Recent Indy Lights graduates shine in Indy 500 qualifying

Photo: IndyCar
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Among the stars of qualifying for the 102nd Indianapolis 500 were a number of graduates of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires championship.

And not just graduates, but recent ones at that – drivers who did not join the Verizon IndyCar Series until 2016.

Spencer Pigot, the 2015 Indy Lights champion, made the Fast Nine Pole Shootout and qualified a very strong sixth, bettering his previous best starting position (23rd in 2016) by an astonishing 17 spots.

With a best finish of 14th so far in 2018, Pigot was certainly in need of a big result. And such a strong qualifying run gives him an enormous boost of confidence ahead of Sunday’s race.

Spencer Pigot celebrates with his Ed Carpenter Racing team after a strong qualifying run for the Indy 500. Photo: IndyCar

“It feels great to be in an awesome qualifying run here. I have massively improved from every other time I’ve run in this race, so I’m definitely excited about that and the potential for us here next Sunday,” Pigot said after qualifying. “ECR (Ed Carpenter Racing) has done a great job this year and our team is doing really well. I feel like Ed (Carpenter) has a really good shot for this race, especially after last night, but then again, I think all three of the ECR drivers do. It’s really great to be a part of this team, and I’m excited for what is in store this year in Indy.”

However, while Pigot will start the best of the recent MRTI grads, his was far from the only noteworthy performance from a recent Indy Lights alumnus, with a pair of rookies turning heads during qualifying as well.

A.J. Foyt Racing’s Matheus Leist turned in a mightily impressive 227.571 mph for his four-lap average, good enough for 11th on the grid and nearly outqualifying teammate Tony Kanaan, who averaged 227.664 mph.

Matheus Leist during Indy 500 qualifying. Photo: IndyCar

Like Pigot, Leist’s performance comes as a big confidence boost, especially in a rookie season that has been a little troublesome – Leist’s best finish is 12th at Barber Motorsports Park.

But, he and the entire A.J. Foyt Racing team have been fast since practice opened last week, and they could be in for a big day on Sunday.

“Since our first day here, the car has been quick. We knew that we could have a fast car (in qualifying). I’m so happy for the team and for Tony (Kanaan),” said an elated Leist after qualifying. “Both crews did an awesome job preparing us for qualifying. We were just fast. I think that if qualifying was (Saturday) and we had this car, we would probably be in the Fast Nine. I’m just so happy for this team. Everyone deserves it. I’m looking forward to the race now.”

And Zachary Claman De Melo pulled off one of the biggest surprises of the day in reeling off a highly impressive run at 226.999 mph to qualify 13th, this after not being confirmed in the No. 19 Paysafe Honda until last Monday as a relief driver for the injured Pietro Fittipaldi.

The run also proved to be a vital shot in the arm for De Melo, as some had suggested Schmidt Peterson Motorsports work a deal with Dale Coyne Racing to put James Hinchcliffe in De Melo’s car for race day.

However, such a performance indicated that De Melo had absolutely no intentions of ceding that seat to anyone.

Zachary Claman De Melo had a strong Indy 500 qualifying effort and will start 13th. Photo: IndyCar

“I’m really excited for the race in the No. 19 Paysafe car. I struggled a little bit with the no-tow speed and we really picked it up (on Sunday) and made some big improvements,” Claman De Melo said after qualifying. “It’s great to see how well we’re working together. It’s extremely encouraging as a rookie to do what we’ve done (in qualifying). Especially with our struggles earlier this week and yesterday in the first day of qualifying. It shows what a relentless team we are.”

Other recent Indy Lights graduates who will start the 102nd Running of the Indy 500 include Max Chilton (starting 20th), Gabby Chaves (starting 22nd), Zach Veach (starting 25th), Ed Jones (starting 29th), and Jack Harvey (starting 31st).

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IndyCar’s ‘Phoenix’ flying into 2023 season: Romain Grosjean enjoying the pilot’s life

IndyCar Romain Grosjean pilot
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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PALM SPRINGS, Calif. – The IndyCar driver known as “The Phoenix” already has taken flight before the 2023 season, and newly licensed pilot Romain Grosjean also got a head start on the opener.

