He reminds Pancho Carter of Sam Hornish on an oval. Michael Cannon thinks he favors A.J. Allmendinger in the talent department. And Dale Coyne isn’t sure who to compare his resplendent rookie to, but he knows they don’t come along very often.
Nineteen races into his IndyCar career, it’s safe to say that Santino Ferrucci has made quite an impression on his spotter, his engineer and his car owner, along with making a whole lot of new fans with his aggressive style and perpetual smile.
All of Ferrucci’s good features were on display Saturday night at Gateway, where he led 97 laps and could have scored his initial victory with a little help from the caution gods and a better final pit stop.
As it was, he showed his rear wing to the Big 3 most of the evening and made his usual assortment of passes and saves before having to settle for fourth place in his Cly-Del Honda. But for a driver who is just 21 years old and was a virtual unknown prior to 2019, Ferrucci has been the most pleasant surprise of the 2019 season. Even if his team had no clue about him.
“With that name, I thought he was a foreigner,” chuckled Carter, the former USAC champion and IndyCar regular who spots for Santino on the ovals.
“Never heard of him,” said Cannon, who has helped develop Patrick Carpentier, Mario Dominguez, Simona de Silvestro, Ed Jones, Conor Daly and Allmendinger. “But the minute he got in our car at Detroit last year, he was impressive. He’s right there with Dinger.”
“We looked at his resume and it was OK,” said Coyne, breaking into a grin. “But it didn’t look like this.”
What it’s looked like is a kid that’s completed all 1,897 laps of competition, never crashed, probably passed more cars than anyone, captured Rookie of the Year honors at Indianapolis, and raced hard and clean with his peers.
Yet its his prowess on ovals, on which he’d never turned a wheel on until last May, that has made this former F1 test driver such a surprising story. Asked if recalled anyone from a road racing background catching on to ovals any quicker, Carter didn’t hesitate. “Yeah, Sam,” he said of the 2006 Indy 500 winner and three-time IRL champ who became the master of the 1.5-mile ovals in the days of pack racing.
“Santino reminds me a lot of Sam, because he’s brave enough to go to the outside. Sam always ran a little higher to keep that part of the outside groove dusted off, and then he could keep one wing in clean air and make a run. Santino did that on Saturday night, but late in the race couldn’t keep the outside dusted off by himself.”
Coyne adds: “The big surprise is how good he’s done on ovals. (Felix) Rosenquist has done OK on ovals, but this kid has come here and lit the world on fire on ovals. Oval racing is a state of mind. He’s carefree about it; that’s what you’ve got to be. Try to analyze, go nowhere. Got to feel what’s all around you.”
Cannon marvels at the Connecticut native’s simplicity. “He’s delightful to work with. He listens, and you tell him something in passing, and it sticks. We went to Pocono with a baseline setup and made two tiny changes, and that was it. We came here and made one change all weekend. I can go sit in a corner and take a nap.”
Carter agrees. “He’s always asking questions and he listens. [At Gateway] he was asking three laps before the green if he could go three-wide, and I told him it depends on how fast you’re going.”
It was quite a tribute to Coyne’s little team that Ferrucci and Sebastien Bourdais were running 1-2 and pulling away halfway though Saturday night’s race. Craig Hampson, Oliver Boisson and Cannon combine for a great engineering punch, while Todd Phillips and Roy Wilkerson head a solid mechanical effort that also includes much improved pit stops over the past few years.
The cool thing about IndyCar is that sometimes a good setup with a hungry driver and savvy team can offset the budgets and experience of Penske, Ganassi or Andretti. After stalking pole-sitter Newgarden and Will Power for 50 laps, Ferrucci flashed into the top spot – passing JoNew, Power, Alexander Rossi, Simon Pagenaud and James Hinchcliffe during his charges – and never hesitating to try that tricky outside line on the tight 1.2-mile oval.
“The kid has good, quick hands,” said Carter. “Three times [at Gateway] he should have crashed – twice in last 10 laps of the race. He tried too hard and got up in gray, and saved it trying to run guys down that were ahead of him.”
That included Newgarden, and as they battled for fourth place in the closing laps. After saving his car, he was fighting for control and came right back down in the Turn 4 groove in front of JoNew, who went over the rumble strips and spun trying to avoid contact. Santino apologized to the 2017 IndyCar champion afterwards, and received a lecture about blocking on ovals.
But Ferrucci’s driving was complimented at Indy, Texas and Pocono so everyone is entitled to a rookie mistake, and the way he catches on it would seem like he’ll file that under ‘lesson learned’.
And it certainly doesn’t diminish or dampen what this kid has accomplished in 2019. He came to IndyCar with a sullied reputation from Europe, but has been delightful to the fans and media, and seems to fit right into a paddock that had no idea what he could do behind the wheel.
“Of all years to come in as a rookie, against Colton (Herta), (Felix) Rosenvquist and Marcus (Ericsson) he can hold his head high and that’s pretty cool,” said Cannon, whose driver now leads the rookie points with two races remaining. “He’s bloody impressive, low maintenance and fun to be around. He’s got infectious enthusiasm and that’s not an act. He’s a good guy and good little peddler.”
Coyne, who says he wants to re-sign Ferrucci for 2020, gave the kid a chance and is being rewarded with one of his most enjoyable seasons in four decades. “He’s a great kid, and it’s been a lot of fun. He was the class of the field [at Gateway]. We just didn’t get the win.”