HOUSTON, Texas - (July 17, 2006) -- Opportunity can strike a budding race driver any time, any place.
But it helps if he or she puts themselves in position to be struck by that opportunity.
Take Steve Ott. The Colorado native and successful club racer moved to Texas to work as a driving instructor and mechanic at the MSR Houston road circuit.
When his bosses saw a mid-May date at Houston's Reliant Field on the 2006 Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda schedule, they figured it was a good opportunity to generate some publicity for their facility. So they did a one-off deal to sponsor a car run by Jensen Motorsport in the Grand Prix of Houston.
Who better to advertise MSR than one of its driving instructors?
All the 25-year-old Ott did was qualify 21st and come home 7th, earning 17 championship points for his finish and another marker as the driver who most improved his starting position over the course of the race.
He hasn't looked back. So impressed were the folks at MSR, that they anted-up to run Ott with Jensen in a few more Atlantic races in Portland, Cleveland and, maybe, Denver. Ott's trip to Portland produced little in the way of results, but Cleveland was another matter. Ott qualified fourth and came home third in the second of the weekend's two races.
His performance did not go unnoticed. A few days after the race he was contacted by Newman Wachs Racing to see if he was available to drive their #35 Mazda-Cosworth/Swift/Yokohama for the remainder of the season, with or without sponsorship.
"They offered to put me in a car for free, starting in Toronto," Ott says. "So I went to Jensen Motorsport and said, 'Here's the deal they've offered me. I'd like to stay with you because you gave me the opportunity and without you I wouldn't be anywhere.' But (team owner) Eric (Jensen) couldn't match the deal, so I went back to Newman Wachs and they offered me the ride for the rest of the season."
As was the case at Cleveland, Ott shined in practice and qualifying, planting the Newman Wachs car on the outside of the third row in his first visit to Toronto's demanding street circuit. After indifferent qualifying performances in Houston and Portland, Ott began to get the hang of things in Cleveland. In part that was owing to his growing familiarity with the Mazda-Cosworth/Swift package.
"I got a better sense for what it takes to drive the Atlantic car," says Ott, who has gotten most of his "seat-time" driving a D-Sports Racer in SCCA national competition in recent years. "With the downforce, all of your lap time gains are on the entry to the corner, so it took me awhile to get used to the fact that I had to carry the speed into the corner like that. It wasn't something I had done before. I'd been working on it and I think I got better at it as time has gone on, first in Cleveland and then Toronto."
The fact that he could experiment on the wide-open runways of Cleveland short-cut the learning curve.
"Cleveland helped a lot, too," he says. "That gave me the chance to just go for it without having any penalties if I went off. Instead of hitting a wall, you just gather it up and keep going."
Unfortunately, that was definitely NOT the case at the start of the Toronto race, when Ott stuck his nose down the inside on the run to Turn One and triggered a multi-car shunt that eliminated several. . . including the #35 Newman Wachs entry.
"I got in there a little hot, didn't get it slowed down in time and came together with a couple of people," he says matter-of-factly. "It was my mistake and I learned from it. I got in there and realized that was not where I wanted to be and tried to gather it up and was unable to."
Although it certainly was not the way Ott wanted to start (or finish) his first race with a new team, the crash did not impact his deal for the remainder of '06 with Newman Wachs. The knowledge that he has the team's full support and a full time ride is invaluable to a young driver such as Ott.
"It's definitely a different approach when you know you have the ride for the full season," he says. "I definitely feel more comfortable in the car, and I'm able to concentrate on driving the car instead of thinking about how to get the money for the next race and the next race after that."
Now it's on to Edmonton and San Jose which, like Toronto, are totally new environments for Ott. Similarly, Newman Wachs teammate Joe D'Agostino is unfamiliar with the Edmonton and San Jose circuits, but Ott is optimistic that, working together with the Newman Wachs engineers, the twosome can come up with suitable set-ups for the tracks.
"Joe and I get along really well," he says. "We talk at the races, compare data and talk about how our cars are handling. We use slightly different set-ups . . . 'my car is working well here, but not so good there,' see how the other car is working and then adapt. So it's been working well."
Then it's on to a track the Thornton, Colorado native knows well, if only from the driver's seat of a passenger car he's driven around the circuit . . . at legal speed of course.
"I know the Denver track, 'cause I'm originally from Colorado," he says. "I've never raced it, but I've driven around it. I've also raced at Road America. So Denver will be a real big race for me and Road America, too, just because it's such a big, fast track . . . and it's Road America, after all."
As for the remainder of the '06 season, Ott would dearly love to make a return trip -- or two -- to the podium ala Cleveland. A win would be even better, but most of all, he plans to position himself for a full-tilt return to Champ Car Atlantic in 2007.
"Realistically I'd like to get a podium or two," he says. "A win would be nice, but I don't know if that's realistic or not, but a couple of podiums would be fantastic; do well the remainder of this season so I could set something up for next year. The championship for this year is out because I missed the first few races, but next year I'd definitely like to go full out for the championship."
The rest of this season, then, will find Ott dividing his time between race weekends with Newman Wachs and his "day-job" at MSR, working as a driving instructor and as a mechanic for the Longhorn Motorsports race -prep shop. In other words, continuing to put himself in the right position when opportunity strikes again.
This article used with permission from Champ Car and the Yokohama Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda
Link to story: http://www.scca.com/News/News.asp?Ref=616