Matthew Brabham, or “Matty,” has long been one of the talents right on the cusp of full-time Verizon IndyCar Series stardom… if he had enough for a full-season opportunity.
The two-time champion on the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder, who went back-to-back in Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda and Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2012 and 2013 respectively, is working towards a return for at least his second consecutive Indianapolis 500 appearance, and feels cautiously optimistic he’ll be in the field of 33 cars in May.
Brabham has returned home to Indianapolis this week after spending the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend networking and renewing acquaintances. He was in Adelaide, Australia for Robby Gordon’s SPEED Energy Stadium Super Trucks season opener a week before that, and won one of the two races this weekend at St. Petersburg.
“That was it, yeah, be down there to catch up and have a chat with a lot of people I’ve been talking with over the last couple months,” Brabham told NBC Sports. “I had a lot of meetings and talked with a lot of people.
“I’m just doing everything I can to work towards the 500. It’s all positive right now. I’ve got PIRTEK and others helping me out… ‘Crusher’ (Brett Murray) is helping, working on things… and I’m working with Mickey Ryan as well.
“Yes there’s a lot of other drivers out there, but I think I have a good chance to get to the ‘500. They’ll need 33 cars and there’s quite a few seats left. The opportunities should still be there for a deal.”
A rough draft of the Indianapolis 500 grid at the moment sees 25 confirmed car/driver combinations, the 21 full-season cars plus announced entries for veterans Juan Pablo Montoya (Team Penske), Oriol Servia (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing), Sage Karam (Dreyer & Reinbold Racing) and Jay Howard (Team One Cure with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports).
With Honda staffed to prepare for 18 Indianapolis 500 cars, it would leave Chevrolet with 15 cars to staff. There remain announced, confirmed vacancies at Andretti Autosport (fifth car) and Juncos Racing (possible second car), with others to be filled in.
Brabham, meanwhile, is in the tier of recent Mazda Road to Indy graduates who have the talent but not the funding, timing or opportunity to be in a full-season IndyCar seat at present. His counterparts are probably Spencer Pigot, Gabby Chaves, Karam and RC Enerson, all of whom are under 25 with limited if not always full-time IndyCar race experience the last couple years.
At just 22, Brabham rose quickly through the MRTI but stalled out after a tough first season in Indy Lights in 2014. The last two years, Brabham’s become one of racing’s most versatile drivers with IndyCar, Indy Lights, USF2000 testing, Stadium Super Trucks and FIA Formula E all on his scorecard, but hasn’t been in a full-time ride now for three years.
That determination to keep plugging away is keeping him focused and as Brabham explains, it’s the rough patches on the journey that make whatever payoff all the more successful.
“It’s definitely been character-building. I’m learning just as much doing one-offs and not driving as often as I like to, compared to if I was full-time,” Brabham said.
“In the Mazda Road to Indy, my focus was pure racing. I wasn’t really thinking about other things. Yeah I had to think about if I didn’t win, what would I do… but that was an afterthought. It worked out until Indy Lights, and I didn’t win the scholarship, and it’s been tough since then without the scholarship end.
“I’ve learned so much on the business side…. because that’s the most important thing, since I don’t have mom and dad to pay the bills. My mom and dad put budget in for my first USF2000 along with a sponsor from Australia.
“I’m grateful for the battle. The guys that do well when they do make it – my idols like Scott Dixon and Will Power – they’re so good at what they do and they’re so hungry for it. The guys that are champions have gone through their journey, struggles with money, put everything on the line and risk it!”
Brabham watched with great interest – and praise – as his primary MRTI sparring partner, Pigot, had the drive of his IndyCar career to date Sunday in St. Petersburg with Ed Carpenter Racing. But Pigot’s early charge was halted when his left rear brake disc popped and he lost time for repairs, and eventually retired.
“It’s almost like a club you’ve joined, the ‘unemployed open-wheel driver club,'” Brabham laughed. “We’re all working on what we can to do. We’re all talking with same people, but we have different approaches! It should come down to talent, but a lot comes down to timing and luck. You have to create your own luck. That said, when you see each other get rides, it gives us confidence for the guys in the club to keep working at it.
“With the right team, there’s no reason we can’t succeed. Seeing Spencer do what he is comes from having a spot. It’s when you’re thrown in to last-minute deals, trying to string things together that it gets hard. If we had solid programs, we can do it too. Spencer’s a good example of that. We’re all young and hungry. We want to do everything we can to prove we can to do well. It’s just managing to get in the door.”
Reflecting on his month of May program last year, Brabham actually overachieved more than he realized at the time with a limited budget.
While the PIRTEK Team Murray team brought flair and fun in spades to the Speedway, it didn’t have huge resources and as the de facto second car for KV Racing Technology, was not the best handling machine either. After an impressive Grand Prix where Brabham nearly advanced to Q2 on his debut, qualifying 14th and finishing 16th.
On the oval, it took Brabham doing some sterling work in collaboration with engineer Andy Brown to even hang onto the car. Starting 27th and finishing 22nd doesn’t sound like much, but it had been a good month’s work for Brabham in his No. 61 Chevrolet.
“Yeah man that was the challenge!” he said. “I was thinking about this over the last couple weeks. I could be – and was – hard on myself. When I got out of the month of May, I wasn’t very happy about my performance. I wanted to be top-10 and top-five, and show right off the bat I can win races. That was a bit of a too high goal.
“But now I think about the situation I was in. The first time I’d ever driven on (Firestone) red tires in qualifying was at the GP and I was 14th (in a 25-car grid). Now I look back on certain aspects, and I’m pretty proud of that. There’s a lot of issues and struggles, but that happens with any team.
“A guy like me never gets to have a full testing program. I hadn’t been in a car for a full season. It’s been one-offs since 2014, and there I was last year back in an IndyCar, open-wheel, I’d raced Stadium Super Trucks. It was just being thrown in on one-offs. But I’m happy with how it all went. I had some ‘moments’ in the 500 month, setup, running with a loose car, and had one big moment in qualifying trim and saved it… but that was more luck.”
Brabham knows he can do it – a number of key people in the paddock know he can, as well – and knowing how quickly he adapted from his first test in a commercial shoot at Iowa Speedway a couple years ago was proof positive of that point.
“The moment – the first time I got into an IndyCar – I was running at Iowa with Marco (Andretti) and those guys at Andretti Autosport. That’s the first ever track to jump in, and that’s not easy!
“From that moment I knew I could run with those guys. I could be competitive. I know I could get in there. With the right team, there’s no reason you can’t.
“When you’re under that much pressure, making it to IndyCar, and still in it after the hardships, I think you’re a lot more motivated when you do make it. I’d rather have the easy path, but nothing’s easy. Every day makes me more hungry and ambitious.”