MRTI: Blackstock’s 5-year road with Andretti leads to first IndyCar test

Photo: Indianapolis Motor Speedway, LLC Photography

In his fifth season with Andretti Autosport in the Mazda Road to Indy, Shelby Blackstock will fulfill his dream today as he makes his Verizon IndyCar Series test debut at Watkins Glen International.

All three of Andretti’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires drivers – Blackstock, Dalton Kellett and Dean Stoneman – will be in the three IndyCars. Blackstock takes over Carlos Munoz’s No. 26 Honda with Kellett in Marco Andretti’s No. 27 Snapple Honda and Stoneman in Ryan Hunter-Reay’s No. 28 DHL Honda.

Kellett is a more recent Andretti addition having run for the team in both Indy Lights and Pro Mazda, and Stoneman is the team’s newest driver in his first full season in North America.

Blackstock’s though been the team veteran, in all three MRTI series – Indy Lights, Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda since 2012. And the 26-year-old out of Nashville has made a habit of learning more every year.

“My racing career has been very young. I started racing seven years ago,” Blackstock told NBC Sports. “It’s something that’s come easier than most, but it’s still a big learning curve. Working with Darren Manning this year as my driving coach has definitely helped a lot with driving-wise and also how to approach different sponsors and opportunities and just overall learning the business outside of racing on top of it.

“There’s not really a team leader. Everybody’s struggled at some point, while everybody’s had their good times at other points. Each other kind of helps the whole team grow and also make the car better. Yeah, we’ve struggled here and there, but you have to drive the IL-15 a certain way. If it’s not driven a certain way, you’re not going to be fast.”

Blackstock’s second season in Indy Lights has been markedly better than his first. With two more weekends to go at Watkins Glen and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, he sits eighth in points with five top-five finishes, all between fourth and fifth. Much of it is attributable to having a full-time teammate, but the Andretti team’s Lights setup has generally been better most weekends in 2016.

“Last year, a lot of our notes were inconclusive,” he explained. “This is really Andretti’s first year getting the new car right, so it’s been a learning curve for a bunch of us. Racing-wise, there’s been some opportunities and some of us have capitalized more than others and vice-versa. There’s really no team leader, just a huge, big team effort.

“Results-wise, I think we could have done a lot better this year, but driving-wise, I think it’s come a long way. This year, the talent pool has been so deep. There’s been seven different winners this year and every single day, anyone can win. That’s what makes the series rise to make you step up your game. You could be just searching for a tenth and that could cover six places at some places. It’s really big to really be on your game and to be on point every single time you step into that car.”

Blackstock’s particularly keen to make his IndyCar test debut at Watkins Glen given his personal history at the track.

“Last year, as a part of my contract, it was my first year in Indy Lights and (I said) this year I’d love an IndyCar test as part of the young guns test,” he said.

“I knew it was going to happen eventually. I didn’t know where. I was kind of bummed that I didn’t hear about the Mid-Ohio test because I like Mid-Ohio a lot. But then they one-upped it and said you’re going to be testing at Watkins Glen.

“Well, the Glen was the very first racetrack I’d ever been to, working as part of the crew guys. I wasn’t even a pit guy; I was the tire guy, basically, dragging tires on and off cars. I figured out it was backbreaking work and it was miserable.

“I love Watkins Glen. I raced there in Skip Barber, Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in IMSA, I had a lot of fun and a lot of good results there. I just like the track a lot.

“And now, after the repaving, I was talking to some of the IndyCar guys and the place is ridiculously fast and awesome, so I can’t wait.”

Blackstock’s hoping this step will be the first step to an IndyCar graduation in 2017, but as ever, funding is the determining factor.

“Yeah, that’s the goal. It’s motorsports; you have to have sponsors behind you,” he said. “You have to find that.

“I’ve been in meetings constantly for the past couple months. … You’re constantly always trying to make the next step and see where you can go for 2017.

“Yeah, I’d love to be in IndyCar. If that doesn’t work, maybe a partial season. There’s so many options on the table that it’s really open.”

Occasionally you’ll hear Blackstock referred to only as Reba McEntire’s son, but he’s never felt as though he’s in her shadow.

