparation business. The team seemingly raced in every series, from IMSA Lites and Porsche GT3 Cup to vintage racing (the team still competes in vintage and SCCA events as well as tackling restoration projects on a regular basis) before turning the bulk of its focus to the open-wheel series at the inception of the Mazda Road to Indy concept.

“There are a few balls we juggle but our heart is in the Mazda Road to Indy,” said Pabst. “We came back to USF2000 in 2010 with a National Class program. Seeing where the series was heading, being aligned with INDYCAR and with the Mazda and Cooper involvement made it something we really wanted to be involved with.”

Over the years, Pabst has developed a keen eye for young talent, beginning with a then-27-year-old Tonis Kasemets in 2001 in USF2000. With Pabst as chief mechanic, the duo finished second in the 2005 Atlantic championship and the relationship continues today, with Kasemets an integral part of the team as engineer and driver coach.

The Pabst team has enjoyed success in USF2000, finishing second in the team championship in both 2015 (with Jake Eidson second in the driver’s championship) and 2016 (as Jordan Lloyd finished fourth and Yufeng Luo seventh), but 2017 saw all the pieces come together. The Pabst crew was ready to start the season with sophomore Lucas Kohl and karting and F1600 standout Calvin Ming when Augie Pabst’s phone rang, setting the wheels in motion that would add 16-year-old Dutch sensation Rinus VeeKay to the lineup.

“I got a call from his manager at the eleventh hour. I knew of Rinus but that was about it. I didn’t know what kind of talent level he had. We were going testing at Sebring prior to the series test at Homestead and he was able to join us, then he was testing with another team at Homestead. The test went really well and we could see how good he was, so I was very happy that it worked out.

“The kid is amazingly talented,” Pabst continued. “He knows how to buckle down and do what he needs to do. All three drivers worked so well together. Lucas has improved so much from his first year, and Calvin drove really well. They all have bright futures. And they all helped each other. There was always give and take – if one was quicker in a corner, they would share that, studying each other’s data and video to figure out the best way to go. That helped each one of them and I think that’s why things came together the way they did. This was the most successful and one of the most enjoyable seasons we’ve had as a team.”

First up was the season opener at St. Pete the following week, which would be the debut of the new Tatuus USF-17. Pabst Racing has a history of coming out of the gate fast, having swept the two races in each of the previous two seasons (two wins for Eidson in 2015 and a split between Lloyd and Luo last year). At the end of the weekend, anyone who had not been aware of the young Dutchman became aware in a hurry, as VeeKay earned two podium finishes in his series debut – and his first races on a street course.

“We may not have known how good he was until we tested him, but truthfully, we weren’t surprised at all by his performance at St. Pete,” said Pabst. “We didn’t think about his status as a rookie or his age; we thought he was a winner from the start. And we reacted to him that way, so maybe that was the difference. He just got down to business and focused on his driving. We were ready for the weekend, having tested and prepared fast cars. Tonis had a great set-up and convinced the drivers as such. The drivers believed in it and stuck to it and it’s worked out three years in a row, even with a new car thrown into the mix.”

VeeKay earned podium finishes at Barber and Indianapolis (with Ming earning his first podium in race two at Indy) but it wasn’t until VeeKay broke through with a vengeance at Road America that the title chase came into focus. In front of Pabst family and friends, and at their home track (only 90 minutes from the team’s shop) VeeKay swept the weekend’s two races in an emotional season highlight. With championship leader Oliver Askew finishing well back in race one, the victories also put VeeKay firmly into the championship hunt.

“Oliver had some pretty good momentum but we still thought Rinus would pick up speed in the second half of the season. I don’t know if it was home track advantage, team morale or excitement, but everything came together at Road America. It was a turning point in performance for the entire team. And for me, I was overcome with emotion after the first race. We knew we could do it, but actually doing it, and at a track that meant so much to us, was great.

“I grew up hanging on the fences at Road America. Literally, from the time I can remember, I walked every square foot. I watched IMSA GTP, Indy cars, Can-Am, from every single speck of fence there. My dad won there and I won there. And the number of hours that the guys and I spend at the shop, to go the extra mile in every possible detail, when we forget to go home for dinner or we work until 1:00 a.m., seeing him take the checkered flag made all those moments worth it. To say we’re proud is an understatement.”

The championship went down to the wire, with VeeKay finishing second by a mere seven points. He ended the season with three wins and podium finishes in all but two races. Ming added another four podiums to Kohl’s one, clinching the Team Championship for Pabst Racing. The team will continue in USF2000 and plans to expand in 2018 – an expansion Pabst hopes will include VeeKay and Ming.

