There’s an old saying in journalism that a reporter shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.
In this case, Top Gun Racing’s facts Tuesday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway didn’t add up to much, with rookie driver RC Enerson completing only one of the three Rookie Orientation Program stages as the No. 75 Chevrolet he drives was forced out early with a left-rear mechanical issue.
But man, what a story the Indianapolis-based organization delivered in its first official day as a participant in this Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
This team built in the Crawfordsville Road shop of Grant King Racers – where former “500” chief mechanic and car builder Grant King worked for years -- had hoped to make its NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut last year, but with fans and most sponsors kept off the Speedway grounds for the pandemic-delayed event, it was wise for Top Gun to wait and regroup.
Regroup it did, signing Enerson, a talented young driver with four INDYCAR road-course starts in his career, and unveiling a blue-and-yellow livery honoring the Johnny Lightning Special that Al Unser won the “500” with in 1970 and ’71.
Watching Enerson complete even the first lap Tuesday at IMS was emotional for Bill Throckmorton, King’s nephew who shares ownership of Top Gun with one-time CART entrant Gary Trout.
“Pretty cool, pretty neat,” said Throckmorton, the president of Grant King Racers. “At first it was a relief, then (we) started getting nervous about something (going wrong).”
That’s life at Indy, as so many competitors have learned over the years.
The issue Throckmorton feared caused grease to spew out of the left rear corner as Enerson brought the car to pit road. But for the 24-year-old driver, it was exciting to be back in the series, again turning laps at IMS. He can worry about finishing his rookie test and then practicing for the “500” on Wednesday beginning at 11 a.m. (ET).
Enerson’s INDYCAR history includes two seasons in Indy Lights – 2015 and ’16 – where he won a race at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and earned five additional podium finishes. He made his INDYCAR SERIES debut in 2016 with Dale Coyne Racing, finishing ninth in the race at Watkins Glen International.
Enerson is best known in the industry for being the lead instructor of his family’s Florida-based Lucas Oil School of Racing that hosts events at many of the nation’s top road courses. Seven-time “500” starter Pippa Mann is one of the instructors.
“I’ve probably got 3 million miles – OK, that might be an exaggeration – but I’m constantly driving some (kind of car), working it, pushing a car at 120 miles per hour with no downforce,” Enerson said of preparation for this opportunity. “It keeps you moving, keeps you sharp.”
Enerson got his first laps in the Top Gun car last week at World Wide Technology Racing. He was using an old seat, and the cockpit wasn’t fitted for him yet, and his times were said to be respectable. In recent days, the team has worked to make him more comfortable in the car.
There is still much work to be done to make the 33-car field, but it’s a start – and it was a memorable one at that, one that was more than two years in the making.
Montoya: Experience Matters at Indy
Two-time “500” winner Juan Pablo Montoya doesn’t think INDYCAR’s recent youth movement will have much of an impact in the 200-lap event known as the 105th Running of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
“How many young guys have won the ‘500?’” he said, knowing the answer is that experience almost always wins out at IMS.
Ryan Hunter-Reay, the race’s 2014 winner, agreed with the Colombian following Tuesday’s practice.
“Warmer temperatures are coming,” the Andretti Autosport veteran said. “It’s going to get a lot harder for all of us.
“This place (caters) to the veterans, not so much over one lap but over 500 miles.”
Montoya also vowed to give his Arrow McLaren SP engineer, Craig Hampson, plenty to work on over the practice time that lies ahead. Qualifying is Saturday and Sunday, and Montoya’s total focus is Race Day.
“I’ll complain as much as I can, and then I’ll do with it (in the race) with what I have,” he said with a laugh.
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Begins New Facility
Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing broke ground Tuesday on a new 100,000 square-foot headquarters in Zionsville, about 15 minutes north of IMS, that will house all of its motorsports operations, including INDYCAR and IMSA sports car teams.
The facility is set to open by the end of the year and create more than 70 new jobs by 2024 after more than $20 million worth of investment.
