Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

MRTI: O’Ward flyin’ high early on in Indy Lights

Leave a comment

It cannot be understated how dominant Andretti Autosport’s Patricio “Pato” O’Ward has been to start the 2018 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season. With two poles and three victories in the opening four races at St. Petersburg and Barber Motorsports Park, O’Ward has asserted himself as the fastest driver early on in the Indy Lights campaign.

And the weekend from Barber serves as evidence of this dominance. O’Ward started second in a hot and dry Race 1 on Saturday, passed polesitter Colton Herta in Turn 5 right after the start, and ran away from there to lead every lap and take the win.

On Sunday, with conditions now cold and rainy, O’Ward didn’t miss a beat, scoring the pole and immediately shooting off into the distance when the green flag waved to complete the weekend sweep with a Race 2 victory.

O’Ward revealed that some of that success is down to the track, one he describes as a favorite, a feeling that goes back to his days in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.

“Barber, honestly, is a track I really enjoy driving. I’ve had a lot of success there, especially in 2016 in Pro Mazda. I didn’t qualify on pole in one race, and I won it from fourth (on the grid), and in the other I qualified on pole and I basically just left everyone behind and got the win. So, it’s definitely a track where I’ve had a lot of success,” he told NBC Sports.

Further, O’Ward added that he feels like the track meshes well with him. “I think it really suits my driving style,” he explained. “I really like fast tracks, like obviously Barber. I really enjoy street courses as well. I know where I’m going to be strong so I wanted to get the most out of it.”

And while the rain on Sunday presented a very tricky challenge in and of itself, O’Ward, who has raced in the rain previously, explained that the bigger challenge was actually getting used to driving the Dallara IL-15 in the rain.

“The hardest thing with the Indy Lights car is there’s so much torque, it’s so hard to keep the rear tires under you, even in the dry,” he detailed. “But in the rain, whenever it’s wet and slippery, the hardest thing is to put the power down.”

However, O’Ward was surprised to find that the track had much more grip than he thought it would.

Pato O’Ward’s most recent win came in the wet at Barber Motorsports Park. Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

“When I first went out, I felt the track had a lot of grip, that was something I was not expecting at all,” he revealed. “The braking (zones) weren’t pushed far back that much. It was a surprise, first of all, and second of all, I had the best place to be in, which is first, so you don’t have anyone in front of you. There’s no spray, and you can actually see. It was definitely a new learning experience, but I think I got around it pretty fast and we were putting down some really fast lap times.”

What is potentially more daunting, especially for his Indy Lights competitors, is that O’Ward could easily have four wins in four races if not for Race 2 in St. Petersburg, when he overshot Turn 4 and went into the runoff area before stalling the car on re-entry.

He eventually finished seventh, and revealed that while it was an honest mistake, it is one that did not sit well with him.

“It was kind of embarrassing,” he revealed. “I was seven seconds in front of everyone, and then all of the sudden you mess up by yourself, go in the runoff area, and stall the car. I basically just gave a win (away), gave a podium away.”

He further explained that running by yourself, as he was at that point in the race, can present a unique challenge in that it can be very easy to lose focus, as you aren’t battling anyone.

“Whenever someone is behind you, it kind of helps you keep your focus, but when you’re so far ahead, it becomes a mental challenge by yourself. So you’re your own competition. I think that’s what got to me. I kind of relaxed a little too much and I just made a stupid mistake. On a street course, they’re not going to be forgiving. It’s definitely something I’m not going to want to happen again.”

In addition to honing his craft in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, O’Ward is also taking advantage of opportunities in IMSA. He raced full-time in the Prototype Challenge class of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship last year with Performance Tech Motorsports, and is doing the endurance races with the same team in 2018, now in the Prototype class.

The relationship between O’Ward and Performance Tech goes back to 2016, when he first contested IMSA Prototype Lites races (now called the IMSA Prototype Challenge presented by Mazda) with them, and that quickly grew into a full-season opportunity for 2017.

