(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) - Oriol Servia heads to Texas Motor Speedway in the spotlight as the de facto driver spokesman for IndyCar safety.
It's overshadowed his on-track resurgence, which has taken off since Dreyer & Reinbold Racing ditched Lotus for Chevrolet two races ago.
"I've been saying since the beginning of the season that this team has great people, I have been very impressed with the effort and the resources, but I know it can sound like (lies) when you are running 25th," Servia said. "When you say it, it sounds like you are saying it to be nice to the team and who would believe you? But it's true. It's a good team and now we have the chance to prove it is more than just talk."
Servia, who finished fourth in the IndyCar standings last season driving for Newman-Haas, found himself out of a job in early December when the team suddenly closed its doors. He landed with DRR a month later, confident the small, single-car team had the tools to compete but wary about its engine deal with Lotus.
His fears were proved true immediately. The engine manufacturer lagged far behind Chevrolet and Honda during the preseason, severely restricting any testing time for Servia and his new team. Engine woes plagued the team at every turn - issues forced engine changes before three races, drawing 10-spot penalties on the starting grid - and Servia went into the first three races of the season with almost no chance of being competitive.
By Long Beach, just the third race of the year, team owners Dennis Reinbold and Robbie Buhl were negotiating a release from Lotus. Servia believes it was the only thing the team owners could do to save the season and it had to be done before the Indianapolis 500.
"I think it would have been almost impossible to go through Indy with Lotus; the other races, we could still fool ourselves into thinking a perfect setup and a perfect qualifying lap would maybe give us a chance. But it was a fake hope," he said. "To do that at Indy, it would have killed us. It would have been too tough to digest."
A deal to partner with Panther Racing and pick up a Chevrolet engine was completed after Brazil and in time for DRR to go to Indy without one arm tied behind its back. The lift it gave the race team was immediately evident.
"It was very much like Christmas," Reinbold said. "It was a lot of work, very much like Christmas. You get all the presents put together and then a really nice present. I was Santa and (Servia) was the kid."
A wreck in qualifying put Servia 27th on the starting grid, and DRR knew it wasn't indicative of what the team was capable of doing. The crew advanced to the finals of the Pit Crew Competition, losing to Scott Dixon and Chip Ganassi Racing in what was still a morale booster.
"My guys almost won, and that is not something you can just prepare for overnight," Servia said. "It shows you have been good all year."
On race day, Servia came through the field and finished a season-best fourth. It was Servia's career-best finish in four Indy 500 starts, and it was the best finish in 13 starts for DRR. They followed it last week with a fifth-place finish at Belle Isle, and the back-to-back top-five finishes have moved Servia six spots to 10th in the IndyCar standings.
He believes struggling through the first four races was a valuable exercise for the entire team.
"Going through the struggles with that engine, it really helped us get the team together because it was so hard. What we were facing, it was either going to break us, soon, or make us look each other in the eyes and pull together," Servia said. "We chose the second choice and I think it helped us gel sooner then we would have under normal conditions."
While neither the driver nor the team owners speak poorly of Lotus, they'll readily acknowledge that an engine change and the partnership with Panther Racing was necessary.
"So far this season I think we've probably passed the most cars on track, and that's a good thing, but it's also a bad thing. It means we didn't have the speed prior to getting the Chevy to qualify upfront which we would like," Reinbold said. "I'll give the Lotus guys a lot of credit. We worked with them and were upfront with them and said we have an opportunity to switch. The timing just worked out well for everybody."
Now the team goes into Texas looking to continue its turnaround.
Despite the engine drama, Servia's strong feelings on safety headed into the first high-banked oval race since Dan Wheldon's fatal accident last October has gotten far more attention. Servia, like many other drivers, is concerned about the construction of the fence at Texas, which is nearly identical to the one at Las Vegas. The official accident report into Wheldon's death found the two-time Indianapolis 500 winner was killed when his head hit a post in the fence.
Servia has been outspoken for six months since the accident, and took to Twitter on Sunday night to again express his feelings. He apologized on Monday for the harshness of his comments, saying he used "the wrong channel" and "my tweets were unprofessional."
He doesn't want to be a safety spokesman for the sport, and would prefer for the focus to be returned to racing.
"You know, I really just want a safe race," he said. "I don't think I have been a spokesman before, and I always think the series is doing its job to keep us safe. And they do a good job. So all I can say is I really just want a safe, good race."