“The team championship is a huge achievement and we’re very proud of that. Anyone who ever worked for our team, as mechanics or drivers or shop personnel, has contributed to this. We’ve had really good people on this team over the years to help build it to where it is now.

“Our plan is to do both USF2000 and Pro Mazda next year, and we’re in the process of putting those pieces in place. We’ll sort out drivers in the next few weeks. I’m hopeful to have Rinus and Calvin back with us as Pro Mazda drivers, but there are a lot of things in play. It’s been fun watching all three of these drivers grow over this season. We really do get the most satisfaction from working with the young drivers who are so hungry to learn. To be a part of that process on the Mazda Road to Indy is so satisfying. It’s great to be involved with a series of this stature that is still so down to earth. It’s the best of both worlds – we’re there with the big show, racing alongside the Verizon IndyCar Series, but we’re still small enough to be family-oriented. The Mazda Road to Indy is growing and evolving and it’s fun to be a part of that.”

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

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Here’s what IndyCar drivers had to say – courtesy of IndyCar Media Relations – after Friday’s two practice sessions at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think we are relatively pleased. The car has been easy to work with, which is great. It is nice when you don’t have to change too much. We’ve been trying things to make sure we understand sort of both ends of the car and where it can go if we adjust either end of it. Seems quick right out of the box. We haven’t had to do too much with it. The Chevy package is working really well, which I felt like it would be strong at this kind of track. We’ve been working hard with that group to make sure our power down and everything else is great. So far, so good with the Verizon car. We have a solid start; we just have to maintain it throughout the weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda): “Pretty productive day. Obviously, we tested here last week, which I think helped us roll off with a solid car. For Practice 2, we decided to go in a little different direction with our setup, just to try and cover our bases, so we have a lot of data to look over tonight. We have pretty good pace on the blacks (primary Firestone tires) and were into the top five, but when we put the reds (alternate Firestone tires) on, we just didn’t find the grip that we normally do; we’ll look into that. This Arrow Electronics SPM team’s got a way of turning things around and being strong in qualifying, so hopefully, we can do that and get the job done tomorrow.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda): “I think it was a pretty decent Friday. The Lucas Oil car feels good and we’re making good progress. We were top five in both sessions, but it’s only Friday, so we still have to work hard and keep our heads down. Initial signs are pretty positive for, hopefully, a good weekend.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I think we started a little bit slow for some reason and had some work to do after the first practice session here at Road America. We know our way around here though, and after some changes tonight, I hope we can have the PNC Bank car pointed in the right direction, and closer to the top time the other manufacturer set.”

ED JONES (No. 10 First Data Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “I’m obviously not thrilled with the results today with the First Data Honda, but we know Scott (Dixon) had a great car here last year and won the race, so there is good data to look at tonight. We have some work to do for sure, but I’m confident in our team that we can find what we were missing today in practice and be ready for qualifying tomorrow.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “We definitely changed the setup a bit, then went back. I think the track had really low grip at the beginning of every session, then got better. Kind of a little bit hard to pick what to do. But obviously, Josef (Newgarden) is really quick, so got plenty of data to look at. We’ll just keep working away at it.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 GEHL Honda): “It was a good finish to the day for the GEHL team. We pushed hard and made some changes between the sessions and I think we went the right direction. This morning we had some mishaps, and unfortunately, it lost us the session, but we had a good recovery. We’ll try to keep improving the car a little bit and see what we can do in qualifying.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team Sealmaster Honda): “(I’m) pretty happy. I think, obviously, we didn’t test, a couple of guys did. Felt a little bit off this morning. We’re pretty confident because it was just mostly understeer in the car. Just pretty happy with the day. Our guys did a good job. The Firestone red (alternate) tires are definitely giving a huge amount of grip in comparison to the prime. But for us, it really wasn’t much of a balance change, so that was nice. Could definitely get a pretty decent run. Consistency was quite good, as well. Looking forward to the rest of the weekend.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “It’s awesome driving an Indy car here. I love the Road America track and I’m excited to be back here. We had a tough second session today in our Paysafe car, but we made big improvements from our first practice, which is really encouraging. What Sebastien (Bourdais) has seems to be working really well, so we’ll look at that and also at what I need to work on to improve. With that and some steady improvements, we should be looking good for tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “It is quite difficult to learn the circuit, relative to others that I have driven on. For example, St. Pete, it just felt a little bit easier to pick up the smaller parts. I feel quite comfortable in the car now, but it took a bit longer to get there in this morning’s session. It’s a longer circuit and requires a lot of confidence with the high speed and blind corners; when it’s only 45 minutes, you end up eating into your track time. I felt quite good in this afternoon’s session and we have a better idea of what direction we want to go in. A little bit annoying we haven’t quite jumped on it straight away, still a bit of progress to be made. Looking forward to having a good night’s sleep. I always find that when you are able to chill out, think about it, and sleep well it makes the second day much nicer. We all know where we need to go with the car and should be quicker tomorrow.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Direct Supply Chevrolet): “It was a pretty difficult day for us. We are kind of struggling to zero in on the balance and the setup that we want. We know what we need the car to do, we just have to try and find a way of getting it there. We are going to try and find some things overnight, then get the Direct Supply car handling a bit better and get more speed out of it tomorrow.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “We’ve made big improvement this weekend. It is obviously another very important weekend with Menards on the car. This is John’s (Menard) country here. I am eager to do very well, and the whole No. 22 team is using the momentum we gained at Texas. It feels like a really good weekend so far. I think we have more in the car; I didn’t extract all the best out of during practice. But, it felt really good. Chevy is giving us a lot of power around here which is always useful on those long straightaways. Now we are just going to have to put it all together in qualifying tomorrow.”