“I did an IMSA Lites race with them. We didn’t have the strongest car, but they saw what I could do. (Team owner Brent O’Neill) called me and said ‘Hey, would you be interested to jump in the car with James (French) and Kyle (Masson) for the PC?’ I was like ‘Well, yeah, that’d be awesome to do Daytona, Sebring, and everything,'” he said of how their relationship came together.

And while the Prototype Challenge class did not feature deep fields in 2017 – BAR1 Motorsports was the only other team with entries in every event, with only Don Yount contesting every race for them – it nonetheless resulted in several noteworthy accomplishments, including wins at the Rolex 24 at Daytona and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring, along with a class championship.

Even though O’Ward’s primary focus is in the single-seater realm, he is not dismissive of his IMSA exploits.

“I think the championships and the IMSA stuff, it’s going to add to your bonuses, to your persona, it just adds to everything,” he asserted. “It’s always good to have some seat time, to get more seat time, to get your name out there. It’s definitely not hurting.”

While his career has at times hit a couple stumbling blocks – he ran only four Indy Lights races in 2017 before his budget ran out – O’Ward is confident that if he can keep up the same work ethic, attitude, and form he has displayed so far, a big payoff could be down the road.

“I’m a big believer that things happen for a reason, so I’m sure where I’m at right now is because of the things that have led up to this. So, I think it’s just part of the sport, it’s part of what it takes to kind of start making (a name for) yourself as a driver. I feel like it’s just all a part of it, and honestly I wouldn’t be changing a thing.”

His championship outlook certainly looks strong four races in – he leads Santi Urrutia by 16 points (110 to 94) – but his focus is not necessarily on maintaining his dominant form.

Rather, he is keen to get the most out of every race, even if that means not winning. “If I have a car for second, I’m going to finish second. If I have a car for a podium, I’m going to finish on the podium – I’m not going to push for the win. But when I know I have a car to win, I’m going to (try to) win. So, I just want to play it smart, watch my surroundings, because I know sometimes when things don’t go your way it’s not your fault. So that’s basically going to be my approach for the rest of the season.”

And while the Indy Lights field is small, he is by no means underestimating anyone.

“Santi has been a vice-champion in Indy Lights for two years already. Colton (Herta) got a bunch of race wins last year. Aaron (Telitz) got wins last year and he was fast. Every single guy in the series has gone for wins or has showed a lot of speed. This year is definitely not a walk in the park.”

Indy Lights’ next event is this weekend’s double-header at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course.

Follow@KyleMLavigne

NHRA Phoenix winners: Steve Torrence, Tommy Johnson Jr., Erica Enders

Photos and videos courtesy NHRA
Leave a comment

Missing the season-opening race two weeks ago didn’t have much impact upon two-time defending NHRA Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence, as he roared to victory in Sunday’s finals of the NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park near Phoenix.

“First round I had a little bit of the jitters,” Torrence said after the 37th win of his Top Fuel career, including 29 since the start of the 2017 season. “We missed [the season opener in Pomona, California] so you came here and this is the first round of the first race of the season for us and I was a little bit nervous to go up there.

“We’re just going to see how the races go and what the weather throws at us. I think that we’ve always had a good hot weather tune-up. We’re just going to try to develop cool track conditions. We’re easing up to it. We’ll just see how it goes and that’s something that we really need to try to put our thumb on.”

Torrence had a final round effort of 3.679 seconds at 321.27 mph to defeat runner-up Doug Kalitta. It was Torrence’s second career win at Phoenix. Torrence and his Capco Contractors dragster got to the final round after defeating, in order, Jim Maroney, Shawn Langdon and Steve’s father, Billy Torrence [in the semifinals].

In Funny Car, Tommy Johnson Jr. [3.883 seconds at 326.40 mph] earned his 18th career win in the class in what was an all-Don Schumacher Racing final round, defeating teammate Jack Beckman, who won the season-opening race at Pomona.