Team owners Bobby Rahal and Mike Lanigan were joined at the ceremony by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb and Zionsville Mayor Emily Styron. Talk-show host David Letterman is the third owner of the team.
The organization has its roots in Hilliard, Ohio, where the sports car team has remained, although the INDYCAR team has used a Brownsburg shop owned by drag racer John Force in recent years.
“We think this will be a world-class facility,” Rahal said. “It certainly expresses the commitment that Mike and I and our organization are making toward INDYCAR racing, toward sports car racing, for motorsports as a whole.”
The team plans to have three full-time cars in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES in 2022. RLLR is fielding three cars in this “500,” and Takuma Sato and Graham Rahal finished first and third in last year’s race. The team won Indy for the first time in 2004 with Buddy Rice driving.
Odds and Ends
- Team Penske opened the day’s on-track activities by sending all four drivers out at the same time, and they came down the front straightaway four-wide. Roger Penske’s organization has won a record 18 Indianapolis 500s, with Will Power (2018) and Simon Pagenaud (2019) accounting for two of them.
- Simona De Silvestro has made five starts in the “500,” although none since 2015. But after testing here last month with the new Paretta Autosport, she felt up to speed Tuesday. “Left, left, left, left,” she said of remembering her way around the iconic oval in the No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO/Paretta Autosport Chevrolet.
- Stefan Wilson was offered two hours to complete his refresher program, but he was limited to 30 minutes in the No. 25 LOHLA SPORT/Cusick Motorsports Honda as Andretti Autosport worked to rectify a helmet buffeting issue. At 6-foot-3, Wilson is INDYCAR’s tallest driver.
- Sage Karam’s return to IMS for a shot at an eighth “500” start included a lap of 225.942 mph in the No. 24 DRR-AES Indiana Chevrolet that stood atop Tuesday’s scoring chart for about 30 minutes in the late afternoon. He settled for the fourth spot and noted the struggles he has had here in recent years. “I couldn’t have asked for a better start,” he said. “I’m so happy.”
- The month’s struggles continued for Sebastien Bourdais and AJ Foyt Racing. After being crashed out of both Texas Motor Speedway races, the No. 14 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet caught fire due to an oil leak in the right rear Tuesday, ending his day. The team also had another car, driven by Dalton Kellett, involved in the accident at the start of the second Texas race, so it’s been an expensive month for Foyt’s team.
- Ed Carpenter Racing, which won Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix with Rinus VeeKay driving the No. 21 SONAX/Autogeek Chevrolet, will be a team to watch in the buildup to this weekend’s qualifying session. Four of its five poles have come at IMS, with Ed Carpenter winning three for the “500” (2013, 2014 and 2018). VeeKay won the pole for last year’s July 4 road race.
- According to Trackside Online, VeeKay became the 22nd driver to win an INDYCAR SERIES race after winning a race in Indy Lights earlier in his career. The series traces its roots to 1986. Thirty-one drivers who have passed through Indy Lights have won INDYCAR races, with Pato O’Ward also joining the club with his Texas win May 2. VeeKay is the first NTT INDYCAR SERIES race winner to also claim victories in all three current rungs of the Road to Indy ladder system – Indy Lights, Indy Pro 2000 and USF2000.
- One of the most interesting visuals in NBC’s Peacock Premium coverage on Tuesday was Max Chilton’s air hose coming loose during the morning session. The hose blew back and wrapped around the rear wing. At speed, the relatively short hose stretched to about 15 feet. Chilton had to pit for the Carlin crew to disconnect it.
- Jack Harvey’s No. 60 AutoNation/SiriusXM Honda missed Tuesday’s two-hour morning session as the Meyer Shank Racing crew changed an engine as a precaution.
- Takuma Sato will earn a $380,000 bonus from BorgWarner if he repeats as Indianapolis 500 winner this year in the No. 30 Panasonic/PeopleReady Honda. BorgWarner has added $20,000 to the bonus pool every year since Helio Castroneves became the last back-to-back winner, in 2002. The bonus equals 41,300,000 yen in Sato’s native Japanese currency.