What could have been: How a future tin-top ace was thwarted in IndyCar

Three starts in as many years meant Fredrik Ekblom never got a fair crack of the whip in US open-wheel racing before becoming one of Sweden’s greatest touring car drivers of the modern era. He explains how frequent frustrations eventually convinced him to head back to Europe, leaving Kenny Brack to take on the mantra of Indy racing's foremost Swedish prospect

What could have been: How a future tin-top ace was thwarted in IndyCar

It’s not altogether unusual for drivers to make a single appearance in a series and then disappear off to try their luck elsewhere. But it’s far less common to see a driver make a series of one-off appearances over a number of years, sufficiently talented to be repeatedly asked back, but without it ever leading to anything more.

Such a scenario befell Fredrik Ekblom in IndyCar, although his thwarted efforts to become a fixture on the grid weren’t for a lack of trying. The Swede made three appearances in as many years between 1994 and 1996, each time for a different team, before heading back to Europe for a successful career in touring cars that yielded three domestic titles and four further runner-up finishes.

“In the end, I had such a big chunk of contracts that never came about I got fed up and I went back to Sweden,” says Ekblom, who today works as a sales manager at a Porsche dealership in Orebro.

In his first season of driving the UK circuits as a 20-year-old fresh from Formula 3, Ekblom had come the closest to denying Paul Warwick the posthumous honour of claiming the 1991 British Formula 3000 title with a hattrick of wins in the closing rounds. That should have set him on his way to the bigger leagues, but a sponsor shortfall prevented him from stepping up to the International series for 1992, and he was racing Porsches in Sweden “because I had no money whatsoever and I could more or less drive for free” when a pathway to IndyCar opened up.

Approached for an Indy Lights drive at Mid-Ohio with Bradley Motorsports by team manager Mike Collier, who had previously run successful F3000 outfit GA Motorsport, Ekblom accepted out of curiosity.

“I had no money, but I had a [road] car, so I sold the car, I took the money and I put everything on one go,” 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 at Long Beach in an ageing March – “I had $8,000 in a brown paper bag and paid for the ride in cash on the morning of the race” – and beat several much-newer Lolas, earning an opportunity to finish the season and score a best finish of second at Portland.

Ekblom was strapped for cash in the early days of his career and had to sell his road car to fund a drive in Indy Lights

Ekblom was strapped for cash in the early days of his career and had to sell his road car to fund a drive in Indy Lights

Photo by: Tony Welam

“We had no money basically, but we did the races,” he says. “I had a good name in the 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 year-old Lola in 1994, but only managed a single race at Detroit – where with no testing aside from 10 laps of Putnam Park to get the required license he qualified a respectable 20th, ahead of Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp. In the race, he finished 15th after picking up a puncture in contact with Christian Danner.

“We signed a contract,” remembers Ekblom, “and [McCormack] said, ‘I think you’re a great talent, I hope I can find the money and if I can, you can drive’. And I didn’t have anything so I thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do that’. After that race, Claude Bourbonnais took the drive with Players’ money.”

"I was going to be paid, and [Brix] just said, ‘Well, we’re not going to do it’ and that came in February or something" Fredrik Ekblom

The sense 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 tyres that his respected team would use for 1995. A contract was signed, but Patrick decided instead to take the more experienced Scott Pruett.

“When you don’t bring anything to the table more than driver talent, they do whatever they want,” says Ekblom. “Patrick thought for whatever reason that Scott Pruett was the better choice – and probably he was, because I didn’t have any experience.

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

Ekblom spent 1995 racing in sportscars, winning his class at the Daytona 24 Hours with a Brix Racing Spice. His team-mate Jeremy Dale’s horrifying 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 nascent IndyCar programme for 1996.

Ekblom ended up racing a Spice in IMSA in 1995 after missing out on the drive at Patrick and won his class on his way to finishing second at the Daytona 24 Hours

Ekblom ended up racing a Spice in IMSA in 1995 after missing out on the drive at Patrick and won his class on his way to finishing second at the Daytona 24 Hours

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 team backer Motorola expressed its preference for an American driver. As a prominent distributor of its products, Brix’s hands were tied.

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

He was again left high and dry, with no opportunity to reprise the one-off outing he’d had at the 1995 Laguna Seca finale for AJ Foyt Racing following its split with Eddie Cheever. There Ekblom qualified 21st and finished a twice lapped 20th, a result that he was disappointed by “because I wasn’t close to the pace”.

“I came to the racetrack in the morning and I did a seat-fitting,” remembers Ekblom, whose compatriot Kenny Brack would go on to win the 1998 IRL title and the following year’s Indianapolis 500 with Foyt. “Eddie Cheever is quite tall also, so I took his race suit and just swapped his name on the belt and then I jumped in.

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

“AJ was the race engineer, more or less. I told him, ‘I have some oversteer here and there’, and he said: ‘I had the same in ’68 and we changed the springs in the rear, so let’s do that again!’”

Bailey advocated Derrick Walker to pick up Ekblom for the 1996 US 500, held on the same weekend as the first post-split Indy 500 at Michigan, after Goodyear had hurt his back at Rio. Despite using an older XB Cosworth engine than the XD in the back of team-mate 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 at 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 at 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 multiple-car pileup that caused the race to be red-flagged before the start was the sort of PR own goal you just couldn’t make up. Ekblom was rammed from behind by Jeff Krosnoff, who had swerved to avoid Gordon, and was given his team-mate’s back-up car for the restart.

“He crashed my car, which was a bit lucky for me – I thought – because then I could take Robby Gordon’s spare car, and he had a car with the latest engine,” says Ekblom. “I was sort of cramped in there, and then the engine stopped after 11 laps. But I overtook 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 that he could have been just as successful as Brack would go on to be, given a stable environment to operate in, but for all the frustrations of his IndyCar dalliances says he doesn’t have any regrets that he couldn’t show his best.

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

“You can’t say no, you just have to take the chance, I had no choice really,” he says. “I thought it was a great opportunity to at least drive and get some experience and then you never know what can happen.

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

He made three Le Mans starts with Courage between 1997 and 1999, and was a winner in BMW’s M3 GTR before it was forced into an early retirement following the 2001 American Le Mans Series, but Ekblom’s greatest successes would come in touring cars.

He won the Swedish Touring Car Championship in 1998 in a West Coast Racing BMW, then repeated the feat in 2003 in a Kristoffersson Motorsport Audi before taking a third STCC title in 2007 back with West Coast. He also won the one-off TTA League in 2012 (a breakaway from the STCC before they merged again for 2013) and finished runner-up on a further four occasions - missing out by seven points in 2008, two in 2011 and 10 in 2015. He called time on his STCC career in 2018, after again finishing runner-up the year before.

Ekblom went on to win three STCC and one TTA title in a hugely successful touring car career

Ekblom went on to win three STCC and one TTA title in a hugely successful touring car career

Photo by: JamesHolm.se

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