Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

Oliver Askew Taking Valuable Lessons from Rookie Pro Mazda Campaign

By Joey Barnes, Editor-in-Chief

The step up to the next level of the Mazda Road to Indy ladder can sometimes be steeper than expected.

Oliver Askew has been learning that firsthand this year during his inaugural campaign in the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires.

After capturing staggering seven wins, 11 podiums and eight poles in 14 starts en route to the 2017 title in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda – the first rung of the MRTI ladder – with Cape Motorsports, the outside expectations of his move up were heavy.

By any other measure, though, the 21-year-old from Jupiter, Florida, has had a very respectable 2018 season. Continuing his progression with Cape Motorsports, the duo have amassed two runner-up finishes, six top-fives, 12 top-10s and three poles  in 13 starts. Askew currently sits fourth in the championship, tied with BN Racing’s David Malukas, with three races to go.

Although there have been rough patches, he believes it’s all part of “paying his dues.”

“I think speed-wise, we expected to be a little bit closer,” Askew said. “There’ve been some tracks where we’ve been competitive and some tracks where we’ve have been nowhere. That was a little bit of a surprise, but regardless, my expectations at the beginning at the year, yeah, I thought we had a chance at winning the championship, but I wasn’t thinking about that all the time.

“My mindset was more about trying to learn as much as possible in the series because it’s so competitive and it’s such a good opportunity for me, especially being with Cape Motorsports and working with JJ (Jonatan Jorge, driver coach). Not many other drivers got the opportunity to learn in that environment. This year has turned into more of a learning experience rather than a championship-winning season and I think that the experience this year will then translate to a more successful future.”

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

The pilot of the No. 3 Mazda entry has enjoyed the challenge of the Tatuus PM-18, the upgraded version of the entry level USF-17 learned in USF2000. However, it has still left him and the team with unanswered questions.

“I think the driving styles are very similar,” Askew said. “Honestly, you can be more aggressive and manipulate things within the car because it has more grip and more options driving-wise, rather than just being on top of the road and floating around without any downforce like in the USF car.

“There hasn’t been one reason why we haven’t been at the top all the time as we were last year in USF. There’ve been a couple of things that, whether it’s set up, stuff internally with the car that we think could be better. I can’t put my finger on one thing, but any other (issues) there’s still a couple of races that we’ve gone to this year and we still don’t really understand where the time loss was.

“That can be a little bit frustrating, but I think that with anybody, the more experience you have and the bigger database you have. Hopefully, those problems won’t happen again when you go back there and race.”

Based on the success Askew has enjoyed in such a short amount of time, it’s easy to forget that 2017 was his first full year in a proper car. However, it wasn’t enough to derail his pace in qualifying, having started every race from either the first or second row. That run of success hasn’t been duplicated this season, as more experienced competition has also meant a tougher battle when looking for that ultimate lap in qualifying, but that has elevated his attacking prowess come race day.

“I think there were six or seven different race starts that I started either from the third row or back,” said Askew, the 2016 runner-up of the Walter Hayes Trophy Grand Final at Silverstone.

“That’s not ideal, but since it’s my second season (in cars), I don’t have that experience.

“For sure, my race craft can be better and it’s gotten tremendously better as the season has gone on. I mean, if you look at the past couple races like Toronto and Mid-Ohio, all of those races are some of the best races that I’ve had. I’m happy to be able to say that.”

Indeed it has been as Askew has finished no worse than sixth over the last four races, including two podiums.

The Mazda Road to Indy continues to host some of the most elite young talent from around the world and Pro Mazda is no exception. The level of difficulty only increases as teams continue to grow their already stout collection of data, too. This era in INDYCAR’s development system is undoubtedly one of the most competitive in its illustrious history.

Askew is looking to close the 20-point gap to Juncos Racing’s Carlos Cunha for third in the championship. That task is made slightly tougher since the next stop begin this weekend at Gateway Motorsports Park, with Portland International Raceway coming the weekend after – both of which Askew has never competed on. However, his approach isn’t one of concern.

“I don’t really look at new tracks as a hurdle,” he said. “Typically, obviously depending on the length and the type of corners, I can pick it up pretty quickly – like within five or 10 laps and start to develop the car.

“Third place is definitely within reach right now in the championship and that’s my goal. I think if we can achieve that, it’d be really cool after the season that we’ve had. That’d be a really good end to the season and I think that everybody that works at Cape Motorsports would say the same thing.”

Although the season is winding down, the parts for next year are already in motion and Askew is already trying to put together a plan.

“I think there has been a lot of interest from myself and other teams going into next year in a few different series,” he said.

“I want to continue racing, there’s no doubt about that. I want to keep progressing and trying to make my way to IndyCar. It’s still a possible goal and until it’s all shut down, I’m going to be pushing to make it there. I think it’s possible.

“It’s still early, silly season, but it’s definitely sped up here, especially at Mid-Ohio with a few different teams. It’d be interesting to see how everything plays out. Obviously budget is a big variable and if we could secure that then I can go where I really want to, so we’ll see.”

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Joey Barnes is the Founder of Motorsports Tribune. He has covered auto racing since 2013 that has spanned from Formula 1 to NASCAR, with coverage on IndyCar. Additionally, his work has appeared on Racer, and Autoweek magazine. In 2017, he was recognized with an award in Spot News Writing by the National Motorsports Press Association.