Anyone who followed the Mazda Road to Indy career of Gabby Chaves knew that the young Colombian-American would make a name for himself in open-wheel racing, given his propensity for exciting finishes. Second in the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires in 2012 to eventual Verizon IndyCar Series star Jack Hawksworth, Chaves then finished second to teammate Sage Karam in the 2013 Indy Lights Championship Presented by Cooper Tires.
But the story of Chaves’ 2013 season was the Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway: part of a spectacular four-wide finish at the checkered flag, Chaves was nipped at the checker by Belardi Auto Racing’s Peter Dempsey by 0.0026 of a second – the closest finish in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history.
With an eye on the title – and with redemption at Indianapolis foremost in his mind – Chaves joined Belardi and entered the 2014 Indy Lights season determined to change his final finishing position. With the momentum gained from a long-awaited Freedom 100 victory, Chaves battled all season long with Zach Veach and Jack Harvey. Chaves took four wins and two pole positions but still finished tied on points with Harvey. In a nod to his recent past, it was his five second-place finishes that sealed his championship title.
Looking back on his three years on the Mazda Road to Indy, Chaves believed that each step provided him with all the tools he needed to succeed in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“The Mazda Road to Indy gives you clear, objective and realistic goals to follow,” said Chaves. “You can almost just check them off along the way. It makes the path very clear, instead of somewhat gray, as it is in other parts of the world.
“First of all, since you’ve already raced on them, you know 90 percent of the tracks the IndyCar series races on, which is a huge plus. When you’re in Indy Lights, you have the chance to get to know the teams and drivers in the big series, so you understand the atmosphere. You know who’s who, so it’s a lot less to take in once you do make the jump. That makes the transition so much smoother. I think every step was crucial to the next one and, all together, they were crucial to the last step, which was IndyCar.”
With his Indy Lights championship came a Mazda scholarship and the guarantee of three IndyCar races, including the Indianapolis 500, in 2015. Chaves took that scholarship to Bryan Herta Autosport, owned by 1993 Indy Lights champion Bryan Herta, and parlayed it into a full-season campaign earning Indy 500 and Verizon IndyCar Series Rookie of the Year honors. Chaves believes that the Indy Lights car prepared him for the step up to IndyCar – a belief that has been accentuated by the introduction of the new Dallara IL-15 chassis that came online for the Indy Lights series in 2015. The new car was tested by several former drivers, including Chaves.
“It’s a pretty good jump in many areas, including aerodynamics, power, braking and technology. It’s a lot to take in. But I do think the new Indy Lights car does a good job of being that intermediate step, much more than the old Indy Lights car. It’s such an advantage for drivers who aspire to go into IndyCar. It’s more of a middle ground whereas with the old car, it was a much bigger step. But even with the old car, I was able to feel comfortable quickly and adapt quick enough that I could start the learning process right away.”
The jewel in the IndyCar crown is the Indianapolis 500, enjoying a historic 100th running this May. Chaves had done a great many laps at the Brickyard prior to last year’s 500, including testing, pace car and two-seater rides – along with “two pretty crazy Indy Lights races.” So what does the transition from Indy Lights to IndyCar mean at Indy?
“In the end, it meant that all I had to adjust to were the higher speeds in the Indy car. Your brain just adapts at Indy. What felt really quick in an Indy Lights car doesn’t feel that quick in an Indy car. Your brain slows things down so you can process the information. The big thing is the abrupt changes in speed. I remember the first time I came into the pit lane. I was going 230 mph and suddenly I had to slow down to 60! If you think about it, 60 mph is highway speed in a road car, and that’s our pit speed limit – and it feels like you’re crawling!”
Chaves kept up with his former compadres in Indy Lights throughout the exciting 2015 championship run and into the current season. He’s raced against most of the series’ drivers – and has known many of them since childhood.
“I saw most of the Indy Lights races, if not all of them. I kept up to date on the series. It was fun to see the new car in action and to see the guys that I used to race against. It was a pretty exciting season, to watch Carlin dominate early and then see the other teams catch up. It was really fun to see such a competitive field – and to see a new team (Juncos Racing) in the series take the title.”
Chaves has joined a host of other Verizon IndyCar Series drivers – including Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan, Jack Hawksworth and Josef Newgarden – as graduates of the Mazda Road to Indy and potential mentors to the newcomers. The chance to give back to drivers like 2015 champion Spencer Pigot (who drives for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing) means a great deal to Chaves, returning to Indy this month with Dale Coyne Racing.
“That’s what it’s all about. We want the guys in the Mazda Road to Indy to be the guys feeding into IndyCar. After their first time around, it’s great to be able to share your first-time experiences, especially at the Indy 500. It makes for great dialogue with people you’ve known practically your whole life, from your first day in a go-kart to your first day in an Indy car.”
Road to Indy