“We had a good car,” said Johnson, whose last Phoenix win came back in 2006. “The last qualifying run showed us that we have a solid car. Coming up here today, we had a lot of confidence. We went out first round and laid down a solid number.

“We weren’t low (elapsed time) but we were close. We came out second round and sat low ET so we knew we had a solid car. As a driver, going into each round knowing you have a car that’s going to perform makes your job a little easier. It gives you a little less stress. The guys did a great job. Even in Pomona we a had a good car, just dropped a cylinder second round and event had a little issue with that in qualifying here.”

In Pro Stock, three-time and defending champion Erica Enders won for the 26th time of her career in the class with a 6.531-second, 210.44 mph over Bo Butner.

“I’d have to say today was excellent,” Enders said. “Our objective coming in was to just get my car as happy as possible. We tested in Tucson on Wednesday, so coming in we were definitely optimistic and finally got our act together for that one fun on Saturday.

“The guys gave me a tremendous race car today. Very consistent, very fast and we just crushed the competition today and it was really fun.”

The third race of the 24-race NHRA national event schedule are one of the biggest races of the season, the Gatornationals, March 12-15 in Gainesville, Florida.

Here are the results from Sunday’s race:

FINAL FINISHING ORDER:

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence; 2. Doug Kalitta; 3. Billy Torrence; 4. Antron Brown; 5. Brittany Force; 6. Leah Pruett; 7. Shawn Langdon; 8. Justin Ashley; 9. Terry McMillen; 10. Clay Millican; 11. Scott Palmer; 12. Jim Maroney; 13. Doug Foley; 14. Terry Totten; 15. Austin Prock; 16. Shawn Reed.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 2. Jack Beckman; 3. Ron Capps; 4. John Force; 5. Tim Wilkerson; 6. Bob Tasca III; 7. Jeff Diehl; 8. Jim Campbell; 9. Paul Lee; 10. Blake Alexander; 11. Alexis DeJoria; 12. Cruz Pedregon; 13. J.R. Todd; 14. Robert Hight; 15. Terry Haddock; 16. Matt Hagan.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders; 2. Bo Butner; 3. Jason Line; 4. Alex Laughlin; 5. Kenny Delco; 6. Jeg Coughlin; 7. Cristian Cuadra; 8. Chris McGaha; 9. Matt Hartford; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Marty Robertson; 12. Aaron Stanfield; 13. Val Smeland; 14. Alan Prusiensky; 15. Greg Anderson; 16. Deric Kramer.

*************************************************

FINAL RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: Steve Torrence, 3.679 seconds, 321.27 mph def. Doug Kalitta, 4.052 seconds, 218.90 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Tommy Johnson Jr., Dodge Charger, 3.883, 326.40 def. Jack Beckman, Charger, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: Erica Enders, Chevy Camaro, 6.531, 210.44 def. Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.606, 209.33.

*************************************************

FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS:

