My Mazda Road to Indy: Sean Rayhall

Sean Rayhall. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photography, LLC

This is a new weekly series assembled by the Mazda Road to Indy, providing an inside look at drivers involved in the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.

Open-wheel racing, especially the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” was always a dream of Sean Rayhall’s but never one he thought was within his reach, until a conversation with Townsend Bell opened his eyes to the concept of finding sponsors interested in business-to-business connections. When Enzo Potolicchio of 8Star Motorsports – a team Rayhall drove for in sportscars – decided to enter Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Rayhall saw his chance. The two joined forces ahead of the race weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in April with the hopes of putting funding together to run the remainder of the series’ schedule.

“Enzo started an Indy Lights team and we were able to put two and two together with a sponsor, so there was an opportunity there,” said Rayhall. “I’ve always counted myself a bit short because I didn’t have funding to do open wheel. But after the first practice at Barber Motorsports Park, when we were P5 in our first practice session, I thought ‘wow, I never thought I’d be able to drive an Indy Lights car!’ It was so fortunate.”

Rayhall made his presence known at the next race weekend in Indianapolis, taking a second-place finish in the first race of the Grand Prix weekend and an emotional victory in race two, from the outside of the front row. Rayhall took his second win at Mid-Ohio and finished on the podium at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca finale, but the win at Indy stands out as the season highlight.

“Mid-Ohio was great, but to win at Indianapolis was really special,” said Rayhall. “We had issues at Barber, so I didn’t really count that race weekend, it was more about getting laps. But at Indy we were on pace, qualified in the top three and won the second race. I had a penalty in the sports car race there last year when we were in the lead, so this was really redemption. It was so cool for me and so special to get the win for Enzo. I’ve won for him in sports cars and won for him in Indy Lights. That relationship is very special. He’s not just a team owner, it’s like a family.”

Rayhall arrived on the Indy Lights scene with a racing resume beyond his years. The 20-year-old Georgia native began karting at the age of 7, winning several titles before moving into cars. Rayhall drove formula cars, Legends and stock cars and was the youngest Skip Barber race winner at 13, beginning the racing diversity that would become the hallmark of his fledgling career. Moving into sports cars in 2013, Rayhall won the IMSA Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship Powered by Mazda and finished second at Petit Le Mans in a Prototype Challenge machine. He finished sixth in the PC class driver’s championship last year, driving for two different teams including 8Star Motorsports.

Rayhall has worked hard to find enough sponsorship this season, both for his Indy Lights efforts and in sports cars. He’s employed some creative methods to find that sponsorship – including a crowd-funding campaign on ahead of both the Freedom 100 and the season finale.

“The idea came from my best friend, Tyler Johns, who is an engineer,” said Rayhall. “He told me I should try it and when I brought it up with Enzo, he thought that if we could get something, we could piece it all together. It’s a real testament to what kind of fans I have. Everyone really supports me and I’m really thankful for that. They did a great job getting the word out and helping me. Because of the crowd funding, Silver Arrow [a Kansas City-based IT consulting firm] is now a partner in all my racing, as is Bass Egg [a palm-sized speaker which uses everyday objects to project sound].”

As Rayhall nears a decision on his 2016 plans, he knows that the impression he’s made in Indy Lights has gone a long way toward increasing the number of available options. One of those impressions came in August, when Verizon IndyCar Series team owners invited seven Indy Lights drivers to participate in test sessions at Sonoma Raceway, including Rayhall who ran alongside Scott Dixon with Chip Ganassi Racing.

“We did well this year in Indy Lights and it’s done a lot for my career,” added Rayhall. “It opened doors with Ganassi that wouldn’t have been open before. Being on the Mazda Road to Indy is taken seriously; people look at you as a pro driver. It’s amazing, the phone calls I’ve gotten based on what I’ve done in Indy Lights, so there’s something to be said about how the ladder system works. This is where you should be if want a career in racing.”

After New York whirlwind, Josef Newgarden makes special trip to simulator before Detroit


DETROIT – There’s no rest for the weary as an Indy 500 winner, but Josef Newgarden discovered there are plenty of extra laps.

The reigning Indy 500 champion added an extra trip Wednesday night back to Concord, N.C., for one last session on the GM Racing simulator before Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix.

