Servia Is Under Orders Of Paul Newman Today
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Indianapolis – If actor/racer Paul Newman was patrolling Gasoline Alley at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this morning, Oriol Servia knows exactly what his marching orders would be for the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500.
“ ‘Go get it!” said Servia, imitating the late Newman’s low and raspy voice. “He wouldn’t be the voice of reason, you know? The whole team, they always tell you, ‘Listen, it’s a long race…blah, blah, blah.’ Paul would just say, ‘Go get it! Go get it, boy!’ You know? I’m sure he’s watching us.”
Himself an accomplished sports car racer, Newman died at age 83 on Sept. 26, 2008 after a battle with lung cancer. His sporting legacy is Newman/Haas Racing, the organization co-founded with businessman/racer Carl A. Haas in 1982.
NHR racked-up a combined 105 wins and eight CART/Champ Car World Series championships between 1983 and 2007 with a glamorous global cast featuring Mario and Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Sebastien Bourdais.
Mario Andretti, of course, won the 1969 Indy 500 for car-owner Andy Granatelli. But neither Mario nor any of NHR’s leading men has won “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.” It is a
sadistic statistic that stands at 0-for-18.
“It’s the most shocking thing, especially because not only they’ve always been a good team, they have dominated this race,” said Servia, a 36-year-old native of Pals, Catalonia, Spain. “They are the team that’s led the most laps without leading the final one. They’ve actually led 757 laps without ever leading the last one. So for a while they had this kind of love/hate relationship with the Speedway because Mario and Michael, they had so many great runs, and even Bruno (Junqueira).
“But it seemed like the race kept getting robbed from them. And I’m telling them, ‘No! Just the Speedway loves you so much it wanted to give you the most valued prize, which is the 100th anniversary.’ So I’m hoping I can give them the 100th race.”
Servia will attempt to do so from the outside of the three-car front row after qualifying at an average speed of 227.168 mph. Alex Tagliani of Sam Schmidt Motorsports is on-pole at 227.472 mph, with 2008 Indy 500 champion Scott Dixon of Target Chip Ganassi Racing second-fast at 227.340 mph. In a rain-plagued and compressed Month of May that has produced feel-good stories about Tagliani and second-year star Simona de Silvestro, Servia’s third stint at NHR largely has gone unnoticed.
Recall that Servia started 11 races for NHR in 2005 as substitute for the injured Junqueira, and as teammate to reigning Champ Car World Series champion Bourdais. Servia logged one pole, one win, 10 top-five and 10 top-10 finishes en route to placing second in the point standings to the Frenchman.
Servia competed in four IndyCar Series events for NHR in 2009, when he also drove for
Rahal Letterman Racing. Servia recorded three-top finishes, including a fourth-place run at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan, for NHR. After failing to find the sponsorship to support an open-wheel ride in 2010, Servia re-signed with Newman/Haas last August for a full-season drive beginning in 2011.
“The first thing we wanted to do was to look for who we thought was the best driver to lead the team – who is the best driver available,” said Brian Lisles, NHR’s general manager in his 23rd year with the organization. “It was pretty easy for us to choose Oriol. We expect Oriol to be with the team for a good number of years.”
Servia has been reunited with John Tzouanakis, NHR’s team manager who has been with the organization since its inception; Craig Hampson, chief engineer and an 18-year employee; Colin Duff, shop manager and a 26-year employee; Todd Phillips, Oriol’s chief mechanic and a nine-year employee and Tim Coffeen, a 23-year employee who is chief mechanic for rookie teammate James Hinchcliffe.
Servia pointed out that NHR did not schedule any wind tunnel or shaker-rig testing during the winter, a common practice under INDYCAR’s limited on-track testing regulations.
“But I knew whatever car we had, we were going to get the best out of it,” said Servia, driver of the No. 2 Telemundo Dallara/Honda. “They expect their cars to be perfect, and it’s awesome. It’s a luxury. It makes you feel you don’t want to do anything else the rest of your life but to be here with these guys. And it’s because we’ve worked together in the past and we’ve been successful, I know they’ll give me a good car. And they know if they give me a good car I’m capable of winning. ”
Servia’s third-place qualifying effort at IMS returned NHR to the front row for the first
time since 1993, when Mario Andretti qualified second en route to a fifth-place finish.
