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.”

NHRA Denver: John Force one away from 150 career wins; Pritchett, Anderson, Arana Jr. also win

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John Force may be 69 years old, but Sunday he proved he is still a major force to reckon with in NHRA Funny Car competition.

The winningest driver in NHRA history, the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion won his 149th national event Sunday, capturing the Dodge NHRA Mile-High Nationals at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colorado (suburban Denver).

Force (4.075 seconds at 315.42 mph) defeated 2016 Funny Car champ Ron Capps (4.067 seconds at 308.71 mph) in the final round to earn his first win in over a year.

Force has now won at least one race in each of the last 31 seasons and qualifies for the upcoming six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

“The fire is back in me, I’m fighting,” Force said. “I got tired of hearing me snivel to myself. My wife doesn’t even want to talk to me. … I don’t know why I won this race but I have a lot more fight in my belly.”

Admittedly, before Sunday, he has struggled for much of the last year since his last win.

“I found myself with all the crashes and everything that happened probably at the lowest point in my career,” Force said. “It has been worse than when I crashed in 2007 (in the worst wreck of his career).

“I have been fighting to get back. I never let on to anyone but it showed that I just looked like a mess. I am fighting to get back. I had four crashes (this season) and after my last one I had John Bandimere (owner of Bandimere Speedway) call me and say, ‘We have to talk.’ I said ‘I know you love God and I know where you want to go.’ He told me to listen to him and he set me straight.

“I didn’t know if I would ever get back in position to win a race. Bandimere told me I could and I won’t stand here and preach the Gospel but he said when I get to Denver I will be fixed. He didn’t say I was going to win but that I would be fixed. He told me to go out there and show me who John Force is.”

It was Force’s eighth win (and first there since 2016) and 13th final round appearance at Denver in his career, making him the winningest Funny Car driver ever at Bandimere Speedway.

Force defeated daughter and No. 1 qualifier Courtney Force in the semifinals to set up the deciding run vs. Capps. Prior to defeating Courtney, Force beat Matt Hagan and Cruz Pedregon in the first two rounds of eliminations earlier in the day.

“I had to beat a lot of great racers today, Hagan, Cruz, Capps, I love them all,” Force said.

Here are more tidbits about Force’s day, which leaves him one win away from 150 career wins:

  • Force now has 1,303 round wins in his career. He has beaten 137 different drivers en route to that mark.
  • 376 of those round wins came against 15 world champions including two-time champ Matt Hagan, against whom he improved his record to 21-17 with today’s first round victory.
  • Force claimed 152 round wins at the expense of the Pedregon brothers: Cruz, Tony and Frank.
  • He has beaten fathers and sons (Jim and Mike Dunn, Paul and Mike Smith, Tim and Dan Wilkerson) and brothers (Cruz, Tony and Frank Pedregon along with Ron and Jon Capps)
  • He has beaten Cruz Pedregon 70 times, more often than any other driver
  • He earned 21 round wins against daughters Ashley Force Hood and Courtney Force and 22 against Robert Hight, his protégé and the father of granddaughter Autumn Hight.
  • He has won rounds on 27 different tracks in 18 states and Canada
  • He has won 128 rounds in three different events at Auto Club Raceway at Pomona, the most at any single track
  • He has won 76 rounds in the Lucas Oil Nationals at Brainerd, the most in any single event
NHRA Denver winners, from left: Hector Arana Jr., Greg Anderson, John Force, Leah Pritchett. Photo courtesy NHRA.

Other winners in the first of the NHRA’s annual three-race “Western Swing” (Denver; Sonoma, California; and Seattle) included Leah Pritchett in Top Fuel, Greg Anderson won his first race of the season in Pro Stock and Hector Arana Jr. earned his first Pro Stock Motorcycle win since 2015.

The race was the 14th of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series schedule.

In Top Fuel, Pritchett (3.831 seconds at 316.45 mph) earned her second win of 2018 and seventh of her career. She was No. 1 qualifier for the event (also for the second race in a row and 10th No. 1 of her career) and defeated Doug Kalitta (3.852 seconds at 319.82 mph) for the win.

Prior to facing Kalitta, Pritchett defeated Terry Totten, Scott Palmer and Clay Millican in the first three rounds.

“Our crew has really impressed, attitude of gratitude, as high as the altitude here,” Pritchett said. “They chipped away at it and didn’t let themselves get down earlier this year when we were in a slump and they didn’t let me get myself down in a slump either. I always have my confidence in them and they have their confidence in me and this weekend we pulled it all together.”

In Pro Stock, Anderson earned his first win of the season, his third at Bandimere and 91st triumph of his career.

Anderson (6.943 seconds at 196.53 mph) defeated Summit Racing Equipment teammate Jason Line (6.947 seconds at 196.19 mph). Also, the victory put Anderson back atop the Pro Stock points standings.

