Of all the things I had on my Indy NXT by Firestone bingo card heading into the new season, “Abel Motorsports takes front row start and Jacob Abel nearly wins the first race” was nowhere to be found.
As an Indy Lights rookie last year, the Kentucky native produced no poles, no fastest laps, no podiums, and no wins on the way to placing eighth in the standings among the 11 full-time entries, and to be honest, the 22-year-old didn’t give many signs to suggest he was ready to dance with the series’ best.
Under no illusions where he stood among the leading junior open-wheel drivers, the Louisville native used his offseason to gain more experience –the racing equivalent of going to summer school — by heading to New Zealand and racing in the Toyota Formula Regional Oceania Championship where he finished third; Charlie Wurz, the son of former Formula 1 driver Alex Wurz, took the title.
All of Abel’s extra miles of competition Down Under, along with the strengthening of Abel Motorsports’ Indy NXT program, made for a powerful combination as the series’ two powerhouse teams in HMD Motorsports and Andretti Autosport had no answers for Abel’s No. 51 entry at St. Petersburg.
Starting second, Abel ultimately led 27 laps of the 40-lap contest, survived a late restart — held onto the most sideways Indy NXT car I’ve seen in many years — and secured third to record his first podium. It wasn’t the win that he wanted, but if the team can hold onto its form at the upcoming races, Abel is destined for a trip to victory lane.
“I’d honestly be lying if I told you I wasn’t a little bit surprised with our pace,” Abel told RACER. “But that’s the glory of having a new tire; it just levels everything. Going down to New Zealand for five weeks and learning new cars, new tracks, and different tires there, too, has been helpful in coming back to Indy NXT.
“It helped me to sharpen up my adaptability sword. I’m super happy with this and really hoping we can carry this pace and the rest of year and have a have a chance to win. Leading 27 laps really doesn’t matter if you don’t lead the last one.”
Loaded with veteran talent, Abel Motorsports was the beneficiary of Belardi Auto Racing’s closure a few years ago which brought team manager John Brunner and race engineer Kent Boyer to the outfit. For good measure, the team also brought in Mark Weida — a race engineer with multiple Indy Lights championships who recently worked with Linus Lundqvist — to stack the deck with talent to open the new season.
“I’ve always been confident in our team, and maybe some of the reason everybody hasn’t seen it is because I’ve been improving myself as a driver,” Abel said. “And now, to finally be able to share what the team’s capable of, is really cool. My engineer Kent Boyer has won 1000 Indy Lights races, so it’s good to have someone like that in my corner who, when we go out and start leading races, it’s not a shock. Big things are ahead for Abel Motorsports.”
Abel isn’t ready to make any announcements, but the family-owned and-funded team is known to have its eye on the NTT IndyCar Series. Having sparked to life in 2017 and fielded entries at every level of the American open-wheel ladder, Abel Motorsports has been a steady example of constant upward movement.
“It’s just like the step up to Indy Lights,” Abel said. “It’s always a big jump with personnel, engines, tires, and all this stuff. It’s just another level, and it’s amplified. When you think about going to the IndyCar Series, it’s definitely a dream of ours, me and my father, to have a team in that series. And who knows, maybe one day when my training is done, it could be a place for me.”