After a 30-year run on the Belle Isle course, the race has been moved to a nine-turn, 1.7-mile layout downtown, so two extra hours on the simulator were worth it for Newgarden.

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“I really wanted to do it,” he told NBC Sports at a Thursday media luncheon. “If there’s any time that the sim is most useful, it’s in this situation when no one has ever been on a track, and we’re able to simulate it as best as we can. We want to get some seat time.

“It’s extra important coming off the Indy 500 because you’ve been out of rhythm for a road or street course-type environment, so I really wanted some laps. I was really appreciative to Chevy. There was a few guys that just came in and stayed late for me so I could get those laps before coming up here. I don’t know if it’s going to make a difference, but I feel like it’s going to help for me.”

After a whirlwind tour of New York for two days, Newgarden arrived at the simulator (which is at the GM Racing Technical Center adjacent to Hendrick Motorsports) in time for a two hour session that started at 6 p.m. Wednesday. He stayed overnight in Charlotte and then was up for an early commercial flight to Detroit, where he had more media obligations.

Newgarden joked that if he had a jet, he would have made a quick stop in Nashville, Tennessee, but a few more days away from home (where he has yet to return in weeks) is a worthy tradeoff for winning the Greatest Spectacle in Racing – though the nonstop interviews can take a toll.

“It’s the hardest part of the gig for me is all this fanfare and celebration,” Newgarden said. “I love doing it because I’m so passionate about the Indy 500 and that racetrack and what that race represents. I feel honored to be able to speak about it. It’s been really natural and easy for me to enjoy it because I’ve been there for so many years.

“Speaking about this win has been almost the easiest job I’ve ever had for postrace celebrations. But it’s still for me a lot of work. I get worn out pretty easily. I’m very introverted. So to do this for three days straight, it’s been a lot.”

Though he is terrified of heights, touring the top of the Empire State Building for the first time was a major highlight (and produced the tour’s most viral moment).

“I was scared to get to the very top level,” Newgarden said. “That thing was swaying. No one else thought it was swaying. I’m pretty sure it was. I really impressed by the facility. I’d never seen it before. It’s one of those bucket list things. If you go to New York, it’s really special to do that. So to be there with the wreath and the whole setup, it just felt like an honor to be in that moment.”

Now the attention shifts to Detroit and an inaugural circuit that’s expected to be challenging. Along with a Jefferson Avenue straightaway that’s 0.9 miles long, the track has several low-speed corners and a “split” pit lane (teams will stop on both sides of a rectangular area) with a narrow exit that blends just before a 90-degree lefthand turn into Turn 1.

Newgarden thinks the track is most similar to the Music City Grand Prix in Nashville.

“It’s really hard to predict with this stuff until we actually run,” he said. “Maybe we go super smooth and have no issues. Typically when you have a new event, you’re going to have some teething issues. That’s understandable. We’ve always got to massage the event to get it where we want it, but this team has worked pretty hard. They’ve tried to get feedback constantly on what are we doing right, what do we need to look out for. They’ve done a ton of grinding to make sure this surface is in as good of shape as possible.

“There’s been no expense spared, but you can’t foresee everything. I have no idea how it’s going to race. I think typically when you look at a circuit that seems simple on paper, people tend to think it’s not going to be an exciting race, or challenging. I find the opposite always happens when we think that way. Watch it be the most exciting, chaotic, entertaining race.

Newgarden won the last two pole positions at Belle Isle’s 2.35-mile layout and hopes to continue the momentum while avoiding any post-Brickyard letdown.

“I love this is an opportunity for us to get something right quicker than anyone else,” he said. “A new track is always exciting from that standpoint. I feel I’m in a different spot. I’m pretty run down. I’m really trying to refocus and gain some energy back for tomorrow. Which I’ll have time to today, which is great.

“I don’t want that Indy 500 hangover. People always talk about it. They’ve always observed it. That doesn’t mean we have to win this weekend, but I’d like to leave here feeling like we had a really complete event, did a good job and had a solid finish leading into the summer. I want to win everywhere I go, but if we come out of here with a solid result and no mistakes, then probably everyone will be happy with it.”