CHARLIE KIMBALL (No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet): “Obviously, that wasn’t the day we wanted for the No. 23 Tresiba Chevrolet. We’re struggling for balance and grip-a little bit of both. But we’ve got some good ideas, good data to look through and some concepts to think about. We’ll make solid, reasonable, intelligent changes for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can pick a good direction out of that and be ready for qualifying.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Relay Group 1001 Honda): “Overall, it was a pretty good day for us in the Relay car. We know, confidently, that we have a car good enough to be in the top 10, maybe in the top six. We’re fighting a bit of an issue throughout the second session, but we know what that is, so we’ll fix it and get the speed we need tomorrow. I haven’t felt this confident in an Indy car yet – but I said that at Detroit and I said that at Texas. I really just feel like we are coming into our own and this is going to be our best weekend yet.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 NAPA AUTO PARTS Honda): “Today wasn’t the best Friday that we’ve had. I think we are stepping through changes and making small improvements, but we didn’t find the big improvement that we need, which is disappointing. Fortunately, we have another session tomorrow and three teammate cars to try and put our heads together and come up with a solution. Right now, we need a pretty big step in performance to be fighting for pole.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “We made some progress with the DHL car today, we need to make another step tomorrow. We didn’t really have a clear lap, but if we had, I think we would have been around P4 or P5 and we can work from there. We’ll put our heads down tonight, check in with the teammates and see where we are at tomorrow. We have one more session before qualifying and we’ll put it to good use.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “It was a good day, a productive one. We wanted to improve a little more than we did in the second session, but overall, we tried a few things and we learned a few good things and a few not so good. I think we can continue improving for tomorrow.”

ALFONSO CELIS JR. (No. 32 Juncos Racing Chevrolet): “Today was going pretty well until the last practice. The day started off well for us. I was happy with the balance and I am still happy with the balance. We worked on some changes and I was happy with the direction we were going in. The second practice was going pretty good up until my incident. It is really unfortunate we have now lost this track time, but we will work hard and bounce back for tomorrow.”

MAX CHILTON (No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet): “It was a challenging day at the office here at Road America for the No. 59 Gallagher Chevrolet. This is one of my favorite tracks – I know I can pedal a car around here pretty well. We were fighting for top six last year, so I’m trying to just drive the same, obviously, with less downforce. We’ve got an underlying balance issue – whether it’s new tires or old tires, it’s really just wherever we are, we’ve got the same issue that we just can’t seem to iron out. It’s slightly frustrating for a new team with the lack of testing we’ve been able to do, so we’ve got limited time to try and sort it. We’ll work it out tonight and if we can make some significant progress toward the end of FP3, I’m sure we can have a fairly decent qualifying.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Road America is a great track and a lot of fun. Today was a bit challenging, as we are just working through our plan, but we found a big chunk of time between Practice 1 and Practice 2 today. That is very encouraging as we get ready for Practice 3 tomorrow. There are some things we are going to try out and that will hopefully take us to the next step to doing a great job in qualifying and then the race.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 U.S. Concrete / Curb Honda): “I was definitely happier with the car this morning. We kind of went in a different direction for the afternoon session and lost the car. We definitely have a clear direction on where we need to go and we’ll put that to use to go forward tomorrow with the U.S. Concrete car.”

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