Oriol magic? Driver named Oriol hopes to be fan favorite at Baltimore Grand Prix

In a town known for its birds, Oriol Servia wants everyone to know he fits right in.

"My name is Oriol," the IndyCar driver was excited to point out before a recent interview even began. "I am from Spain. Ever since I moved to the United States in 1998, people say to me, 'Oh, Oreo, like the cookie.' And I say, 'No, Oriol, like the Baltimore Orioles.'"

The name is actually Spanish for Oriole, and Servia — who is currently fourth in the points standings — hopes that helps him win over fans at this weekend's Baltimore Grand Prix.

"I think I should be Baltimore's favorite driver," he said.

He may be right.

Baltimore likes characters and charming underdogs. In Servia it has both.

He's not as well known as IZOD IndyCar Series leaders Dario Franchitti and Will Power, but the 5-foot-5 bundle of smiles is firmly established in the top 5 this season, a major feat for a driver who didn't even have a ride last season.

Servia, 37, is the only full-time driver in the series with a college degree, having earned a mechanical engineering diploma in Spain. And though he doesn't really like art, he loves Salvador Dali, who, like him comes from the Catalonia area of that country.

To show his admiration, Servia has had his helmet painted in the Dali style. It features ants painted to look like they are running up his chin, and Dali's self-portrait is replicated on the side, with Dali's right eye made to look oddly grotesque due to the screw holding his visor in place.

"I'm not big on art, but I love his work," Servia said. "He's so different. Dali was always very popular at home. He was famous when I was a kid. I liked his thinking. You can look at a painting and stare at it for hours and keep finding new things you never saw. People either hate his stuff or love it. I love it."

Servia, like Dali, was different from the beginning.

His father, Salvadore, is a two-time Spanish Rally champion, and his mother, Montse, served as his navigator. Oriol, it turns out, was racing and winning, before he was even born, as his mother navigated while her son was still in her womb.

"I had too be racer," he said. "I was racing go-karts at age 4."

If that seems young, consider Oriol's dad gave him an off-road motorcycle when he was just 2.

"Yes," he said. "But do not think it was just all racing. My parents made me study. I was hating it back then, but now I have to thank them very much."

A year ago, the economy took its toll on race sponsorships, leaving Servia without a ride. But he waited and searched and finally landed in the No. 2 Telemundo Newman Haas Dallara/Honda.

"I thought I'd be with the team last year, but the last couple years marketing budgets have been cut," he said. "Last year this team had a tough year, and I had a tough year and didn't race. But now I'm at a sweet spot, at the top of the ladder. Ten years of learning. It is coming out now — learning the car, driving faster and doing very well. We want to keep the momentum going."

His chief engineer, University of Maryland graduate Craig Hampson, said Servia has much to do with that momentum.

"Some drivers can be very difficult," Hampson said. "They often have a self-centeredness, a 'What will you do for me?' attitude that is often a part of what makes them competitive and successful on track. But for the crew, if they are difficult, it can make for a really long year. With Oriol, there is none of that. You want to be around him because he is personable, engaging, nice — and genuinely cares about all his guys.

The cameraderie is paying off, as every week Servia appears to be getting stronger. At New Hampshire on Aug. 14 he was a controversial call away from winning and had to settle for second. It was one of eight top-10 finishes in his 14 starts this season. He finished 11th Sunday at the Grand Prix of Sonoma in Sonoma, Calif.

Hampson also credits that success to his driver's diligence.Servia is known for digesting all the information his team provides before and after events— even when that entails also digesting abnormal amounts of coffee.

"Oriol does not like early mornings. He is a late night guy, for sure," Hampson said. "I will have to say Oriol drinks more coffee than any other driver I've worked with. But maybe that gives him his edge."

Hampson also says that Servia "puts more hours in with the team than any driver I have worked with."

"I think anyone who is successful has to work hard, put in a lot of hours, and think about the way you race," said Servia, who first arrived in the United States in 1998 to race in the Indy Lights series. "And you learn. I like many things about racing in the U.S. I spent five years in France, and I didn't find the same fair play I have found here."

Servia is still searching for his first IndyCar victory, and perhaps it would be fitting if it came here.

Before leaving an interview a few weeks ago, Servia wanted to be sure to "say hello to all my fans in Baltimore."

It's a group that could be growing this weekend.


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