Ben Hanley St. Petersburg

They arrived in Indianapolis with boxes of car parts and less than a month to put an Indy car together for Sunday’s season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

The first thing DragonSpeed Racing team principal Elton Julian did was buy his crew a bunch of computer tablets so they could figure out how those parts needed to be put together.

Not the ideal scenario to enter the NTT IndyCar Series, but DragonSpeed Racing couldn’t have been more excited about making this jump from championship sports car racing. They toiled late each night to ensure rookie driver Ben Hanley’s No. 81 10Star Chevrolet would be ready.

An 18th-place finish in the first of five scheduled series starts this season, which will include the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge in May, meant so much more than the final result might suggest.

“The only way is up,” Julian said with a chuckle. “I think we achieved all the little non-results-oriented targets, which was to run the race, learn how the tires go on the long run, how the degradation works, the different potential strategies that present themselves. You can only watch so much stuff on YouTube before you have to actually run the race and in the heat of the moment make the calls.

“I’m immensely grateful for the spirit, the effort and willingness from the guys. Between the sports-car stuff and the Indy car program, nobody has been home (in England). We are 64 days deep since we left home with five days off and everybody is high-fiving with a smile and raring to go every morning. The story that nobody will ever see, nobody will ever fully understand, is the level of camaraderie and spirit that the team has inside right now. It’s remarkable.”

Founded as a sports-car operation in 2007 and with championships in Pirelli World Challenge GTA and European Le Mans Series LMP2 along the way, Julian announced in December the team’s plans to enter the NTT IndyCar Series this season on a part-time basis. The intent is for DragonSpeed Racing to race full time in 2020.

Ben HanleyHanley, a 34-year-old British driver who’s been a part of the DragonSpeed sports-car effort since 2016, appreciated the track time after just eight laps of testing an Indy car on March 4 at Sebring International Raceway. But he was smart, too, giving the faster cars plenty of room while learning from the experience and completing 108 of the race's 110 laps on the challenging 1.8-mile temporary street circuit.

“We knew whereabouts we were in terms of how much time we had to work on the car and the pace we had in the car,” Hanley said. “Yeah, when the leaders were coming up, I just gave them plenty of room and tried to keep out of everybody’s way really because we were on a different pace. I put myself in their position and what I would expect if someone was in my situation. I just did what I would anticipate someone else would do if the roles were reversed.

“Everyone knows how tough the series is and what level it’s at, so for any new team to come in with basically no testing and run the car at a street circuit like St. Petersburg, we kept it clean and didn’t get any trouble, didn’t get any penalties or anything. It was a good weekend in terms of getting experience from the car.”

DragonSpeed had to shift gears immediately following the race to prepare its LMP1 and LMP2 entries for the 1000 Miles of Sebring, the sixth round of the 2018-19 World Endurance Championship. Hanley is co-driver of the No. 10 LMP1 entry that qualified seventh Thursday night for the endurance race that begins at 4 p.m. ET Friday. The WEC race precedes the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring presented by Advance Auto Parts, the iconic IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race on Saturday.

Hanley is in his fourth season with the team, so Julian was confident in how his accomplished sports-car driver would adapt to the Indy car at St. Petersburg.

“He’s a known quantity and a big part of the reason I trusted him to kind of shepherd us through this phase,” Julian said. “We were very respectful of the other racers who were there to fight for points and championships and even a weekend result. We probably lost a little bit of time being too polite, but it was part of the job. I thought (Hanley) was fantastic and really pleased with the job he did. I was really impressed, but not surprised.”

What resonated from the experience is the feeling DragonSpeed had about being a part of the series. Driver and crew were thrilled to get that first taste. Julian likened the upbeat mood of his team to, “Yeah, I feel 18 again. This is why we went racing in the first place.”

And now this team can’t wait to get a second taste. They’ll have the benefit of a test at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, before making their second series start there in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 7 (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

“Oh my God, they’re so mad they have to go do anything else now,” Julian said of his crew. “It was such a fantastic weekend, from the series to suppliers to other teams to the event, you really go back and feel like this is why we all started racing.”