IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Remaining part-time entrants

Simona de Silvestro. Photo: AP
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MotorSportsTalk concludes its look through the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series field, driver-by-driver, with these drivers who raced in three or fewer events:

30. Simona de Silvestro (3 starts)
31. JR Hildebrand (2 starts)
32. Oriol Servia (2 starts)
33. Mikhail Aleshin (1 start)
35. Townsend Bell (1 start)
36. Carlos Huertas (3 starts)
37. Alex Tagliani (1 start)
38. James Davison (1 start)
39. Bryan Clauson (1 start)
N/R. Buddy Lazier (1 DNQ)
N/R. Rocky Moran Jr. (1 Practice)
N/R. Davey Hamilton (1 Test)

The sample size was too small and too infrequent to merit much more than a one-paragraph review for these drivers. Here are quick recaps of the races where they made an appearance:

Simona de Silvestro, Nos. 25 and 29 Andretti Autosport Honda

The likable, talented and popular Swiss made a welcome return in the best equipment she’s ever had. Problem was, it was only for the season opener, which then grew into two further races. Fourth in NOLA owed more to strategy and it briefly had her top-10 in points, but she endured a tough Indy 500 in her last IndyCar appearance this season.

JR Hildebrand, No. 6 CFH Racing Chevrolet 

Was unlucky to have not finished higher than he did in his two month of May starts for CFH Racing. Gambled on strategy at the Grand Prix and had a potential top-six in his grasp before a rough final pit stop; meanwhile banked his second straight one-off top-10 in the Indy 500 in P8. Deserves more starts in 2016.

Oriol Servia, No. 32 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda and No. 25 Andretti Autosport Honda 

An Indy 500 pre-race sleeper, Servia didn’t get to send the David Letterman special in Ray Harroun livery into Victory Lane, ending in the wall after contact with Ed Carpenter. But Servia’s grace, fortitude and determination shone through in what was Justin Wilson’s No. 25 Honda in a last-minute call-up at Sonoma.

Mikhail Aleshin, No. 77 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

The likable Russian made a surprise, welcome return to the IndyCar field at Sonoma in a third car and scored a top-10 finish after qualifying the highest of the three cars. It plants the seed for a potential full-time return in 2016.

Carlos Huertas, No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

“Grumpy Cat” made a surprise last-minute return ahead of St. Petersburg and nearly finished second at NOLA on strategy before an inglorious and unfortunate spin under yellow. The surprises continued when he mysteriously disappeared for two races, then came back for Indy, qualified well for the ‘500, then suffered an inner ear condition and removed from the cockpit once more.

Townsend Bell, No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold/Kingdom Racing Chevrolet 

NBCSN’s IndyCar analyst made his usual Indy 500 appearance, but without the desired result despite great pit work from the DRR crew and early month promise. You can view his month of May blogs for MotorSportsTalk here, and the third year of our annual “Ten with Townsend” series here.

Alex Tagliani, No. 48 A.J. Foyt Enterprises Honda

Had a cool car with a Gurney tribute livery driving for Foyt, led a lap again on pit strategy and finished his usual mid-teens in his second straight one-off Indy 500.

James Davison, No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda 

Davison’s practice speed was impressive given limited running, but his lone race start ended ingloriously following a pit road collision that hit two crewmembers.

Bryan Clauson, No. 88 KVSH/Jonathan Byrd’s Racing Chevrolet 

The short-track ace and the popular Jonathan Byrd’s name returned to IMS after several year hiatuses and more often than not, it showed in a tough month.

Buddy Lazier, No. 91 Lazier Racing Partners Chevrolet

The 1996 Indy 500 champ found qualifying with a new aero kit, a deeper field and limited on-track running a tougher challenge this time around than in 2013 or 2014.

Rocky Moran Jr., No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing Honda

Moran was due to make a surprise, but welcome, debut at Long Beach before a hand injury derailed and sidelined him after an accident in practice. Conor Daly took over the ride for the rest of the weekend.

Davey Hamilton, No. 24 Dreyer & Reinbold/Kingdom Racing Chevrolet

Hamilton made his competitive one-day return in an official session filling in for T-Bell during the first day of oval kit testing at IMS.

Heart of Racing program aims to elevate new generation of women to star in sports cars

women sports cars
Mike Levitt/LAT Images/Heart of Racing

(Editor’s note: This story on the Heart of Racing sports cars shootout for women is one in an occasional Motorsports Talk series focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)

Heart of Racing driver and team manager Ian James says his daughter, Gabby, isn’t so interested in auto racing. But she is interested (as a New York-based journalist) in writing about the sport’s efforts and growth in gender equality

It’s a topic that also was brought up by James’ wife, Kim.

“They’re always saying, ‘Hey, you manage all these guys, and you help them, so why not a woman?’ ” Ian James told NBC Sports. “And I feel like there are a lot of women that haven’t had a fair crack at it in sports car racing.

Our whole DNA at Heart of Racing is we give people opportunities in all types of situations where there’s been crew personnel or drivers. And I felt like we hadn’t really addressed the female driver situation. I felt like there was a void to give somebody a chance to really prove themselves.”

During the offseason, the team took a major step toward remedying that.

Hannah Grisham at the Heart of Racing shootout (Mike Levitt/LAT)

Heart of Racing held its first female driver shootout last November at the APEX Motor Club in Phoenix, Arizona, to select two women who will co-drive an Aston Martin Vantage GT4 in the SRO SprintX Championship.

