RACING

How a future tin-top ace was thwarted in IndyCar

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It’s not entirely unusual for drivers to make a single appearance in a series and then disappear to try their luck elsewhere. But it’s much rarer to see a driver stringing together one-off appearances over several years, talented enough to be called upon several times, but never leading to anything else.

Such a scenario happened to Fredrik Ekblom in IndyCar, although his thwarted efforts to become a fixture on the grid weren’t for lack of trying. The Swede made three appearances in as many years between 1994 and 1996, each time for a different team, before returning to Europe for a successful touring car career that yielded three national titles and four more second-place finishes.

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“In the end, I had so many contracts that never materialized that I got fed up and went back to Sweden,” says Ekblom, who now works as a sales manager at a Porsche dealership. in Orebro.

In his first season driving on British circuits as a 20-year-old Formula 3 driver, Ekblom came closest to denying Paul Warwick the posthumous honor of winning the British Formula 3000 title in 1991 with a tripled wins in the final rounds. . That should have put him on the path to the bigger leagues, but a lack of sponsors kept him from moving on to the international series for 1992, and he was racing Porsches in Sweden “because I had no money at all. money and that I could more or less drive for free” when a path to IndyCar opened up.

Approached for Indy Lights practice at Mid-Ohio with Bradley Motorsports by crew chief Mike Collier, who had previously managed the successful F3000 GA Motorsport team, Ekblom agreed out of curiosity.

“I had no money, but I had a [road] car, so I sold the car, took the money and put it all together,” he recalls.

He finished second on his debut and the prize money paid for another outing at Laguna Seca, finishing sixth. For 1993 he was approached by Brian Murphy to drive in Long Beach on an aging walk – “I had $8,000 in a brown paper bag and paid for the ride in cash on race morning” – and beat several much later Lolas. , earning an opportunity to end the season and score a best second-place finish to Portland.

Ekblom was strapped for cash early in his career and had to sell his road car to fund a ride to Indy Lights

Photo by: Tony Welam

“We didn’t have any bulk money, but we did the shopping,” he says. “I had a good reputation in the United States, so I never paid anything to drive in IndyCar. That’s also why I only did three races…”

He signed to drive Dennis McCormack’s one-year-old Lola in 1994, but only managed one race in Detroit – where, without any test apart from 10 laps of Putnam Park to get the required license , he qualified in a respectable 20th place, ahead of Scott Goodyear and Scott. Sharp. In the race, he finished 15th after picking up a puncture on contact with Christian Danner.

“We signed a contract,” recalls Ekblom, “and [McCormack] said: “I think you are a great talent, I hope I can find the money and if I can, you can drive”. And I had nothing so I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do this. After this race, Claude Bourbonnais took the wheel with the players’ money.

“I was going to get paid, and [Brix] just said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it’ and it happened in February or something” Fredrik Ekblom

The feeling of disappointment was already familiar to Ekblom. Indy Lights boss Roger Bailey had encouraged Pat Patrick to sign Ekblom as a test driver for 1994 to develop the Firestone tires his respected team would use for 1995. A contract was signed, but Patrick instead decided to take the more experienced Scott Pruett.

“When you bring in nothing more than the talent of the drivers, they do what they want,” says Ekblom. “Patrick for some reason thought Scott Pruett was the best choice – and he probably was, because I had no experience.

“I had to gain experience to do a good job for Firestone. But that would have left me with a lot of racing in the car and that would have been perfect for me.

Ekblom spent 1995 racing in sports cars, winning his class at the 24 Hours of Daytona with a Brix Racing Spice. Teammate Jeremy Dale’s horrific accident at Road Atlanta contributed to Ekblom not finishing the season, but team owner Harry Brix had seen enough and wanted the hard-charger to lead his fledgling IndyCar program for 1996.

Ekblom ended up racing a Spice in IMSA in 1995 after missing the wheel of Patrick and winning his class en route to finishing second at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Ekblom ended up racing a Spice in IMSA in 1995 after missing the wheel of Patrick and winning his class en route to finishing second at the 24 Hours of Daytona.

