Article written by Nathan Brown – Indianapolis Star
Five months ago, we weren’t sure we’d see Santino Ferrucci, the 2019 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, back in an open-wheel car again. In less than a week, the 23-year-old Connecticut-native will have completed his third IndyCar race in 15 days, further raising eyebrows as to what his racing future may hold.
On Monday, Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing announced signing Ferrucci to drive in the upcoming doubleheader IndyCar weekend on Belle Isle in Detroit June 12-13, coming off his 6th-place finish in the May 30 Indy 500. As at IMS, Ferrucci will drive the No. 45 car with primary sponsorship from Midwest grocery chain Hy-Vee and Cheetos branding.
It’s a stark contrast to what Ferrucci’s racing calendar appeared to be lining up to be in 2021, when in January, he announced plans to join Sam Hunt Racing for a roughly 20-race run in the NASCAR Xfinity Series this year, with eyes on putting together a full-season program for 2022.
After two full-time seasons in IndyCar in 2019-20 with Dale Coyne Racing, which included 12 top-10s and four 4th-place finishes, Ferrucci revealed he had switched his career focus toward stock cars with an eventual goal of reaching the Cup series.
In an interview with The Athletic just after the New Year, Ferrucci said, “I told (team owner Sam Hunt) that once I make this transition, this is my transition. I like everything that’s going on here. I want to do this.” At the time, when a variety of partial-season rides in IndyCar remained available, Ferrucci added that he’d consider only dabbling in IndyCar for an Indy 500-only ride.
Gradually, though, his tune changed. Before his Xfinity Series debut, Ferrucci said he’d be willing to take an opportunity in IndyCar for the 500 that involved also driving the entire oval calendar — either with Carlin or Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing) — but ultimately landed with RLL. Originally, Ferrucci was set to run five consecutive Xfinity races with SHR in the spring, but that was trimmed to four when the final race, Martinsville, conflicted with IndyCar’s open test on the IMS oval in April in preparation for the 500.
Since then, there hasn’t been talk about what other races he may run with SHR during the rest of the 2021 calendar. He and the team have said his primary focus will be 1.5-mile oval tracks, given how much of the calendar they occupy, rather than going to either a superspeedway or road course where he has some more experience in from IndyCar and the Formula 1 ladder.
During Indy 500 media day, Ferrucci further revealed his wish to compete in both racing disciplines down the road.
“We aren’t just one-trick ponies,” he said. “IndyCar drivers don’t just have to do IndyCar, and stock car drivers don’t just have to run that. This is something I’d like to continue in my future. I hope to be full-time next year, whether it’s in Xfinity or IndyCar, but I’d still like to do a little of both.
“I keep telling Bobby (Rahal), ‘Put me in the car full-time, and let’s go’, but there’s a lot of moving parts to it. Obviously, the team is expanding, which is incredible news, and I’m hoping I can prove to these guys that I’m a valuable asset.”
A timeline of Santino Ferrucci’s last couple months:
A couple of days later, Ferrucci laid down his third top-7 finish in the Indy 500 in as many attempts, leading the team that included last year’s winner (Takuma Sato, finished 14th this year) and the 3rd-place finisher from 2020 (Graham Rahal, 32nd).
The elder Rahal has long talked about hopes of adding a third full-time car, but the team he co-owns with Mike Lanigan and David Letterman only just moved to two full-time cars at the start of 2018 with the addition of Sato. Monday’s news, along with the team’s recent ground-breaking on a 100,000 square-foot facility in Zionsville, has things starting to potentially trend in that direction.
Graham was asked Monday during a series Zoom call about his thoughts on RLL’s expansion prospects and offered little clarity, beyond joking that, “(With the new shop), they’re certainly going to need more cars to pay for that.”
Hy-Vee entered the IndyCar scene last year, hopping on as a primary sponsor for Race 2 at Iowa on Rahal’s No. 15 car. Soon after, they were announced as the primary sponsor for Spencer Pigot’s No. 45 ride in the 500.
With the IndyCar paddock racing in or near the Midwest for Detroit, Road America (Wisconsin), Mid-Ohio, Nashville, IMS road course and WWT Raceway (just outside St. Louis), it seems possible this isn’t the last we see of the No. 45 Hy-Vee Honda in 2021. In four previous races on the streets of Belle Isle, Ferrucci las landed just one top-10, a 10th-place finish in Race 2 of the 2019 doubleheader.
And should Ferrucci fill the seat in those instances, it would only give the 23-year-old more leverage toward reaching his eventual goal of a full racing calendar involving jumping back-and-forth between stock cars and open-wheelers.
“I’d love to have a couple options at the end of this season and make it more my choice than anybody else’s,” he said. “I think it’s important to do what you love, and I do miss IndyCar and being in this paddock, but I’ve had a ton of fun in Xfinity.
“If I could be full-time next year in a Rahal car and truly fight for a championship, I’d love to do that, but I’m also kinda torn, because if I can get into a full-time (Joe Gibbs Racing) car and run for a championship, it’s a lot more racing, too. But no matter which way I go, I think you’re going to see me in both regardless.”
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