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Doug Kalitta, 3.711, 330.07 def. Shawn Reed, Foul – Red Light; Shawn Langdon, 3.717, 321.65 def. Clay Millican, 3.750, 321.42; Justin Ashley, 3.717, 312.21 def. Scott Palmer, 3.843, 288.21; Brittany Force, 3.643, 337.92 def. Terry Totten, 8.635, 84.50; Leah Pruett, 3.654, 331.12 def. Doug Foley, 5.328, 127.81; Steve Torrence, 3.717, 325.69 def. Jim Maroney, 4.436, 190.35; Antron Brown, 3.729, 326.95 def. Terry McMillen, Foul – Red Light; Billy Torrence, 3.683, 322.73 def. Austin Prock, 9.008, 78.60; QUARTERFINALS — Brown, 3.721, 326.87 def. Ashley, 10.031, 78.07; S. Torrence, 4.570, 203.31 def. Langdon, 5.170, 216.72; Kalitta, 3.695, 325.69 def. Force, 3.685, 334.15; B. Torrence, 3.703, 328.78 def. Pruett, 3.688, 324.20; SEMIFINALS — S. Torrence, 3.698, 329.58 def. B. Torrence, 3.699, 329.91; Kalitta, 3.672, 330.55 def. Brown, 4.360, 183.74; FINAL — S. Torrence, 3.679, 321.27 def. Kalitta, 4.052, 218.90.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 4.051, 318.02 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 6.254, 109.34; Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.591, 248.16 def. Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 7.416, 90.63; John Force, Camaro, 3.848, 335.90 def. Terry Haddock, Ford Mustang, 7.692, 86.52; Jeff Diehl, Toyota Camry, No Time def. Matt Hagan, Charger, DQ-CCL; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.878, 325.85 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.898, 320.05; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 4.211, 318.99 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 5.172, 151.36; Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.979, 286.25 def. Alexis DeJoria, Camry, 6.045, 111.71; Ron Capps, Charger, 3.905, 329.02 def. J.R. Todd, Camry, 6.383, 103.46; QUARTERFINALS — Beckman, 3.895, 329.42 def. Campbell, 8.959, 70.61; Force, 3.894, 332.43 def. Wilkerson, Foul – Red Light; Johnson Jr., 3.864, 323.74 def. Tasca III, Foul – Red Light; Capps, 4.184, 232.19 def. Diehl, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Beckman, 3.882, 329.91 def. Force, 3.917, 326.63; Johnson Jr., 3.871, 319.98 def. Capps, 3.864, 328.06; FINAL — Johnson Jr., 3.883, 326.40 def. Beckman, 6.156, 119.31.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Alex Laughlin, Chevy Camaro, 6.548, 209.85 def. Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.586, 208.68; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 6.583, 209.46 def. Greg Anderson, Camaro, 15.609, 67.56; Jason Line, Camaro, 6.649, 186.28 def. Deric Kramer, Camaro, 30.055, 23.82; Bo Butner, Camaro, 10.108, 78.96 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.601, 208.65 def. Alan Prusiensky, Dodge Dart, 10.724, 93.79; Cristian Cuadra, Ford Mustang, 6.633, 208.10 def. Aaron Stanfield, Camaro, 7.162, 145.93; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.532, 210.37 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Mustang, 6.611, 207.91; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.535, 210.11 def. Marty Robertson, Mustang, 6.634, 206.67; QUARTERFINALS — Line, 6.581, 210.01 def. C. Cuadra, 14.134, 51.15; Butner, 6.863, 167.32 def. Delco, Foul – Red Light; Laughlin, 6.546, 210.44 def. Coughlin, 6.810, 175.34; Enders, 6.526, 211.00 def. McGaha, Foul – Red Light; SEMIFINALS — Butner, 7.262, 147.44 def. Laughlin, Broke; Enders, 6.555, 210.28 def. Line, 6.582, 209.33; FINAL — Enders, 6.531, 210.44 def. Butner, 6.606, 209.33.

*************************************************

UPDATED POINT STANDINGS:

TOP FUEL: 1. Doug Kalitta, 212; 2. Brittany Force, 153; 3. Leah Pruett, 137; 4. Austin Prock, 131; 5. Steve Torrence, 121; 6. Justin Ashley, 108; 7. Antron Brown, 103; 8. Shawn Langdon, 91; 9. Clay Millican, 85; 10. Shawn Reed, 83.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Jack Beckman, 220; 2. Tommy Johnson Jr., 175; 3. John Force, 173; 4. Ron Capps, 128; 5. Matt Hagan, 124; 6. Tim Wilkerson, 107; 7. Robert Hight, 100; 8. Alexis DeJoria, 99; 9. Bob Tasca III, 87; 10. (tie) Paul Lee, 65; J.R. Todd, 65.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 203; 2. Jeg Coughlin, 197; 3. Jason Line, 168; 4. Kenny Delco, 132; 5. Bo Butner, 131; 6. Chris McGaha, 106; 7. Alex Laughlin, 104; 8. Matt Hartford, 85; 9. (tie) Cristian Cuadra, 82; Fernando Cuadra Jr., 82.

Follow @JerryBonkowski