INDIANAPOLIS – When Elton Julian made the commitment to bring his DragonSpeed racing team to the NTT IndyCar Series, he knew that the effort needed to get fully up to speed would be sizable.
It’s a challenge Julian and his staff are both embracing and relishing, as the Florida-based organization embarks on its maiden voyage at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month.
DragonSpeed, guided by Julian and 34-year-old British driver Ben Hanley, will attempt to make the field for the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500 during qualifying this weekend, the third event of a planned five-race NTT IndyCar Series schedule for the team which regularly competes in sports cars.
While trying to break into the field of 33 always brings with it a level of intensity, Julian – as a former driver himself – is keeping in mind the magnitude of what he and his team are doing this month at IMS.
“This is obviously quite special. We all know what the speedway means to most of us, because a lot of us grew up racing single-seaters, including myself, and this was a place that all of us in that category always dreamt of playing at,” said Julian. “I didn’t get the chance to do so as a driver, but I feel very fortunate now to come back and be here as an owner.”
Much of Julian’s crew is seeing and wrenching at IMS for the first time, but he has enlisted the help of several longtime veterans of Indy car racing to aid DragonSpeed in reaching competitive pace quickly.
“It’s early days. This is a great first experience; we’ve got a lot of newbies here at the speedway, but we also have some old talent with us,” Julian noted. “John Dick has joined us for the month, and we also have a few other Americans who aren’t normally with us that will help us to get up to speed a little quicker, I hope. We’re excited about this opportunity and it’s been fun getting started.”
Julian was also emphatic in backing up his choice of Hanley, who has been with DragonSpeed since 2016, as the team’s driver for the Month of May despite Hanley being a rookie to Indy cars.
“What made the decision to have Ben drive this month so obvious was the fact that he’s part of the team,” Julian noted. “We may change formulas, we may change cars … we change a lot of things, yes, but we try not to change too much. Having Ben’s relationship with myself, the chief engineer and the crew makes things a lot easier and allows us to just apply a different formula to what we already had.
“We wanted to try and eliminate as many (new) variables as possible, not to mention the fact that I think he’s worth it, having him in the seat.”
Hanley posted a top lap of 40.6235 seconds (221.547 mph) during Tuesday’s Opening Day practice session around the 2.5-mile oval, ranking 38th of 39 driver/car combinations that turned laps.
While many teams will be working on race setups at different times during the week leading into Fast Friday and qualifying weekend, Julian has a singular focus for his team: outright pace.
“There’s only one target: to qualify. That’s it,” Julian stressed. “Beyond that, then we worry about the week after that if we’re fortunate enough to be there, but qualifying is everything for us right now.
“I know a lot of the full-time guys and the bigger team owners have made a push to try and make sure that they’re in the show (with guaranteed spots) – and I understand their side as well – but from our side, we’re also racers and we want to get in the field just like they do. It swings in roundabouts here.”
Despite knowing that three drivers will be bumped from this year’s Indianapolis 500 field, with 36 cars fighting for 33 spots, Julian isn’t going into Saturday or Sunday with the weight of the world on his back.
“There’s no additional pressure; it is what it is,” said Julian. “Everyone has to come here under the same rules and with the same goal. Look at what happened to James (Hinchcliffe) last year, and remember that it’s happened to other, just-as-established people in the past. Even (Roger) Penske, back in the mid-90s, failed to qualify for this race … and he’s won it 17 times. It can happen to anybody.
“That’s part of the beauty of the Indianapolis 500.”
And Julian would consider it a beautiful weekend if DragonSpeed can muster a giant’s effort and qualify for The Greatest Spectacle in Racing in its maiden attempt.