“We have had a heck of a battle this year, we have had great running cars but we have made mistakes on Sunday and haven’t been able to close the deal,” Anderson said. “The class is so tough right now, it is so hard to win. The bottom line is we haven’t put forth our best effort on Sunday, we haven’t lost giving it our best shot and today we did.”

Anderson defeated Joey Grose, Vincent Nobile, and Jeg Coughlin Jr. to advance to the finals showdown with Line.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Arana Jr. earned his first win since St. Louis in 2015 and his 12th career NHRA triumph.

In his first final round of the season, Arana (7.170 seconds at 185.89 mph), who earlier this year became the first rider to crack the 200 mph barrier, won easily when 2016 PSM champ Jerry Savoie fouled at the starting line.

“We have had a fast bike all the time, just been working on consistency and then when the bike was good I was making little errors,” Arana Jr. said. “Dedication, hard work, and practicing to bring it all together. Finally got over some hurdles over here and now we should be back on track.”

The Western Swing continues July 27-29 with the Toyota NHRA Sonoma Nationals at Sonoma Raceway.

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Leah Pritchett; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Clay Millican; 4. Blake Alexander; 5. Scott Palmer; 6. Steve Torrence; 7. Jim Maroney; 8. Richie Crampton; 9. Tony Schumacher; 10. Antron Brown; 11. Greg Carrillo; 12. Terry Totten; 13. Bill Litton; 14. Brittany Force; 15. Mike Salinas; 16. Terry McMillen.

FUNNY CAR: 1. John Force; 2. Ron Capps; 3. Robert Hight; 4. Courtney Force; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. Cruz Pedregon; 7. Tim Wilkerson; 8. Jack Beckman; 9. J.R. Todd; 10. Jonnie Lindberg; 11. Matt Hagan; 12. Jeff Diehl; 13. Terry Haddock; 14. Bob Tasca III; 15. Shawn Langdon; 16. Todd Simpson.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jason Line; 3. Chris McGaha; 4. Jeg Coughlin; 5. Deric Kramer; 6. Vincent Nobile; 7. Alex Laughlin; 8. Tanner Gray; 9. Bo Butner; 10. Drew Skillman; 11. Matt Hartford; 12. Fernando Cuadra; 13. Erica Enders; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Joey Grose; 16. Will Hatcher.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Hector Arana Jr.; 2. Jerry Savoie; 3. Andrew Hines; 4. Karen Stoffer; 5. Scotty Pollacheck; 6. LE Tonglet; 7. Steve Johnson; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Angie Smith; 11. Jim Underdahl; 12. Angelle Sampey; 13. Ryan Oehler; 14. Joey Gladstone; 15. Cory Reed; 16. Eddie Krawiec.

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SUNDAY’S FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Leah Pritchett, 3.831 seconds, 316.45 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 3.852 seconds, 319.82 mph.

