Take one of the finest short oval drivers on the planet out of the USAC Silver Crown series, drop him into the middle tier of the Road to Indy training ladder on the Lucas Oil Raceway bullring, and Kody Swanson was either going to embarrass himself or embarrass the Indy Pro 2000 field. The 32-year-old Californian defied the odds and did the latter.
The five-time USAC champ traded his front-engine, Chevy-powered, Hoosier-made tubeframe Beast chassis for the little rear-engine, composite open-wheeler made by Tatuus in Italy with a buzzing Mazda motor over his shoulders, and went straight to the front. Winning on his RTI debut for Legacy Autosport, Swanson will get another chance to add to this intriguing career twist when the Indy Pro 2000 series gets rolling this weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway — formerly known as Gateway — on the NTT IndyCar Series undercard.
“I definitely view it as a challenge,” Swanson told RACER. “You know, it was great to have the success that we had at a Lucas Oil Raceway, but at the same time, this is a whole new thing on a bigger pavement track at 1.25 miles. The size of the track just enters a new realm for these types of cars, and the way they act, the way that they are affected by the air and the way the aero packages work. It’s going to be a whole new set of challenges for me to learn and for me to get comfortable with.
“So much about these cars, with the downforce and with them feeling so different to me, it’s just developing that trust and that comfort without a false sense of security, I’ll say. Trying to find that line where you can trust your car and where you can really build speed versus where you might be heading into trouble and not know it. I don’t feel like I’m coming in as the defending winner. I still feel like I’m definitely in my rookie orientation and trying to quickly learn as much as I can to do a good job for this team.”
Driving a car which relies on downforce for its cornering performance, and keeping the Tatuus pointed straight — no throwing this chassis sideways to make speed like a USAC machine — have been among the big learning curves for Swanson to process. So far, he’s looked like a Road to Indy veteran.
“They’re definitely different cars!” he said with a laugh. “Everything from the way you sit, to what you see, to how your body moves around and gets information from the car is different. Even the way the suspension works. I’m used to live solid axles, and these cars have an independent suspension and all of the unique variables that come with that; they fundamentally just act different.
“So to make a transition, I’ve definitely tried to do my homework as best I could, studying the relevant information of how far do you turn your hands and what’s normal there. I know that the way they build grip and transfer load is so much different. I didn’t want to get in a spot where I was too comfortable or too confident and have that downforce to fall back on.
“You don’t want to have the car go snap-loose on you, and have the car break away before you can catch it. I didn’t want to get in a bad spot like that. And fortunately I survived it — you know, a couple of intense moments, but just tried to do all I could to do my homework, to be prepared. At the same time it was great to be surrounded by great people that have had experience in the sport, even though Legacy is a relatively new team. There’s a lot of experience from all facets of the sport and the members of the team. So, I’ve been fortunate to make the transition that way.”
Swanson hopes to parlay all he’s learning on the Road to Indy and receive an invitation to sample one of the big cars on an oval. Competing in the Indy 500 is Swanson’s dream; following the time-honored tradition where the Bryan Clausons and Davey Hamiltons and so many others have risen from circle track stardom to earn a place in the field of 33 would be a perfect outcome.
“I definitely appreciate all the support from my fans, and there’s been some pressure there because, I guess for a period of time, there have been people thinking that I do deserve a shot or that maybe I could do it,” he said. “That goal has always been there to continue to progress with a career in racing. I moved to Indianapolis and it doesn’t get any bigger than the Indy 500. And that’s a tough leap to make, from Silver Crown racing and front-engine type cars with no downforce to something like that. So there’s been a few cases where drivers have got a chance to do it and maybe try to jump in Indy Lights. It’s been a goal of mine to try to get some sort of experience to at least try to prove that I could show the potential there.
“I don’t think it’s been any secret USAC racing has strong history on both the dirt and the pavement. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a pavement guy, even though the USAC series had been primarily dirt the last few years. I hope I do a good enough job with the Legacy team that the people realize there’s a lot of talented race car drivers, in our divisions especially, with the Silver Crown series that still runs on the pavement. There’s a lot of things you can learn in that series. I think that it’ll translate over, especially if you can get comfortable in these types of cars. I know there’s been a lot of people pulling for me. I appreciate it very much and just hope I do a good job for them and get more chances.”