LEXINGTON, Ohio – On Friday, 19-year-old rookie RC Enerson delivered arguably one of the most impressive debut days in an IndyCar in recent memory – if not ever.
With only one day of testing, Enerson took what he learned from his first day last week and translated it into some seriously impressive practice pace for the Verizon IndyCar Series’ Honda Indy 200.
Enerson went from 1.1042 seconds off the pace in the first 75-minute practice session in the No. 19 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, 21st, all the way to within 0.5322 off in the second – all the way up to seventh in that session and second Honda in the field, only behind defending Honda Indy 200 race winner Graham Rahal.
That time in free practice two left Enerson a combined 10th on the day, again second among the Hondas only to Rahal.
It didn’t really surprise those who’ve followed his career in the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires closely. However, it did wow the paddock at large.
It was fitting, perhaps, Enerson was behind Rahal and then was sat next to Scott Dixon in the day end press conference because Rahal also starred as a teenager in his first season in open-wheel – 2007 in Champ Car – while Dixon became IndyCar’s then-youngest winner at age 20 in his first season in CART in 2001… before Rahal beat that in 2008 at age 19.
“I grew up watching a lot of these guys race,” Enerson explained during the post-practice press conference. “My first Indy 500 was when I was three years old, and seeing these guys go around, and now I’m 19 years old and there’s a lot of the same guys still there.
“It’s kind of like I get to race with my idols, really,” he added, to a room full of laughter.
Dixon followed, “We must have had a good generation, I think.”
But putting aside the obvious “yeah, he’s young” line – trust me as the youngest full-time member in the IndyCar press corps I get that joke at least once per weekend – what Enerson did on Friday was take in a wealth of information the team was throwing at him and translate it into pace on paper.
“It was incredible. It’s completely different than anything I’ve driven, and coming from — every time I come here, I always tend to do alright, and it’s one of my favorite tracks,” he said.
“It’s got this thing about it that it fits the driving style really well, and I’m just excited to be here, and this is probably — it’s probably the best track to make my debut at.”
Enerson, as he told me prior to his race debut last week, noted the difference in the step up from the Cooper tires he used throughout his Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires career versus the Firestones now.
Enerson was really good at learning tire conservation there since there are no pit stops. But he noted the change in grip level on the Firestones, especially since the 2.258-mile Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course is one of the highest grip tracks on the calendar.
“These ones tend to — after the first couple laps where you get your fast time, they tend to not fall off very much and you can keep your speeds up, and it’s amazing. It’s a completely different experience, and it’s challenging,” he explained.
On the tire note, where Enerson will have to learn, and learn quickly, is once he gets his first crack at the Firestone red alternates for qualifying later on Saturday, provided the session is dry.
“With the reds, we don’t get to see them. I’ve never driven on them, so the first time I’m going to get to see them is qualifying,” he said.
“So that’s what I think is the biggest thing for the rookies, I guess, is they don’t get to see those until it’s when it counts, so it’s hard to extract all that not knowing going into it, and I think that’s what comes with the experienced drivers where they’re able to know how much grip they’re actually going to gain to be able to push it to the max right off the bat.”
Still though, his debut impressed many in the IndyCar paddock.
Teammate Conor Daly in the No. 18 Jonathan Byrd’s Hospitality Honda told IndyCar Radio of Enerson, “We have RC here this weekend, and he’s new – but he’s doing a great job.”
Daly’s engineer Michael Cannon, himself a key talent evaluator in his long career in the sport, told me Enerson has “taken like a duck to water” to an IndyCar and is handling everything the team is throwing at him with aplomb.
And Dixon, arguably one of the best drivers of his generation? He knows what it’s like to “wow” people when you’re the new kid on the block, as he did some 15 years ago.
“I think it’s great to see young talent coming through. It’s part of the sport. It’s part of what we need to see,” he said.
“We’ve had a good influx of recent, and it’s pretty cool in the fact that we have a series that, okay, so there’s some bigger teams and some more teams that have done better jobs, but in layman’s terms, you pretty much have the similar equipment. So it’s nice that you can come, and if you’re good you can get close.
“The only hard part with rookies now is the testing program. At least this year was a little more open. It was good that RC had the opportunity to test here last week, but still, you’re competing against guys that have been coming here for years and they’ve had a ton of test days.
“It’s so close right now that you’re looking for hundredths and tenths of a second to make the difference.”