Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda drivers Oliver Askew and Parker Thompson shared the experience of a lifetime last weekend, getting an inside look at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, race one of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. From the IMSA Radio booth to the Mazda Prototype pit box to the state-of-the-art Mazda hospitality complex, the pair saw the inner workings of one of the world’s most famous sports car races and came away with the same goal: to drive in the endurance classic one day.
Askew, who earned the 2017 Mazda Scholarship by winning the MRTI Shootout last December, journeyed to the event from his home in Jupiter, Fla., just two-and-a-half hours south of Daytona International Speedway. Thompson, the 2016 series runner-up and a Team Canada Scholarship recipient, made a stop at the legendary race on his way from his home in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada to his first test with his new team, Exclusive Autosport. Both had been to the race as spectators, but to see it now as bonafide race car drivers made a lasting impression.
For Askew, a 2016 Team USA Scholarship winner, it was his first chance to be part of the Mazda family, as the Soul Red Mazda driver in USF2000.
“I’d gone to Daytona and Sebring the past few years,” said Askew, 20. “It’s the first race of the season for everybody and it seems as though everyone meets up at this race. I thought it was especially important this year for me to meet everyone who works in motorsports for Mazda who hadn’t been at the Shootout.”
Both drivers arrived at the track for the IMSA drivers’ meeting, with Askew having additional responsibilities that included a photo alongside the former Team USA Scholarship winners in the starting field. With over 200 drivers in attendance, along with team managers, public relations representatives and series officials, it was a definite change to the meetings either driver was used to! From there, it was a trip to the top of the Daytona main grandstand to watch driver introductions announcers John Hindhaugh and Team USA Scholarship founder Jeremy Shaw.
“I was standing outside the meeting room and it took 30 minutes for all the drivers to get there; they just kept coming in a huge, long line,” Askew recalls. “The room was packed! Then I went to see Mazda’s whole set up. It was great to be wearing a Mazda shirt and jacket just like everyone else; it made me feel at home – and they made me feel very welcome. After that, Parker and I walked around the pit lane and it seemed as though we couldn’t walk more than 50 feet without someone saying congratulations to both of us! It was great to see how tight the community is between the two series. I talked to (Verizon IndyCar Series driver) James Hinchcliffe, who I met the week before the Shootout at the Racing for Cancer event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, and I spoke with (Starworks Prototype Challenge driver) Robert Wickens, who I know from the karting track, plus a lot of people I’d never met before.
“It was great to spend time with Jeremy again, and it was cool to see the entire IMSA Radio operation. Watching the start, you really feel the anxiety in everyone around you. It’s such a different mindset, going into a race that lasts 24 hours as opposed to one that lasts 20 or 30 minutes. Your first instinct is to go as hard as you can, but a 24-hour race is not about that.”
“I got there just in time for the drivers’ meeting, and immediately ran into Oliver,” said Thompson. “I’ve always thought the Mazda Road to Indy drivers’ meetings were complicated, with all the stuff you have to go over – all kinds of things you have to know about the racetrack, especially things that can cause you to get a penalty or could result in a safety issue. But we only have 30-minute races. When you look at what these guys have to go review and remember, it’s unbelievable.
“It was fascinating to spend time with Jeremy in the IMSA Radio booth. This track, with its mix of the road course and the high banks of the oval, is so unique and I love that. It’s great for the fans as well, since you can see the entire track. To watch this race, with all the different cars and classes and the high caliber of driver, is just incredible. Just about every class came down to the final lap, after 24 hours. It was mind blowing.”
The pair left the radio booth and headed to the infield for a “typical fan experience” (i.e. a hot dog) and watched some of the action on the big screen with the fans. Next up on the adventure list was a lengthy stop at the stunning Mazda hospitality complex, situated between Turn One and the International Horseshoe, before heading to the pit lane to take in some of the action from the Mazda pit box.
“We got to see firsthand how the team works,” said Askew. “You see the guys practicing pit stops way before the event because even after 24 hours, every second counts; so many of the battles came down to the final lap. There are three levels to the Mazda pit box: the bottom level where the mechanics are, the second level where the race engineers are then the top level, where (Mazda Director of Motorsports) John Doonan sits. He is such a nice guy; we had a great conversation while the race was going on!
“It was also very professional but very relaxed at the Mazda hospitality area. They made it so that we could spend 24 hours there! We could sit inside where it was warm, watch TV and live scoring – plus, I’m always snacking! We could see just about the entire infield section from there.”
Thompson agreed. “My hat’s off to Mazda. Not only do they run a world-class race team, but their hospitality is second to none. They treat their fans and clients really well, with couches on the outside where you could watch the cars go by and watch the fireworks.”
When the pair returned, there was an immediate clash of weather stereotypes: the Floridian Askew was armed against the cold and rainy conditions in a winter coat, while the Canadian Thompson wore only a shirt.
“That was funny,” Thompson smiled. “I honestly didn’t think the weather was that bad!”
“Parker was getting a bunch of looks because it was 40 degrees and he was just wearing a dress shirt!” said Askew. “I was absolutely freezing.”
As the Rolex 24 came to a conclusion, both drivers reflected on an amazing experience, one that left them eager to take the checkered flag themselves.
“If you’re an open-wheel driver and you make it to the pinnacle, you have a good chance of landing a ride in some of the glamour events like this,” said Thompson. “That’s just one more thing that pushes me. I have to say, if I don’t get the chance to run this race during my career, I’ll be pretty disappointed. It’s definitely a bucket list race for me.”
“IndyCar and IMSA are so different, but Mazda is one company, with the same people coordinating the brand and the racing.” said Askew. “I got to see how those people bring so much professionalism to the table and it makes me want to up my game in order to represent them. And to see guys like Spencer Pigot go through the Mazda Road to Indy and then get to drive the Mazda prototype, well, I hope it’s something I get to do in the future also. I’ve gone to this race as a spectator for a few years, just sitting in the bleachers and wishing I could be involved in the car racing industry somehow, since I was only really known at the karting track. It’s amazing how much of a difference a year can make! So much has happened in the last three months and I’m so happy with the direction my career is going now. It was great to be a part of the first race of the year – everyone is so pumped up to go racing now!”