Exceeding expectations: Leo Maia's Atlantic test.
SEBRING, Fla. (Early October) - As the Toyota engine fires up for the first time early on a Wednesday morning, tension is noticeably high. The 2003 CART Champ Car Barber Dodge Pro Series champion prepares to take to the Sebring track and both he and the RuSPORT Toyota Atlantic team are somewhat nervous.
For Oakland, California's Leo Maia, 22, it would be his first time in an Atlantic. For the RuSPORT guys, well like we said, it was Leo's first time in an Atlantic car and anything could happen. But as the test wound down Thursday afternoon, everybody was happy; Maia had done a tremendous job in the car. Said team president Jeremy Dale, " Leo exceeded everyone's expectations. Great feedback, lots of speed. He really did do an exceptional job."
Over the two-day test, Maia did a lot of miles, more than is usual for a two day test over 400 miles. He drove the #3 RuSPORT Toyota Swift .014.a, the same car Aaron Justus drove to fifth place in this year's championship. As the comfort and confidence level grew, the lap times came down quickly and began to close in on the team's previous bests at Sebring with drivers A.J. Allmendinger and Justus a week before the Miami Toyota Atlantic finale.
When Allmendinger (the 2003 Barber Dodge champion and this year's Toyota Atlantic champion), who was on-site as an advisor, saw that Leo was getting very close to his times, the always competitive A.J. began to voice his desire to get back in the car.
"The weather is much better now than we had last week," Allmendinger made sure to point out. "There were no clouds when we ran and the sun was blistering the race track. It was at least 20 degrees warmer!" Then, when Maia surpassed A.J.'s best lap set two weeks earlier, everyone thought the Toyota Atlantic champion was going to grab his helmet and jump into the car. If it were not for testing rules in place by the series, he might have done just that.
"All kidding aside, Leo did an awesome job in the car," stated A.J. "I think everyone on the RuSPORT team was impressed by his abilities, both on and off the track. I like to give him a hard time but I am really happy for him to get this opportunity. While this was not a test for an actual ride, I remember how nerve wracking it can be the first time you get into one of these cars."
In the end, RuSPORT officials were impressed by the Toyota Atlantic rookie-to-be. "Leo is absolutely ready to drive in the Toyota Atlantic Championship," commented Burke Harrison, Allmendinger's oft-mentioned lead engineer who worked with Maia on the first day. "Once Leo quickly got used to the Atlantic car, he was really impressive with his ability to communicate back to the team and understand the changes we made on the car."
"Over the last two days, Leo is showing what we have come to expect from drivers in the Champ Car (Driver Development) System," said Barry Waddell, who heads up RuSPORT's
Driver Development. "His feedback was excellent. He was very methodical and disciplined in his approach to getting up to speed."
Chris Lerch, lead engineer on Justus' car during the 2003 season, put a final touch on the team's thoughts on Maia's performance: "He always stayed up with the changes we made on the race car. He was able to let us know immediately what worked and what didn't. His feedback was accurate and fairly dead-on. When we pushed him to go deeper with his analysis and feedback, he responded very favorably. He is going to be good in these cars and in this series."
Early on and throughout the test, Maia looked comfortable and at home behind the wheel of the Atlantic car. "I am ready to go!" said an exuberant Maia. "Well, I would like to put in another couple thousand miles of testing first, but I really feel good about this initial run in the Atlantic car.
"There is definitely an adjustment between the driving styles of the Pro Series car and the Atlantic car but nothing that a few laps of experimenting can't overcome. For instance, I had to switch to left foot braking to get the downshifts done in time. I have never done that in a race car before this week, only in a kart. But I made the change and it made everything so much easier.
"Working with the RuSPORT guys meant so much. Having my first experience in an Atlantic car with them is invaluable. They taught me a lot and I think this will benefit me down the road, no matter what team I drive for next season.
"I am so grateful to Champ Car, Skip Barber Racing and especially RuSPORT for making this happen. This is a great first step towards where I want to be in 2004."
Having already followed Allmendinger with a Barber Dodge Pro Series Championship of his own, the 22-year old now living in Miami makes no bones about wanting to continue on the path behind -- and along with -- Allmendinger
"Everyone looks at A.J. and says we want to do that too," said Maia. "Following his Barber Dodge championship with one of my own was very meaningful. Would I like to do that in Atlantics? Absolutely, but the bigger goal for both of us is sitting at the next level -- the Champ Car World Series. That's where I want to be and I think that is where he is going to be next year. Eventually, I want to be racing against him in Champ Car, and of course, beating him!"
For now, the next step for Maia is finding the right team situation in Toyota Atlantic for 2004 and then more testing. With these successful two days under his belt, Maia will look to build upon the experience. Perhaps RuSPORT President Jeremy Dale sums up the two day test most appropriately and what the future holds for Maia.
"Simply put, Leo is ready for the Toyota Atlantic Championship," declared Dale. "Someone needs to give him a chance for next year. With the right opportunity, he will be one of the drivers to beat in 2004 and that is saying a lot in such a competitive series."