“I don’t think anything of that nature. I just go out and try to get the most out of the car whenever I’m in it and let the driving do its own talking,” he said.

“My mom’s a huge supporter of my racing. It’s also helpful at times when it comes to some deals together.

“Overall, she’s a full supporter. I love when she comes out to the races and when she’s out here. I’ve never thought anything of being in her shadow or anything like that.”

In tears after the Indianapolis 500, Santino Ferrucci is proud of his third-place finish


INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci was in tears after last Sunday’s 107th Indy 500.

The AJ Foyt Racing driver from Woodbury, Connecticut had just driven the best race of his career, only to have the final yellow flag of the race fly just a second or two before he would have been in position for the win.

The field had just been given the green flag with four laps to go and Ferrucci was charging in the No. 14 Chevrolet into Turn 1, about to pass both Josef Newgarden for second place, which would have put him in prime position to draft past Marcus Ericsson for the victory.

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But IndyCar race control issued the third red flag stoppage in the final 15 laps of the race and with Ferrucci 2 inches behind Newgarden’s Chevrolet, he was lined up third.

When IndyCar had the remaining drivers refire the engines for three-quarters of a lap behind the Pace Car followed by a one-lap green and white flag dash to the finish, Ferrucci knew there was little he could do to get past the front two cars.

Newgarden passed Ericsson on the backstretch and went on to take the checkered flag for his first Indianapolis 500 victory. Ericsson was just 0.0974-of-a-second away from winning the Indy 500 for the second year in a row and Ferrucci was 0.5273-of-a-second away from winning his first career NTT IndyCar Series race.

It was a fantastic effort for Ferrucci, but to come so close to winning the biggest race in the world, the kid from Connecticut was heartbroken.

“We were so good this month,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports after climbing out of his car. “When you are that fast all month long, you just want it that much more. The way we did everything to finish the race under green, it’s great for the fans, IndyCar did the right thing, but sometimes it’s a tough pill to swallow restarting third like that when you are really second.

“It’s all timing and scoring. That doesn’t lie. If it says we are third, we are third. It’s very bittersweet.”

When Ericsson and Newgarden were both “Unleashing the Dragon” with the draft-breaking zigzag moves at the end of the race, Ferrucci admitted he was hoping it would play into his favor if those two made contact ahead of him.

“I was hoping and praying because when you are third, that’s all you can do – hope and pray,” Ferrucci said.

His prayers were not answered, but his determination to win the Indianapolis 500 remains undeterred.

He has never finished outside of the top 10 in the Indianapolis 500. Ferrucci was seventh as a rookie in 2019, fourth in 2020, sixth in 2021, 10th last year and third this past Sunday.

“I love this place,” the driver said. “I love coming here. I’m always so comfortable in the race. We are good at avoiding all of the accidents that happened in front of us.

“We will win it eventually. We have to.”

Ferrucci has proven he likes to rise to the big moments.

“I like the pressure,” he said. “We do well under pressure.

“But you have to take third, sometimes.

“We had a really good shot at winning this race. We made the most of it.”

Ferrucci continues to display the uncanny knack for racing hard and avoiding trouble. When he took the lead in the No. 14 car made famous by his team owner, legendary four-time Indianapolis 500 winner AJ Foyt, many of the fans in the crowd of 330,000 roared with approval.

Ferrucci was in front for 11 laps and was in prime position to pounce at the end, before the final 15 laps brought out red flag fever.

Because of that, and the timing of where he was when the last yellow light came on before the final red, put him in a difficult position to win the race.

“It’s just emotional, bittersweet,” he said. “It was emotional getting in the car, which was kind of strange because you feel like there’s a lot of people that really want this, the team really wants this.

“We worked so hard to be where we were. We ran out front all day long. It’s definitely one of the more difficult races that I’ve probably ever run, and just we also knew that we had a really good car.

“We got really close with Felix Rosenqvist when he was wrecking so very thankful, we were able to avoid that. And then yeah, coming to the end, I think on the second to final restart, me and Marcus battling it into 1, and obviously it going red when it did, it’s part of this place, it’s part of racing, it’s part of the Speedway.