Photo by: William Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images

However, at the eleventh hour, Ekblom was dropped for Parker Johnstone – who would finish second at Long Beach – as Motorola team support expressed their preference for an American driver. As a leading distributor of its products, Brix had its hands tied.

“I was going to get paid, and they just said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it,’ and it happened in February or something,” Ekblom says.

He was again left dry, with no chance of resuming the single outing he had in the 1995 Laguna Seca Final for AJ Foyt Racing after splitting with Eddie Cheever. There Ekblom qualified 21st and finished 20th with two laps, a result which disappointed him “because I was not near the pace”.

“I came to the racetrack in the morning and did a seat edit,” recalls Ekblom, whose compatriot Kenny Brack would go on to win the 1998 IRL title and the Indianapolis 500 the following year with Foyt. “Eddie Cheever is pretty tall too, so I took his racing suit and just swapped his name on the belt and then jumped in.

“You think when you’re young, ‘I can overcome anything and still do it’ but it’s not possible. I wasn’t really happy with the result.

“AJ was more or less the race engineer. I said to him, ‘I have oversteer here and there’, and he said to me, ‘I had the same one in ’68 and we changed the springs back, so let’s do it again!’ »

Bailey advised Derrick Walker to pick up Ekblom for the 1996 US 500, held the same weekend as the first post-split Indy 500 in Michigan, after Goodyear injured his back in Rio. Despite using an older-than-XD Cosworth XB engine in the rear of teammate Robby Gordon’s car, Ekblom was only two places behind him in 23rd at a track where power is everything.

Another missed opportunity came in 1996 when Brix Racing dropped Ekblom in the 11th hour, instead hiring Parker Johnstone to satisfy Motorola's desire for an American driver.

Another missed opportunity came in 1996 when Brix Racing dropped Ekblom in the 11th hour, instead hiring Parker Johnstone to satisfy Motorola’s desire for an American driver.

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt/Motorsport Images

With the world watching, the pile-up of multiple cars that caused the race to be red-flagged before the start was the kind of PR goal you just couldn’t get over. Ekblom was rammed from behind by Jeff Krosnoff, who had swerved to avoid Gordon, and was given his teammate’s backup car for the restart.

“He crashed my car, which was a bit of luck for me – I thought – because then I could take Robby Gordon’s spare car, and he had a car with the latest engine,” Ekblom explains. “I was a bit cramped in there, then the engine stopped after 11 laps. But I passed Stefan Johansson before it broke, and he’s a hero here in Sweden of course, so I was happy with that at least.

Ekblom has no doubt he could have been as successful as Brack, given a stable environment in which to operate, but despite all the frustrations of his IndyCar banter, he says he has no regrets not being able to show his best.

“I think I could have done a good job if we had gotten a good deal, but in the end I didn’t pay anything to drive an IndyCar, that’s not a lot of people can say” Fredrik Ekblom

“You can’t say no, you just have to take the risk, I didn’t really have a choice,” he says. “I thought it was a great opportunity to drive and gain experience, and then you never know what can happen.

“There are so many drivers who are really good and they never drive anything. I think I could have done a good job if we had gotten a good deal, but in the end I didn’t pay anything to drive a IndyCar, not many people can say that.

He made three Le Mans starts with Courage between 1997 and 1999, and won BMW’s M3 GTR before being forced into early retirement after the 2001 American Le Mans Series, but Ekblom’s greatest successes would come from the passenger cars.

He won the Swedish Touring Car Championship in 1998 in a West Coast Racing BMW, then repeated the feat in 2003 in an Audi Kristoffersson Motorsport before winning a third STCC title in 2007 with West Coast. He also won the one-time TTA League in 2012 (a breakaway from STCC before they merged again for 2013) and finished runners-up on four other occasions – missing out on seven points in 2008, two in 2011 and 10 in 2015. He ended his STCC career in 2018, having finished second again the previous year.

Ekblom won three STCC titles and a TTA title in a hugely successful touring car career

Ekblom won three STCC titles and a TTA title in a hugely successful touring car career

Photo by: JamesHolm.se

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