FUNNY CAR: John Force, Chevy Camaro, 4.075, 315.42 def. Ron Capps, Dodge Charger, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.943, 196.53 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.170, 185.89 def. Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, Foul – Red Light.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Scott Palmer, 3.894, 317.34 def. Antron Brown, 4.047, 300.13; Blake Alexander, 3.863, 320.81 def. Mike Salinas, 5.827, 118.72; Leah Pritchett, 3.857, 322.81 def. Terry Totten, 4.156, 276.18; Jim Maroney, 4.267, 264.96 def. Brittany Force, 5.524, 129.54; Steve Torrence, 3.899, 325.06 def. Bill Litton, 5.216, 121.99; Clay Millican, 3.824, 327.59 def. Greg Carrillo, 4.088, 309.98; Richie Crampton, 3.870, 317.19 def. Terry McMillen, 6.020, 120.89; Doug Kalitta, 3.849, 320.43 def. Tony Schumacher, 3.852, 321.12; QUARTERFINALS — Alexander, 3.847, 322.58 def. Torrence, 3.903, 321.12; Pritchett, 3.806, 321.96 def. Palmer, 3.890, 317.34; Millican, 3.887, 295.85 def. Crampton, 5.045, 158.99; Kalitta, 3.897, 302.08 def. Maroney, 4.227, 249.53; SEMIFINALS — Kalitta, 3.872, 311.63 def. Alexander, 3.857, 320.20; Pritchett, 3.826, 312.93 def. Millican, 3.826, 320.36; FINAL — Pritchett, 3.831, 316.45 def. Kalitta, 3.852, 319.82.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Cruz Pedregon, Toyota Camry, 4.103, 293.15 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Ford Mustang, 4.186, 311.92; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 4.089, 315.78 def. Jeff Diehl, Camry, Foul – Red Light; Courtney Force, Camaro, 4.089, 285.65 def. Terry Haddock, Toyota Solara, 4.834, 193.54; Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.689, 182.21 def. Todd Simpson, Charger, Broke – No Show; John Force, Camaro, 4.158, 285.77 def. Matt Hagan, Charger, 4.279, 265.69; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 4.094, 308.28 def. Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.998, 167.99; Ron Capps, Charger, 4.101, 312.93 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 4.133, 311.27; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 4.057, 315.64 def. Shawn Langdon, Camry, 5.128, 165.01; QUARTERFINALS — J. Force, 4.139, 313.44 def. Pedregon, 4.137, 252.61; Hight, 4.052, 318.09 def. Johnson Jr., 4.117, 313.58; Capps, 4.082, 309.70 def. Beckman, 4.528, 214.25; C. Force, 4.121, 306.88 def. Wilkerson, 4.268, 272.12; SEMIFINALS — J. Force, 4.048, 318.62 def. C. Force, 4.453, 206.29; Capps, 4.052, 313.88 def. Hight, 4.035, 314.31; FINAL — J. Force, 4.075, 315.42 def. Capps, 4.067, 308.71.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Chris McGaha, Chevy Camaro, 6.970, 196.27 def. Erica Enders, Camaro, 7.098, 195.68; Vincent Nobile, Camaro, 6.974, 196.79 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.968, 196.99; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.991, 196.04 def. Drew Skillman, Camaro, 6.969, 196.93; Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.983, 196.42 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.975, 195.96 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 7.178, 190.14; Tanner Gray, Camaro, 6.975, 196.13 def. Will Hatcher, Dart, 15.790, 58.14; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.968, 196.67 def. Joey Grose, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.969, 197.02 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 7.017, 195.85; QUARTERFINALS — Coughlin, 6.994, 195.87 def. Gray, 6.996, 196.27; McGaha, 6.975, 196.44 def. Kramer, 6.959, 196.96; Line, 6.983, 197.16 def. Laughlin, 6.994, 195.90; Anderson, 6.985, 197.02 def. Nobile, 6.986, 196.24; SEMIFINALS — Anderson, 6.945, 196.27 def. Coughlin, 6.994, 195.79; Line, 6.958, 196.87 def. McGaha, 6.965, 195.79; FINAL — Anderson, 6.943, 196.53 def. Line, 6.947, 196.19.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 7.290, 182.26 def. Cory Reed, Buell, 7.412, 180.60; Scotty Pollacheck, Suzuki, 7.229, 181.11 def. Angie Smith, Buell, 7.276, 181.86; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 7.265, 182.75 def. Hector Arana, Buell, 7.252, 184.85; LE Tonglet, Suzuki, 7.212, 184.55 def. Angelle Sampey, Buell, 7.296, 184.32; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 7.199, 186.25 def. Joey Gladstone, Suzuki, 7.364, 180.40; Hector Arana Jr, Buell, 7.142, 188.75 def. Ryan Oehler, Buell, 7.349, 181.50; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 7.345, 180.36 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 7.982, 125.40; Matt Smith, 7.194, 186.00 def. Jim Underdahl, Suzuki, 7.279, 182.48; QUARTERFINALS — Stoffer, 7.347, 181.20 def. Johnson, 7.427, 180.19; Hines, 7.219, 186.18 def. Pollacheck, Foul – Red Light; Savoie, 7.274, 183.82 def. M. Smith, Broke; Arana Jr, 7.159, 188.46 def. Tonglet, 7.312, 184.37; SEMIFINALS — Savoie, 7.284, 183.19 def. Stoffer, 7.329, 181.25; Arana Jr, 7.163, 188.15 def. Hines, 7.215, 185.31; FINAL — Arana Jr, 7.170, 185.89 def. Savoie, Foul – Red Light.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 1,132; 2. Clay Millican, 959; 3. Leah Pritchett, 949; 4. Tony Schumacher, 930; 5. Doug Kalitta, 893; 6. Antron Brown, 750; 7. Terry McMillen, 696; 8. Brittany Force, 658; 9. Richie Crampton, 576; 10. Scott Palmer, 544.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Courtney Force, 1,156; 2. Matt Hagan, 946; 3. Ron Capps, 930; 4. Robert Hight, 911; 5. Jack Beckman, 906; 6. J.R. Todd, 832; 7. Tommy Johnson Jr., 746; 8. John Force, 735; 9. Shawn Langdon, 647; 10. Bob Tasca III, 596.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson, 1,044; 2. Tanner Gray, 976; 3. Erica Enders, 969; 4. Vincent Nobile, 947; 5. Chris McGaha, 875; 6. Drew Skillman, 842; 7. Jeg Coughlin, 838; 8. Bo Butner, 782; 9. Jason Line, 778; 10. Deric Kramer, 725.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 591; 2. Eddie Krawiec, 564; 3. Hector Arana Jr, 501; 4. LE Tonglet, 493; 5. Jerry Savoie, 481; 6. Scotty Pollacheck, 417; 7. Matt Smith, 411; 8. Angie Smith, 304; 9. (tie) Hector Arana, 289; Angelle Sampey, 289.

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