ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin – Ed Jones presented Dale Coyne with a gift that is pure “Sweetness.”
The rookie driver revealed a Chicago Bears-inspired racing helmet sporting NFL Hall of Fame running back Walter Payton’s last name and number on the back to his Verizon IndyCar Series team owner prior to practice Friday for this weekend’s KOHLER Grand Prix at Road America. The word “Sweetness” is stripped across the top of the helmet’s visor, a tip to Payton’s nickname.
The significance of the helmet has deeper meaning than football. Following his retirement from the gridiron, Payton drove in numerous Trans-Am races and joined Coyne as an Indy car team co-owner in what was then called Payton-Coyne Racing. Payton’s first race in the joint venture came at Road America in 1994.
“Walter Payton was co-owners with Dale back in the day, his first race was also at Road America as well, so it’s pretty cool in that sense,” said Jones, driver of the No. 19 Boy Scout of America Honda.
“It’s the closest race to Chicago. Obviously there’s a lot of conflict (because Chicago’s rival, the Green Bay Packers, are based in Wisconsin), but there are lots of fans here and I’m sure lots to come down from there.”
A main motivator to create the helmet – which Jones will wear throughout the race weekend – was to lift Coyne’s spirits after a difficult month for the team. Driver Sebastien Bourdais, winner of the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, was lost for the season with hip and pelvis fractures sustained in a crash during Indianapolis 500 qualifying. James Davison, Bourdais’ replacement, crashed in the race and, while he was uninjured, a second car sustained significant damage.
Then, two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, both Dale Coyne Racing cars – driven by Jones and Tristan Vautier – were caught up in “the big one,” a mid-race crash involving nine cars. Again, the two cars required significant repairs.
So Jones, the 22-year-old Dubai-based Briton and reigning Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion, took it upon himself to find the proper gesture to help lift Coyne’s spirits.
“It’s been a tough time for Dale recently with the damages and such, and I wanted something to cheer him and his wife (Gail) up,” said Jones, who ended Friday seventh fastest overall with a best lap of 1 minute, 43.6812 seconds (139.373 mph) on the 4.014-mile permanent road course.
“So I did this tribute helmet and I’m going to give it to them after the race. It’s just a gift I wanted to give back to them. Dale’s been really good to me and given me the opportunity to do what I’ve done this year. It’s small, but it’s just something I thought of that would be pretty cool.”
Coyne was pleasantly surprised.
“It’s great,” said Coyne. “It is one of those things you don’t expect, but makes you feel warm.”
Three MRTI drivers visit Sheboygan County Boys & Girls Club
A trio of Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires drivers brightened the day Thursday for kids at the Sheboygan County Boys & Girls Club in nearby Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, part of Racing For Kids’ program to visit children in every INDYCAR race market.
Drivers making the visit were: Nico Jamin, Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires driver for Andretti Autosport; ’s Nikita Lastochkin, the Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires driver for Team Pelfrey; and Ayla Agren, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda driver for Team Pelfrey.
The trio answered a myriad of pointed questions from the 100 children assembled in the club’s gymnasium. The most unexpected question came from a 7-year-old girl who asked Lastochkin, the Russian-born resident of Los Angeles, “How did you lose your accent?”
After chorus of laughter, Lastochkin thanked the girl for the compliment and said, “I tried very hard to learn English.”
The drivers signed autographs and posed for photos with their new fans. The children were also given hats and other racing memorabilia.