Get to know Baltimore's newest Oriol, the racecar driver

IndyCar driver embraces the Orioles, hopes to win here

August 31, 2012|Kevin Cowherd

Baltimore, you should root hard for Oriol Servia in Sunday's big Grand Prix race.

For one thing, the guy's name means oriole in Spanish.

"Right?" he says. "It's a natural!"

And the 38-year-old Spaniard has totally embraced his connection to this town and its baseball team since finishing second to Australia's Will Power in last year's race.

Servia even has two orioles painted on each side of his racing helmet next to a surreal image of the great Salvador Dali, his countryman.

Not only that, but Servia just threw out the first pitch before the Orioles' 5-3 win over the Chicago White Sox Thursday.

So the guy's a good-luck charm, too. How could he NOT be the favorite of race fans in this town?

"I know!" he says. "Last year when I finished second and they said my name, everybody went kind of crazy!"

This is really the way Servia talks. Everything he says sounds like it should have an exclamation point tacked on.

But back to that wonderful first name: Oriol. Whatever you do, don't confuse it with the name of a certain. ... well, let him tell it.

"I came to the States to race in '98," he says. "Every time I say my name — every time! — they say: 'Oh, like the cookie.' And I'm like: 'Nooo!' I hate when people think it's like the cookie! I don't hate the cookies. But, it's like: 'Nooo, the Baltimore Orioles!' This is what I've been saying for the last 14 years!"

Servia's emotional ties to Baltimore are so strong now that he still gets worked up about meeting a certain local swimmer at last year's post-race awards ceremony.

"Yes! Michael Phelps gave me the trophy!" he says. "It's one of the best pictures I have, ever! I hope he comes back this year! I hope he's in town!"

And when Servia describes throwing out the first pitch the other night at Camden Yards, you wonder if he's actually going to hyperventilate.

"It was awesome!" he says. "I was nervous! I never played baseball! In Spain, we don't play baseball."

To prepare for the big day, he picked the brain of his team owner, Dennis Reinbold, a former baseball player. At last week's race Sonoma, Calif., the two worked on smoothing out the lefty's delivery.

Neither man expected Servia to turn into Cliff Lee or C.C. Sabathia, or even Wei-Yin Chen. They just hoped to get him to the point where he wouldn't embarrass himself in front of thousands of fans.

"I threw 10 balls!" he says. "He gave me some tips."

Still, Servia was vibrating like a gong when he stepped onto the mound Thursday. Orioles catcher Taylor Teagarden was behind the plate, not that Servia noticed.

"I have no idea," he says of who caught the pitch. "Even if they mentioned who it was, I was too nervous to catch his name. But I did fine. I was happy."

If that's the case, it sounds as if he was practically euphoric a few innings later when he went to buy a brat at the concession stand.

"I looked at the peanuts and they were Barcelona peanuts!" he said. "Barcelona! That's my town! So I'm there, throwing out the first pitch at Baltimore Orioles stadium and they have Barcelona peanuts! What are the chances?!"

Oh, yeah, it would be hard to root against this guy in the big race.

Not only is Servia considered one of the good guys on the circuit, but racing is in his blood.

According to his bio, he's the son of a Spanish rally champion. He's also a big motocross rider who got his first off-road motorcyle from his father when he was — get this — 2 years old.

Two! Me, I wouldn't let my kids on a Big Wheels until they were, I don't know, 10.

But mainly you cheer for Oriol Servia because of this crazy love affair he's had with this town since 2011's race.

"It was so impressive last year," he said. "As a first-year event, it was packed. Everyone was so energized! Everybody (in the Series) felt like we should be here, we should be coming here every year."

So here he is again, looking for his first win this season. His best finish was 11th at Sao Paulo, Brazil. But they don't care about orioles in Sao Paulo. They don't walk around in orange and black, Servia's new favorite colors.

Can he get that first win here Sunday?

"I'm really motivated," he says. "We've been improving the car every race. It's so competitive. Every race, there's, like, 15 guys with a real shot at winning. ... But if we make the right decisions, we can win."

If he does, I hope Michael Phelps is in town, too.

Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."

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