Gabby Chaves had never heard of Shorty Templeton, Jimmy Caruthers, Sleepy Tripp, Larry Rice, Sheldon Kinser or Jim Hurtubise and was unaware front-engine racecars still roamed the earth or that the Indianapolis Speedrome carried such significance in open-wheel racing.
But all those eras and history came together Saturday night in a cool little package of old days meets new wave as Chaves made a most impressive debut driving a midget in the Tony Stewart Classic.
After the drivers mentioned above, along with Roger Penske, Clint Brawner, Lindsey Hopkins, Butch Hartman, Fred Lorenzen and Don Kenyon, were inducted into the USAC Hall of Fame in a ceremony on the front stretch at the legendary eastside oval track, Chaves took a trip back in time when Indy drivers raced midgets and sprint cars.
The IndyCar Series rookie started 11th and charged to third before the 100-lapper was stopped with 25 laps remaining. Then the top three were given a choice to drop to the back of the pack and, if they could win, an extra $10,000 would be added to their payout.
Leader Kyle Hamilton and second place Grant Galloway declined the bonus money offered by Shepherd Insurance but Chaves asked the small but enthusiastic crowd to weigh in and, after hearing their cheers, he opted to give it a try.
“It was worth a try and it was fun,” said Chaves, who managed to get back to fifth place by the checkered flag. “I needed a yellow in those last 25 laps to have any chance but that’s OK, I had a great time.
“And I’m really glad I did this. Now I want to try it on dirt.”
The personable 22-year-old Colombian was approached about running a Honda-powered car by Jeff Barrow of Honda Performance Development. Honda, Mopar and Ford all have engines in a USAC Ignite spec series and that’s what Chaves drove, although he gave away about 150 horsepower to the cars running Saturday night with “national” midget engines.
“The first shock was seeing the engine in the front when I went for a seat fitting and the crew all laughed at me,” he said with a chuckle. “Then you’re sitting straight up instead of lying down, you only have one gear and you push down on the throttle instead of against it.
“Everything was so different and the first few laps of practice on Friday I wondered what I was doing out there but than I began to figure it out and I really liked it. At the end of the day, it’s just another racecar and you drive it as fast as possible.”
Other than Ed Carpenter and Bryan Clauson, today’s Indianapolis 500 field is void of short-track racers that plied their craft at Winchester, Salem, Terre Haute and Eldora and Chaves was interested to hear about all the former USAC stars that also raced at The Speedrome.
“I wish it was still like those days when you could race every weekend, because it keeps you sharp and I just love to drive,” said the 2014 Indy Lights champion who has really impressed IndyCar owner Bryan Herta this season with his steady, heady driving. “We had the weekend off and I think my girlfriend (also named Gabby) would have liked to do something a little more romantic but she was fine with this and I’m really glad it worked out.”
Penske gave Chaves a bit of a double take when he saw him in uniform but the reaction of the paddock and fans was the best public relations IndyCar could have imagined, even though it had no presence at the track to support its driver.
But the other midget racers appreciated Gabby’s willingness to go outside his comfort zone and try something different and many of them shook his hand following the race as a show of thanks.
And, while there weren’t a lot of fans in the grandstands, it sounded like several of them might have a new favorite IndyCar driver. “I grew up with A.J. and Parnelli and I’d never heard of this Gabby guy,” said Don from Indianapolis who was sporting a Sammy Swindell T-shirt. “But he showed me tonight he was a racer so he’s got a new fan.”