The season will begin this weekend at Sonoma Raceway with Hannah Grisham and Rianna O’Meara-Hunt behind the wheel. The team also picked a third driver, 17-year-old Annie Rhule, for a 2023 testing program.

The Phoenix audition included 10 finalists who were selected from 130 applicants to the program, which has been fully underwritten by Heart of Racing’s sponsors.

“We didn’t want it to be someone who just comes from a socio-economic background that could afford to do it on their own course,” James said. “We can pick on pure talent. We’re committed to three years to do this and see if we can find the right person. I’m very hopeful.”

So is Grisham, a Southern California native who has been racing since she was 6 in go-karts and since has won championships in Mazda and Miata ladder series. She has several victories in the World Racing League GP2 (an amateur sports car endurance series). The last two years, Grisham has worked as a test driver for the Pirelli tire company (she lives near Pirelli’s U.S. headquarters in Rome, Georgia, and tests about 30 times a year).

Starting with the Sonoma during SprintX event weekends (which feature races Saturday and Sunday), she will split the Heart of Racing car with O’Meara-Hunt (a New Zealand native she got to know at the shootout).

“It’s huge; the biggest opportunity I’ve had in this sport,” Grisham, 23, told NBC Sports. “Now it’s up to me to perform how I know I can. But I’m super lucky to be with such an amazing team and have a good teammate. The Heart of Racing has a family vibe and energy to it that’s really amazing. It’s super exciting. It’s hard to put into words.”

Grisham is hopeful that a strong performance eventually could lead to a full-time ride with Heart of Racing. The team has full-time entries in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and won the GTD category of the 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona with the No. 27 Aston Martin Vantage GT3 piloted by James, Darren Turner, Roman DeAngelis and Marco Sorensen.

James said “there’s no guarantee” of placement in an IMSA entry for Grisham and O’Meara-Hunt, but “if they prove themselves, we’ll continue to help them throughout their career and our team. The GT3 program is an obvious home for that. If they get the opportunity and don’t quite make it, we’ll be looking for the next two. The next three years, we’ll cycle through drivers until we find the right one.”

Grisham described the two-day shootout as a friendly but intense environment. After a day of getting acclimated to their cars, drivers qualified on new tires the second day and then did two 25-minute stints to simulate a race.

Hannah Grisham reviews data with Heart of Racing sports car driver Gray Newell during the team’s shootout last November (Mike Levitt/LAT).

“Everyone was super nice,” she said. “Once everyone gets in the car, it’s a different level. A different switch gets turned on. Everyone was super nice; everyone was quick. I feel we had an adequate amount of seat time, which is definitely helpful.

“It’s always cool to meet more women in the sport because there’s not too many of us, even though there’s more and more. It’s always cool to meet really talented women, especially there were so many from all over the world.”

IMSA has celebrated female champions and race winners, notably Katherine Legge (who is running GTD full time this season with Sheena Monk for Gradient Racing). The field at Sebring and Daytona also included the Iron Dames Lamborghini (a female-dominated team).

The Heart of Racing’s female driver shootout drew interested candidates from around the world (Mike Levitt/LAT).

James believes “a breakout female driver will be competing with the best of them” in the next five years as gender barriers slowly recede in motorsports.

“It’s been a male-dominated sport,” James said. “It’s still a very minute number of women drivers compared to the guys. I’m sure back in the day there were physical hurdles about it that were judged. But now the cars are not very physical to drive, and it’s more about technique and mental strength and stuff like that, and there’s no reason a girl shouldn’t do just as well as a guy. What we’re just trying to achieve is that there isn’t an obvious barrier to saying ‘Hey, I can’t hire a guy or a girl.’ We just want to put girls in front of people and our own program that are legitimate choices going forward for people.”

“There’s been some really good female drivers, but a lot of them just haven’t been able to sustain it, and a lot of that comes from sponsorship. I think (with the shootout), there’s no pressure of raising money and worrying about crash damage. We’ve taken care of all that so they can really focus on the job at hand.”

Funding always has been a hurdle for Grisham, who caught the racing bug from her father, Tom, an off-road driver who raced the Baja 1000 several times.

“I don’t come from a lot of money by any means,” she said. “So since a young age, I’ve always had to find sponsorships and get people to help me, whether it was buying tires, paying for entry fees, paying for the shipment of a car to an actual race. Literally knocking on the doors of people or businesses in my town.

“So yeah, it’s definitely something I’ve always struggled with and held me back because the sport revolves so much around money. So again to get this opportunity is insane.”

Rianna O’Meara-Hunt was one of two women selected by the Heart of Racing to drive in the SRO SprintX Championship this year (Mike Levitt/LAT).

Grisham credits racing pioneer Lyn St. James (an Indy 500 veteran and sports car champion) as a role model who has helped propel her career. She was hooked by the sights, smells and sounds of racing but also its competitive fire.

“There’s a zone you get in, that subconscious state of mind when you’re driving. It’s like addictive almost. I love it. Also I’m just a very competitive person as I think most race car drivers are.

“For sure I want to stay with the Heart of Racing. Obviously, I’m still getting to know everyone, but it’s a super family vibe. That’s how I grew up in the sport with just my dad and I wrenching on the cars. That’s what I love about this sport is all the amazing people you meet. And I think this is one of the most promising teams in this country. For sure, I want to learn as much as I can from them and hopefully continue. I feel so lucky and grateful to be one of those chosen.”