A suspenseful two days of intense competition at the famed Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca ended this afternoon with Oliver Askew, from Jupiter, Fla., being declared winner of the inaugural Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout. Askew, 19, who gained his entry to the Shootout after claiming a Team USA Scholarship, emerged victorious from a total of 18 talented young drivers quite literally from around the world.
“I am a bit speechless right now,” said Askew, who wins a Mazda Scholarship of $200,000 and the right to carry the coveted Soul Red livery in next year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. “I prepared extremely hard for this opportunity and it’s a dream come true. I can’t thank everyone enough who is involved in this program: Mazda especially, Cooper Tires, Lucas Oil School of Racing, the judges.… There are SO many people that got together to make this happen. It’s great event and I’d also like to thank my family, all of my personal supporters and my competitors for making it extremely tough. That was one of the best races I’ve ever had in car racing. I had a blast and I’m really looking forward to the future.”
Throughout 2016, nearly 400 drivers from 20 open-wheel racing championships on five continents competed for an entry ticket to the Shootout. Each of the affiliated championships and organizations had forged ties with the acclaimed Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires, which provides Mazda Scholarships at every level to facilitate graduation all the way from the grassroots of the sport to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
“The event ran almost perfectly, which is hard to imagine, but it’s all due to the hard work everybody put in from the Mazda Motorsports team, Andersen Promotions, Cooper Tires and the Lucas Oil School of Racing,” said Mazda Motorsports Operations Manager Kyle Kimball. “It was a success due to the people involved. I can’t say enough about the team I had around me.
“As for the winner, the current advertising tagline for Mazda is ‘Driving Matters.’ We came into this with equal cars, each driver with his own set of tires, and Oliver Askew was continually and consistently the fastest driver on track. We could not be more thrilled to give him the $200,000 scholarship into USF2000.”
The Shootout began with an orientation at Mazda Raceway on Monday which included seat-fittings in the Lucas Oil School of Racing Ray GR-RSC open-wheel cars featuring Cooper Tires, and introductions to the seven-man judging panel comprising factory Mazda drivers Joel Miller, Spencer Pigot, Jonathan Bomarito and Andrew Carbonell, former IndyCar race driver turned ABC/ESPN color analyst Scott Goodyear, Kimball and Jim Bowie, owner of Brandrenaline, Mazda Motorsports’ Agency of Record in the U.S. and Canada. The competition began in earnest the following morning with the field split into four groups, each of which was permitted three 20-minute sessions on the 2.238-mile, 11-turn road course.
The groups were reassigned for a fourth practice session this morning, after which the judges selected six finalists – Askew, fellow Team USA Scholarship winner Kyle Kirkwood, also from Jupiter, Fla.; Australian Formula Ford 1600 Championship representative Will Brown, from Toowoomba, Australia; Canadian Formula Tour 1600 Champion Trenton Estep, from San Antonio, Texas; Avon Tires British Formula Ford 1600 Champion Niall Murray, from Dublin, Ireland; and Mountney SuperSeries for Formula Ford 1600 representative Oliver White, from Bath, England – to progress through to a 15-minute qualifying session followed by a 30-minute race in which the cars were flagged away at two-second intervals.
White led the field away by virtue of posting the fastest lap in qualifying, followed by Brown, Askew, Estep, Kirkwood and Murray, although as an additional challenge for the six finalists, each was assigned a different car for the final race.
A couple of mistakes in the early stages allowed Askew to sneak past Brown into second place, by which time White already had established a margin of 3.3 seconds. It didn’t last long. Little by little, Askew whittled away at the deficit until, by the ninth lap, the gap had been reduced to just a few cars lengths. The pair then indulged in a breathtaking battle, passing and repassing each other several times over the course of the next handful of laps – including one memorable moment when they battled side-by-side through Turn Four – before Askew was able to assert himself and edge away to victory. Estep also charged hard to finish just 2.5 seconds in arrears, followed by Kirkwood, Murray and Brown, who had been forced to make a pit stop following his earlier off-course excursion.
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” said White. “I started off the week a bit off the pace to the other front guys and I gradually chipped away. It was a brilliant end to the Shootout, having a great race with Oliver [Askew]. That was epic! It was fun. We must have been side-by-side for three or four corners as he passed me and then I got him back. It was a brilliant wheel-to-wheel racing. The standards have been incredibly high here. It was very professional – giving everyone an equal chance and I’ve been very impressed.”
“My overall thought is that this was a fantastic group, especially the final six drivers,” said lead judge Miller. “The lap times speak for themselves: they were each within half-a-second on pace. The final decision came down to the driver who was consistently the quickest, who most satisfied our criteria and who seemed most equipped for the Mazda Road to Indy and had a great possibility of becoming a Verizon IndyCar Series driver. It was heavily based on that concept. Speed put you in the running, but it was everything – how the drivers behaved at dinner or how they acted around the judges – all of that was taken into consideration, and Oliver met all of our criteria. The guy that won was the guy who checked the most boxes.”
Road to Indy