By: Tanner Watkins
October 31, 2018 | 11:06 AM
While Pato O’Ward and Colton Herta stole much of the spotlight in this past Indy Lights championship campaign, Ryan Norman was quietly laying the foundation for what he hopes will be a title-contending year in 2019.
Norman, who turns 21 in March, has spent the last two seasons running for Andretti Autosport in the highest tier of Road to Indy competition. The Ohio native went straight to Indy Lights in 2017 after winning the Atlantic Championship with K-Hill Motorsports the previous year.
Certainly, there were growing pains during that 2017 season as he failed to record a podium finish and crashed out on the first lap of the Freedom 100 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Still, Norman finished the other 15 rounds of the campaign and if you remove the lap one incident at Indianapolis, he completed all but one lap during each of the other races.
Finishing 11th in the final standings in 2017, Norman was earmarked for improvement as a simple result of more and more seat time. For the 2018 season he did just that, recording four podium finishes including a breakthrough victory at Gateway Motorsports Park in August that served as validation for the developing driver.
“I feel like it changed everything, to be honest,” Norman told Open-Wheels. “I think it not only reassured me that I can win at this level and compete against these guys, but I think it just it’s all confidence.
“This sport is very confidence-based and I feel like once you get the momentum, you can just carry it and continue to build with it and it helps you grow. I think it was definitely a huge, monumental point in my career where I was able to step up to that next level of growth and be able to do that.”
The victory in St. Louis was a fitting bow on top of a great season for Norman. He improved in nearly every measurable category from his first year in Indy Lights, from laps completed to average starting and finishing position. That, he says, is a byproduct of continued experience and confidence that is mounting.
“I would say that since I don’t come from a karting background, every time the past two years (that) I got in the car I would just keep on improving because I’m just learning more and more every time,” said Norman, who actually came from motocross roots before he began racing open-wheel cars.
“I feel like, especially the first year, a lot of the guys had the karting experience and Mazda Road to Indy experience and really it showed over me. I just had to get the experience of the tracks, the cars, and how everything works and I feel like over time by growing and getting that experience, it’s just helping me get better and better every time I’m in the car.”
With preparations for the 2019 season underway, the next year of Indy Lights competition serves to be the most pivotal season yet for Norman. It is not very often that drivers spend three – or looking ahead, four – years at the IndyCar Triple-A level and Norman understands the importance of cashing in at the next available chance.
“I want to obviously get more wins and just be competing for wins every single race weekend,” said Norman simply. “This year I’m going into it with a championship mindset, so every race I’m just going to try and get the best out of the car that I can. If that’s 4th or 5th place that the car is giving me then I just have to take it.
“I definitely want to push hard in the right places, but I don’t want to make stupid mistakes and crash out because I feel like at the end of the year that can add up. So definitely (I’m) going into this year with the champion mindset of just staying consistent and getting good results.”
To win a championship at the Indy Lights level it takes a year’s worth of excellence, and that starts with the annual Chris Griffis Memorial Test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road. Norman performed exceptionally at the two-day test, leading all drivers with the weekend’s fastest time.
While he was certainly pleased with the car’s performance, Norman was noticeably excited with his own progress made. Much of his Indy Lights career has been spent playing “catch-up” as he continues to adjust to racing with four wheels and not two. To be able to jump into the car and be quick right away was important for the third-year driver.
“I missed the first session of the first day and was able to kind of jump right into it, so I think that was just (a result of) being super comfortable with the car now where I’m able to go out in the first session and really push,” Norman explained.
“Earlier in the year I think that’s why I had kind of a rough beginning (up) to the midpoint of the year because I was still taking a little bit longer to get up to speed in the first practice session (of a race weekend) and that just kind of carried throughout the rest of the weekend because I was that far behind. Now I feel like I can just hop in the car and go out and perform and get the results, so the weekend went very well.”
So now Norman, who drives with the hall of fame rock band Journey on his car, will spend the offseason searching for ways to hit the ground running once things count for real again in March.
With four starts at the St. Petersburg, Florida street course under his belt, Norman has improved his finishing position each time. He recorded finishes of 10th and 9th during the 2017 season opener while results of 6th and 3rd came last spring.
If Norman is going to really embrace that championship mindset, it seems St. Pete will be a great place to start what he hopes will be a title-winning year.
The resources are there to accomplish each of Norman’s goals, and its clear that he won’t stop believing until they are met.
Header image courtesy of the Road to Indy.