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

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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.”