“I’m just bummed. I’m sure Marcus Ericsson thinks the same thing I do.

“All three of us could have won it at any point in time.

“Yeah, it’s bittersweet.”

A few days have passed since Ferrucci was crying when he got out of the race car. He celebrated his birthday on Wednesday by mowing his lawn after a 12-hour drive back to his home in Texas. On Thursday morning, he flies to Detroit to get ready for this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix on the streets of downtown Detroit.

It has given him a chance to reflect on the biggest weekend of his career.

“Everybody saw on national television I was basically crying,” Ferrucci said. “It’s just one of those competitor things in you that there was so much riding on that race, and it was going so well up until that — it finished really well.

“It wasn’t just pressure to perform but emotional pressure to just be there and to know that we probably had that race won, had it gone yellow two seconds later, it’s just kind of heartbreaking. But still, at the end of the day, you come home in third, to join Helio Castroneves and one other driver, (Harry Hartz, who finished second, second, fourth, fourth and second from 1922-1926), in five of your first five starts in top 10s. And, then you really start to look at what you’ve accomplished at the 500 in your first five starts with four different teams and what you did with A.J. Foyt — what we’ve done at AJ Foyt Racing, who hasn’t had a podium or top 3 since the year 2000 at the Speedway.

“There are so many positives, and that day could have been so much worse. We had so many close calls between pit lane and some of the crashes on track that at the end of the day I was just really, really happy.

“I went to bed that night knowing that I did the best I could, the team did the best they could, and that’s the track.”

Ferrucci stressed that he didn’t have a problem with IndyCar race control doing everything in their power to make sure the race finished the distance under green.

“The way that IndyCar finished under green was 100 percent correct for the fans,” Ferrucci said. “It didn’t affect anything for me. What affected me wasn’t the red, it was the yellow.

“The second it went yellow, had it gone yellow two seconds later had they waited, which you can’t wait when you’re crashing, so there’s nothing you can do, I was in third, I was about 6 inches behind Newgarden, and that’s very clear in the video.

“At the end of the day, nothing changed for me. The fact that they actually went red and restarted the race gave me that opportunity to win again. I just didn’t have a great restart because it’s chaotic when you just go. You’ve got to also remember there’s no restart zone.

“At that point when you’re going green for one lap, it was really cool to see the shootout, I’m not going to lie, but you know that they’re going green, so you were literally at the hands of the leader on a completely random — you could start going into 3 in the middle of 3 and 4 out of 4. He could start the race whenever he wanted to start the race instead of in the zone, so it was completely unpredictable.

“(Ericsson) had a really good jump, and I did not. That’s what took me out of the win at the end of the race. It had nothing to do with IndyCar or the red in my opinion.”

Ferrucci and rookie teammate Benjamin Pedersen helped put a smile on 88-year-old AJ Foyt’s face in what started as the one of the saddest months of Foyt’s life after his wife of 68 years, Lucy, died.

Foyt returned to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway dealing with grief, but for the past three weeks, he was able to see his racing team return to prominence.

I think he was really proud,” Ferrucci said of Foyt. “There’s truly two people that understood my emotions and felt my emotions on Sunday. A.J. was one, and Michael Cannon (his engineer) was the other.

“If you look at some of the photos from that day, you can kind of see it in my eyes, just — you really have to have it in your hands and then lose it in your hands to kind of understand that feeling of when you work that hard. You have to understand you’re coming from a team with two cars, a budget that’s a quarter of the size of Penske and Ganassi, and that’s all month long. We wanted it probably that much more than everybody else that day.

“To come up that short, A.J.’s finished second and third on dominant days in the ’70s, and he talked about those races, where we had the car to win. We were by far the best car at the end of that race. Once the Team McLarens were out of it and the 10 car and the 21 had the incident in pit lane, that left us.

“We were the car to win, and yeah, just sitting third knowing there’s nothing you can do, after all that hard work, yeah, it’s a feeling that very few people would understand.

“But he was incredibly proud of I think what the organization accomplished. I’m very proud of Larry and what Larry Foyt has done with the team because Larry has had control of this team since 2007, and to see him get his first podium as a team boss and team owner at the speedway was huge.

“I think everybody was incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500