INDIANAPOLIS — The magnitude of the Indianapolis 500 is such that it has spun off a series of milestone events that have captured the imagination of many. Whether they’re technically innovative, or simply appeal to pop culture, these “firsts” have long been a part of the aura of Indy.
The first rear-view mirror. The first woman to lead the race. The first turbine powered car. The first African American driver. These are just the tip of the iceberg.
This year a personable, 27-year old, might just add another milestone to that lengthy list. If Ho-Pin Tung makes the field for the 100th anniversary 500, he will be the first driver from the Peoples Republic of China.
Tung has already made history by being the first from that country to have entered the race, but he doesn’t want to end his Indianapolis venture with only that footnote for posterity.
“I am very excited to take part in the Indy 500,” Tung said. “The support for me in China has always been tremendous, and it’s a great honor to be the first Chinese driver ever to take part in this special race, especially being the 100th edition. But, I want to do more than be here. I want to qualify for the race, and make a good showing as well.”
While Tung is a virtual unknown in this country, he possesses solid racing credentials in high-speed, open wheel cars. He has 20 wins in various open wheel formula cars, runs the competitive GP2 series, and is in his second year as a test driver for the Lotus Renault Formula One team.
Despite that background, Tung realizes that gaining a spot among the starting 33 will be a tall order. It’s his IndyCar debut, and he’s battling a field of entrants that is larger and more competitive than any in recent memory.
Tung does have one advantage, however. He’s landed, along with fellow rookie, Scott Speed, with the highly regarded, reorganized, Schmidt Dragon Racing team.
The team has evolved from Luczo Dragon Racing, founded by Roger’s son, Jay Penske, and co-owner, Steve Luczo in 2007. They impressed a lot of people with their early performance, running Ryan Briscoe, and winning Indianapolis Rookie of the Year honors with Raphael Matos.
However, because of difficult economic times, Luczo Dragon Racing was on the verge of closing up shop. Then, former driver, and successful Indy Lights car owner, Sam Schmidt, intervened.
After competing as an Indy only owner the last few years, Schmidt’s long term plan has been to move up to IndyCar full time. So, he bought Luczo Dragon’s equipment and then worked a deal with Jay Penske to keep him involved.
Getting Tung into the lineup will do more than just set a cultural precedent for Schmidt Dragon Racing. It will also go a long way towards keeping the team viable.
“We are extremely pleased to have the opportunity to compete at Indy with Ho-Pin,” Schmidt said. “He did a fantastic job at the Sebring test and I’m confident we’ll be able to get him up to speed. To be the first team involved with a Chinese driver is huge. Our future success lies in our ability to generate commercial interest in our program, and what better way than to have a direct connection to the world’s largest population?”
“I realize it will be tough,” admits Tung. “But Sam Schmidt Motorsports has shown great results in the last few races at the Indy 500, and Jay Penske and the Dragon Racing team has proven they can deliver a highly competitive race car, so I am confident to have a good chance to qualify for the race.”
The next few days will determine if Ho-Pin Tung’s confidence will gain him a place in Indianapolis history.