“Although we haven’t been together for like three seasons, it is like we were because they’re as motivated as I am,” Servia said. “Me, after being a year off at home – not by choice. And them having a bad season like they had (in 2010 with Hideki Mutoh as lead driver).
“You put us together with the chemistry we always had and the motivation we have now…I’m not saying we’re better than (Team) Penske or (Target Chip) Ganassi Racing because we’re not. But we’re definitely a threat to them and when we get everything right we definitely have enough to get them nervous, as we showed in the standings and in qualifying here. So what’s going to happen Sunday, nobody can answer. But I am sure that if we do every step right we’re going to be there at the end fighting for it.”
Servia said his four-lap/10-mile qualifying run on Pole Day was especially gratifying, as his car had not been trimmed out for maximum speed.
“My thing with the engineers, I told them when the car feels good we’re going to be able to trim like in three stages – boom, boom, boom. And that’s what happened,” Servia said. “When I did my first lap at 227.3, I’m like, ‘This is looking good.’ When I finished those four laps right away on the radio I told them, ‘Guys, whatever ends up happening _ wherever we finish – I just want you to know this is how I always wanted to feel when I do a qualifying for the 500.’
“It felt really, really on the edge, very neutral but not one wiggle. I knew the car was going to stay underneath me, right on the edge. And when you qualify for a race like this, you want to feel you gave it all. And we did. It makes you feel confident for the race because so far we’ve been able to do our job right.”
Servia, the 1999 Dayton Indy Lights champion, is a graduate of the Universitat
Politecnica de Catalunya with a degree in mechanical engineering. He is the only full-season IndyCar Series driver with a college degree, and last year Servia figured he would have to fall back on it.
“I was actually going crazy,” said Servia, a resident of Miami Beach. “But it was an interesting point in my life because I’ve done this for many years now. In the U.S. since 1998 in Indy Lights, 1999 won the championship and then since 2000 in CART, Champ Car and IndyCar, right? And every year I seem to be getting better, honestly.
“And the last year I raced a full season was 2008. My teammate was Will Power (at KV Racing Technology). I was ahead of him in the points from the first to the last race. On qualifying on the road courses – his specialty – he outqualified me four times, I outqualified him four times. So I’m not saying I’m any better than Will Power but, for sure, I knew I was a match for the guy. And I was at home (in 2010) and he was at Penske, dominating the championship and being the new ‘revelation of the paddock.’ And it’s not like I was less-lucky that I was in a lesser car. I just was at home. I couldn’t even get a car.
“So it was a point in my life where it could have been very understandable if I said, ‘Listen. I had my success. I’ve been racing for 10 years. I’ve been luckier than many, so maybe it’s time to go race in another series or it’s time to work as an engineer or do something else. But I just felt that I wasn’t done, that I really wanted to get a shot in a good team – especially seeing how good Will Power was doing at Penske.”
Servia said his “new normal” included the often awkward task of trying to sell oneself to
“I tried the whole season,” Servia said. “You couldn’t believe how many board meetings I was in, marketing meetings _ how many hours I spent in PowerPoint presentations trying to find money _ and it didn’t happen. But at least it kept my hopes up. I always had something cooking, something working. That kept me sane, in a way. And when Newman/Haas called me and said, ‘Hey, let’s get this done. We want you to be our driver next year,’ it was great.”
That said, the shock-and-awe surrounding Newman/Haas Racing’s Indy 500 “Ofer” –and Paul Newman’s raspy pep talk – will collide again today at the corner of 16th Street and Georgetown Road.
“This year, finally, I’m in a solid team in a solid effort and we’re here since Day One,” said Servia, sizing up his situation. “Very prepared engineers. We actually have an amazing speed in the car and qualified front row for the 100th anniversary Indy 500. So yes, I am more confident. And I am in a better place than I’ve ever been.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.comOne Comment