Fulfilling a dream several years in the making, the Andretti Autosport plunged into aviation training over the offseason. Since beginning with online studying last August, Grosjean quickly progressed to earning his licenses for multiengine planes and instrument ratings while completing 115 hours of flight time.

He has landed twice at Albert Whitted Airport, whose primary runway also doubles as the front straightaway on the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg street course.

“Just to land on the start-finish line, that was pretty cool,” Grosjean said during IndyCar Preseason Content Days ahead of the Feb. 2-3 test at The Thermal Club. “The air traffic control guy was like, “Yeah, left on Acre Five, turn, and then back. I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s the last corner of the racetrack, I’ll take it and go back to the pit lane. He was like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s true.’ So it was quite funny.”

Grosjean, 36, said he had wanted to become a pilot since he was 30 but was discouraged by Europe’s complicated and time-consuming licensing process (“to go to ground school twice a week, and with our life, it’s impossible”). He was inspired again last year by (now former) teammate Alexander Rossi, who flew to some 2022 races after earning his license a couple of years ago.

“I thought that was pretty cool,” said Grosjean, who had grown “bored of waiting in the airports.”

He plans to fly to nearly all the races this year (“if the weather is good enough, I’ll be flying”) and jokes about being “commercial by the end of the year, so then I can take Roger (Penske). Roger can pay me to fly him around to races if things go bad with racing.”

Grosjean’s social media has been filled with posts about his new hobby, which afforded him the opportunity recently to take his wife to Key West for lunch from their home in the Miami area.

The trip took 37 minutes there and 41 minutes on return and highlighted why Grosjean loves flying: “Freedom. Freedom to go anywhere you want, anytime you want. It’s the beauty of it. We can go to the Bahamas for a day if we want to. Anywhere. I think that’s just great to know that you can do whatever you want.”

It’s reminiscent of the cross-country trip across the Midwest in an RV that Grosjean took with his family during the summer of his 2021 rookie season.

“There’s one thing that I told my kids, and I told my friend about America, and for me, that’s the biggest difference between Europe and here, is here everything is possible,” said Grosjean (whose “Phoenix” nickname was derived from a brush with death in his final Formula One start). “If you have the wish, if you give yourself the possibility of doing it, everything is possible. It is different in Europe. Much more boundaries on the way. Much more steps that you need to do in a certain order. But if you want to be extraordinary (in the United States), if you want to do something different, you don’t need to do those steps because you can work through.

“Yeah, I like doing things, and when I do them, I like doing them well. But here I think just the opportunity of driving the RV, flying planes, for my kids to do whatever they want to do, we love that here. Yeah, it’s been the best discovery for us.”

The Swiss-born Frenchman already has flown himself to a race this year, jetting up the Florida coast for his Rolex 24 at Daytona debut last month. It was his debut as a Lamborghini factory driver, and his new deal will continue with the Twelve Hours of Sebring and possibly the Petit Le Mans while he also helps develop the automaker’s new hybrid prototype (LMDh) for next year.

Grosjean finished a disappointing 13th in the 2022 points standings with one podium for Andretti in his first full IndyCar season. The team showed improvement at Thermal, and Grosjean (who was fourth fastest on Day 1) said IndyCar will remain his priority in 2024.

But he hopes the IndyCar schedule will afford racing in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship endurance races and perhaps his longest plane flight yet — a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

“I’ll keep my fingers crossed like that we get the weekend off from IndyCar,” said Grosjean, noting that 10 IndyCar drivers were in the Rolex 24. “I think it would make a lot of sense. I think for both series it’s amazing. If we can get Le Mans, it’s also amazing because it’s just cool.

“I remember Mario flying across the Atlantic doing Monaco and the Indy 500, and those guys, they were racing everywhere, Formula 3, Formula 2, Formula 1. They were doing the races in opening of the Formula 1 race, and I think that’s very cool for us. So yeah, looking forward to the project. There’s going to be a lot of development coming on. By the time we finish the IndyCar season, the LMDh will be here in the States, and that’s when I’m going to spend a lot of time on it.”