On the eve of the start of the American single seater opener in Florida, there’s a real sense of excitement, buzz and anticipation amongst all four series taking part around the streets of St Petersburg this weekend.
It is also a special time for Kiwi’s involved as Scott Dixon embarks on his 20th season in IndyCar. Scott McLaughlin has shown in various tests that the potential of seeing him several times this season with Penske and the possibility of a full season next year is a very real prospect.
And if that wasn’t enticing enough, in Indy Pro 2000 20-year-old Kiwi Hunter McElrea will drive the #18 Pabst Racing entry sponsored by Giltrap Group, Miles Advisory Partners, Doric NZ, and Bell Racing USA.
McElrea is truely on the road to Indy following in Scott Dixon’s footsteps.
McElrea got his start driving cars in 2015, with Formula Ford in New Zealand. He moved to the Australian Formula Ford Championship for 2017, where he finished fourth in the series. He returned to the Australian Formula Ford Championship again in 2018, this time winning the title and the coveted ticket to the Mazda Road to Indy USF2000 $200k Scholarship Shootout.
In 2018 McElrea won the competitive Scholarship Shootout. This award enabled him to compete in last year’s Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship with Pabst Racing, where he finished second overall in the driver’s championship, and led the team to its third consecutive team championship with four wins, five poles, and 12 podiums.
Then last October during the Chris Griffis Memorial Test at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, McElrea drove the new Indy Pro 2000 car for the first time and posted the fastest lap of the two-day test.
“I am thrilled to be on the 2020 Indy Pro 2000 grid, and step up into the middle step of the Road to Indy,” McElrea said. After getting my first taste of an Indy Pro 2000 car at the Chris Griffis Test last year, I was hooked. I am very grateful for the opportunity that Pabst Racing has given me, along with my backers, sponsors, and Team HM members for getting me on the grid. I cannot wait to get back into the car!”
McElrea will be joined by his former teammate Colin Kaminsky in the move to the Indy Pro 2000 Championship and this is a strong part of the Pabst package for 2020, especially for Hunter. Hunter and Kaminsky worked well with each other last year with Kminsky proving a very capable contender, finishing a strong fourth for the team last season just two places behind Hunter.
Having spent some time with Hunter over the Kiwi summer when he joined me to commentate on his father Andy’s Formula Ford race at Highlands Motorsport Park in Cromwell. I think he is more than ready to shine at the Indy Pro level and it won’t be long before that road ends up at the 500 along with the two Scotts, McLaughlin and Dixon.
As for McLaughlin, we may not be seeing him in action until May at the Indianapolis Grand Prix. His Sebring, COTA and Texas Motor Speedway tests in February cemented his intent and his potential. Third overall at COTA and extensive running on the banks of Fort Worth (Texas) proved he is more than ready for the challenge of IndyCar racing. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see him doing as many races and tests that he can this season before taking it on full time next season.
“I’d love to get to America one day, that’s my ultimate goal,” he said. “Whether that is here or anywhere, I just want to try and be here one day. I love the country, I love the people and I love the sport that it is. We’ll see what happens.”
The two time Australian Supercars champion, McLaughlin was in awe of the top speeds reached around the 2.4km course Texas Speedway with 20 degree banking where he hit 357km/h.
“I’ve never driven anything else in my career, really. You can do as many laps as you want in the simulator, but when you’re going around and your head is shaking around and your eyeballs are rattling out of your head, it’s fantastic, it’s so cool.
“Today was an opportunity,” he said. “I’m thankful for that. Where it goes, I’m not sure, but I’ve always been interested in racing outside of Australia, especially now that I’ve ticked my goal of winning the Bathurst 1000 and a couple of championships… but I’m heading home tonight, back to Brisbane and straight back into to the workshop and training.
“I’ve made it really clear to the team that I’d love to try and pursue opportunities in the States, and I’m really happy that today went well.
“For me today was huge,” he reflected. “I’ve always been an IndyCar fan. Scott [Dixon] is a bloody icon in New Zealand which is why I’ve always kept an eye on what went on in IndyCars. Now to drive for Roger in Team Penske in Australia, and then to drive an IndyCar, was like a life achievement for me. It was very cool.
“ It was unreal, the car is a beast. It’s everything I dreamt of. I’m so thankful to Roger, Tim and Rick Mears and the whole team, some 40 people who came to help me out. It’s a dream come true. It’s been a big day. 141 laps, My neck was pretty sore. We held on and did a long run at the end, and I got a feel for everything. Qualifying runs, race runs, long runs, fuel loads and pit exits so it was really cool.
I spoke to his potential teammate Simon Pagenaud last week. The Indy 500 winner and former champion confirmed that Scott is the real deal.
“He’s been impressive. When we were at Sebring with Will Power and Josef Newgarden went to help him I must say he did a really good job and he’s a great champion – I’m as excited as you are for him. I think having champions coming from others series is great for IndyCar as it just shows the interest and the upward trend for the sport.
“I also think for us (Penske), he will bring fresh blood and a new perspective for us that could be very interesting for our development in the future. He’s a really great guy. So far its been a great start to our relationship and I think he’s going to be great for the series to gather more fans.”
Then there’s the GOAT. Well potentially soon to be in Indy terms. Scott Dixon this weekend begins his 20th year in Indy Car.
He seems as motivated as ever and is truly still at the top of his game considering the mounting competition.
The key to Scott’s Season will be the impetus he can pick up from good results in the opening rounds and the impact his two superfast Swedish teammates Marcus Ericsson and Felix Rosenquist can make for the Ganassi team effort. They both have had good starts to their Indy careers and this season could be their break out year and if so could actually push Dixon into a better package overall to challenge for his sixth title.
Ganassi have also made some major changes behind the scenes.
“Adding a third driver this year is great but the big difference is the personnel we’ve managed to add this season.
“We’ve been pretty thin for the last two years especially in the engineering department as we’ve been trying to hire people for two or three years, but just couldn’t find the right fit.
“We added a lot of people this year especially in engineering and then the depth of the whole GT programme coming over has especially helped in management and crew.
“I think personnel wise, the team is in the best situation it’s been in five or six years. Also the change of mindset as we kinda got stuck doing the same thing and looking for different answers which wasn’t working in some of our weak areas.
“So yeah it’s pretty much team Swede now at the moment with Marcus and Felix and it’s been a lot of fun so far and hopefully we can keep building on it.”
Dixon is really in rarefied air in motor racing terms. Five titles and third overall in the amount total all time wins with 46. He’s now only six behind Mario Andretti on 52 and AJ Foyt with 67 wins and seven titles.
Dixon has 321 Indy car starts producing 46 wins, 26 poles and 115 podium finishes (2001-Present).
So the new decade for Indy couldn’t look better. A host of young drivers from Santino Ferrucci to Patricio O’Ward Oliver Askew to Alex Palau. Then there’s the likes of Scott Dixon and Sebastian Bourdais rewriting the record books.
Add the spice of Ferando Alonso and Jimmie Johnson down the road the Indy highway looks like it will be a fun ride starting this weekend at St Petersburg and for many years to come….