Oliver Askew’s ascent to the NTT IndyCar Series has been swift and impressive.
Unfortunately, the 23-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, will have to wait before he finally can turn laps against real competition on a racetrack in IndyCar.
Askew was ready to go at St. Petersburg, Florida, before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg was called off on March 13 because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. That contest is expected to be scheduled in October as the season finale.
For now, however, Askew prepares for his rookie season with Arrow McLaren SP by working on sim rigs and competing in eSports. McLaren actively has been involved in virtual racing and uses it as a tool to prepare its drivers.
That will have to suffice for the time being before real Indy cars come to life, hopefully in June.
Prior to the shutdown, the 2019 Indy Lights Series champion was ready for the final rung of the “Road to Indy” ladder. That top step, of course, is the NTT IndyCar Series.
“I’ve been thrown in the deep end for real this time,” Askew said about IndyCar. “But the team has a lot of experience in IndyCar. To have Pato O’Ward as a teammate, we can really push each other, and I think we can bring the best out of each other as well. That is really important to have a teammate relationship.
“I’m looking forward to getting started and finally seeing where we’re at and where we can improve. It’s a steep learning curve for me. I have a lot of really smart people around Pato and I to make sure we’re ready for St. Pete and doesn’t feel like my first race weekend when I get there.”
Askew was the driver to beat in Indy Lights last year for Andretti Autosport. In 18 Indy Lights starts, he won seven races, collected seven poles and finished on the podium in 15 contests.
He led 141 of a possible 561 laps.
With statistics like that, the expectations naturally are high for Askew.
“Honestly I don’t have any expectations at the moment,” Askew said. “A realistic goal is to win IndyCar Rookie of the Year. That’s really important to both myself and the team. That’s what we’re pushing toward and working so hard.
“Obviously, we want to win races. We’re not here to run outside the top five or the top 10. We need to be up close to the front right away. As long as we work hard and check each box, I’m sure the results are going to come.”
Askew’s dream is to win the Indianapolis 500. He’s already driven to victory at Indy, however, with a win in the Freedom 100 Indy Lights race last May. He started eighth and won the thrilling race in the final laps.
“That was the best day of my life by far in motorsports,” Askew said of that Freedom 100 win. “I just can’t wait to go back there and experience that again. That day, I really felt like the magic of the Speedway. I hope that I can experience that again on Sunday (in the Indy 500) in the future.
“Just the weekend and the month in general is a really special feeling around Indianapolis and motorsport.”
Meantime, Askew has to learn the top level of the series. He has to absorb the endless reams of engineering data and listen to the feedback of those at Arrow McLaren SP.
“We have to look toward the people around us in the garage and engineering room,” Askew said. “Also, we’re going to have Robert Wickens (who continues to recover from injuries suffered from a crash at Pocono in 2018) as well. He is going to be a great resource for us.
“Robert has driven a car recently and has recent experience with the car and is willing to share as much of that as possible. I think we’ve seen it recently in Formula One and IndyCar — drivers who are good and have good equipment will eventually rise to the top and eventually become successful. So, there are a lot of variables that go into it. But I think our base is where it needs to be.”
One of the key members at Arrow McLaren SP is engineer Craig Hampson, who has moved over to the team after three seasons with Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan and driver Sebastien Bourdais.
Hampson was Bourdais’ race engineer during his four-straight Champ Car Series championships with Newman Haas Lanigan Racing from 2004-2007.
“Craig is playing the role of overseeing both sides of the team,” Askew said. “He is not on one side or the other. It’s a very open room between the two cars anyway. I think he is going to definitely fill some of the gaps where we might have been weak in the past.
“Craig has had very quick cars at the speedway and on road courses as well. It’s just a great resource for the team in general to have Craig on board, so we’re really excited about that.”
Askew will also have the change to renew his racing rivalry with Rinus VeeKay of The Netherlands. VeeKay is a rookie with Ed Carpenter Racing in the No. 21 Chevrolet.
“I’ve been racing Rinus since 2014,” Askew admitted. “I think every time I show up to the track, he’s always there. He is always that guy I’m fighting for the win.
“It’s kind of cool to have someone like that, looking back at it. In the moment, it’s not cool at all. But looking back, he has made me better, and I think I’ve made him better. We’re always competing against each other and using each other as a benchmark because we’re at the same level.
“We have the same experience. Our driving styles are completely different, but we’re taking the good from each other. He’s been a great rival to have over the years.
“Thankfully, we’ve only had one or two collisions, which is pretty small for how many races we’ve had together.”
While he was climbing the ladder, Askew could focus on several drivers of VeeKay’s quality to help him determine the competition. In IndyCar, however, that competition level is very deep.
“It’s like having 20 other Rinus VeeKay’s now,” Askew said. “I’m not worried about him at all anymore. There are now way more drivers to worry about other than Rinus.”