In just one season, Santino Ferrucci has gone from brash rookie hoping to prove himself in IndyCar to driving dean of Dale Coyne Racing.
Last year, he was teamed with wise veteran and four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais, who was more than twice his age. Bourdais and the team split during the offseason, and Ferrucci, 21, is now the “team leader” at Dale Coyne Racing.
Ferrucci has moved into the No. 18 SealMaster Honda at Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser and Sullivan. Talented newcomer Alex Palou if Spain is in the second Dale Coyne Racing entry, the No. 56 Honda.
“Me and Seb got along incredibly well; it was like a father-son bond,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports.com. “He was such a mentor to me. He understands the politics, and I understand the politics. I wish I had the opportunity to be with him for another year because I was learning so much and was so happy there.
“But this is what has happened and what I have to work with.”
How does it feel to be the team’s “elder statesman” at 21?
“I’m pretty excited,” Ferrucci said. “Now, I have the keys to the kingdom, and I get to be the leader. It’s a lot of weight on my shoulders. It’s a lot of pressure to step up to the plate, perform and fill these shoes.”
Much has changed in such a short period of time for Ferrucci.
He entered the series trying to shed an image from an unfortunate incident with a teammate in a Formula 2 race at Silverstone before the British Grand Prix. Ferrucci was ultimately dismissed from the Trident team for a variety of reasons that have been well documented.
Some on social media refuse to let him forget about that incident. They are part of today’s “Cancel Culture.”
But what fans in the NTT IndyCar Series discovered was a fast driver with a friendly personality who always took time to engage anyone who stopped by with a smile and friendly conversation.
He even made a fan out of NBC Sports and former NASCAR hero Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who raved about Ferrucci on last year’s telecast of the 103rdIndianapolis 500.
“I really like Santino Ferrucci,” Earnhardt told NBCSports.com at this year’s Daytona 500. “That kid is really fast, and I can’t wait to see what he does this season.”
Ferrucci has had to learn his share of lessons and develop into a potential star.
“Honestly, I think people that still want to bring up the past need to look at themselves and look at the future,” Ferrucci told NBC Sports.com. “If you are still holding on to something that is two years old, that’s kind of pathetic.
“I spent a lot of time meeting people last year. I think a lot of people that had a negative opinion, I reached out to them and said, ‘Please, come by. Hang out.’ I’ll take time for anybody and everybody if I have to. It doesn’t make a difference to me.
“For people that don’t want to even do that, that’s fine. It’s their choice. You can’t control other people; you can only control yourself and control what you want to do. From here, I’ve been building my image with Dale Coyne Racing. I think we’ve done a good job. I’ve gotten to show a little bit of what I’m made of and what I can do with the team.”
Ferrucci had two top-10 finishes in his first five NTT IndyCar Series races, before his breakthrough at the 103rd Indianapolis 500. He started 23rd, drove to the lead, finished seventh, and put on a show in between.
His most memorable move came late in the race during the big five-car pileup in Turn 3 that involved Graham Rahal, Sebastian Bourdais, Felix Rosenqvist, Charlie Kimball and Zach Veach.
Ferrucci avoided the carnage by hitting the throttle and driving through the grass.
“It was really good but in long run, I’m going to try and not to do that again this year,” Ferrucci said. “I’d prefer not to test the lawn setup.”
It was on the oval tracks where Ferrucci found his groove. He finished fourth in another wild race at Texas Motor Speedway, fourth at Pocono and fourth at Gateway. He ended the season as one of the top drivers in the entire series on the ovals.
“It was a solid first year,” Ferrucci said. “We learned so much. Especially the ovals. I just felt right at home there. With the road and street courses and working with Sebastien and with the team. I feel a lot more confident going into a lot of races this year, knowing the tracks, understanding how the team works throughout the weekend. Every race is drastically different.
“It’s been an awesome learning curve. We’re ready to take on this year with the same mentality of go through it, have fun and just enjoy it and see how we do.”
It’s been a rapid rise for Ferrucci, but he is no longer the kid learning from the mentor. In 2020, he will have to embrace the role as team leader.
“Obviously it’s very different,” Ferrucci said. “I go from someone with my entire life’s worth of experience to a kid I know very well from Europe and worked with before and get along with as well in Alex.
“I think it’ll be a good fit. We’ll both be really competitive this year. We’ll really be able to push the team to its limits and see what we can get out of the cars.
“But it is weird being the veteran driver at 21.”
Ferrucci was able to grow as a rookie in 2019. In the process, marginalized the “Cancel Culture” that wanted to see him fail. But he admits he has more growing up to do, now that he is in a new role at Dale Coyne Racing.
“I’m still very immature to be the veteran on the team, especially Dale’s team,” he said. “Those guys are like family, so they’ve treated me well. Sebastien taught me so much over the year. It’s working with everybody and keeping them in good spirits. I feel like Sebastien was a natural leader for the team. He did a really good job mentoring me and putting me in a position that I was expecting to have another year with him.
“But since he’s unfortunately not with us, I have to try and fill his shoes and try and bring that direction to the team.
“I have to keep everybody in that together, that happiness and momentum moving forward.”