Leist aims to turn rookie growing pains into 2019 gains

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Matheus Leist remembers arriving in the NTT IndyCar Series last season with the confidence that the 19-year-old rookie could challenge for wins.

He had tested well before the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, where the young Brazilian qualified an impressive third in the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet for AJ Foyt Racing.

But then, in Leist’s own words, it all went downhill.

His debut ended after 16 laps, when he crashed out in last place, 24th. Leist soon realized the learning curve in this series is quite steep and unforgiving. And there was so much more to learn than he had ever imagined.

He finished the season 18th in the points with his best result an 11th at Pocono Raceway. Perhaps the highlight to his baptism was qualifying 11th for his first Indianapolis 500 and completing his dream race with a 13th-place finish.

Working alongside one of the series’ most established veterans in 44-year-old Brazilian Tony Kanaan, Leist started to understand better so many facets of how to adjust a car and communicate what he needs on race day.

“We knew it would be a long year of development for us (trying) to be running back at the top,” Leist said. “It’s something that takes time. Everyone knows that INDYCAR is a pretty tough championship. It has the best of the best. We really have to be 100 percent to be competing against these guys at the front.

“When you get to INDYCAR, there’s so many things that you can develop in a car that I had no idea (about). I had to learn a lot from (Kanaan). I’d say from the 500 on last year, I already had my own mentality and pretty much what I wanted to race with and what kind of car I like.”

The offseason included extensive time in a Chevrolet simulator at Charlotte. Kanaan was with him, explaining the nuances of how a car handles and what the young driver must communicate to the crew.

“It was a great year in terms of developing the car, learning where we couldn’t go, basically what we couldn’t try with the car,” Leist said. “Besides that, we’re just looking forward to 2019 as a better year.

“We know our main focus is the Indianapolis 500. It’s a race where we had a pretty good car last year. We had a great race. Tony led some laps. He had a pretty good car to win. My car was pretty good, too. So we’re looking forward to the 500 this year and just looking forward to continuing to develop the car. There’s still a long way to go. Then 2020, our main focus will be running in the top 10, hopefully top five, in most of the races.”

Leist noticed how motivated crew members were when team owner and Indy car’s all-time leading winner Foyt attended the races. The boss is expected to be at this weekend’s St. Petersburg opener, his first race weekend in attendance since last June.

Working for a legend, whose record 67 career victories included four Indianapolis 500s, Leist understood why everyone toiled so feverishly to meet the icon’s approval.

Foyt doesn’t need to tell his drivers that the Indy 500 means more than anything. Leist already thought that way as he anticipated his first experience in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“It was a new experience, a new time, a lot of things to do, was the first time I was pretty busy like every day,” he said of the two-plus weeks of practice, qualifying, appearances and the race. “Besides the track, there were media things. We were really, really, really busy. It’s hard because you have to focus on a lot of things, not just racing. But at the same point, I think I had a great time and I learned what I had to learn.

“I’m feeling way more prepared for this year’s 500. As a kid growing up, my dream was to race in the 500, but not just be there, be a 500 winner one day. That’s my focus now. I’m going to be working hard all the time until that day comes.”

As prepared as he thought he was for that race, much like his rookie year, Leist soon understood a driver must experience the Indy 500 to have a greater understanding.

“You go to race day and think you’re ready to race,” he said. “But when the race starts, you realize you’ve never been to that track, you’ve never been in Turn 1 with 33 cars. It’s a new surprise every lap. You’re always learning something new. You go into that race and I’ve never done six pit stops before. It’s mentally tough. You get to the end of the race and you’re mentally tired.

“You’re never going to be ready for that race until you’re in the race.”

The Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is the first of 17 races on the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule. Ticket information is available at gpstpete.com.

A pair of Friday practices (10:45 a.m. and 2:20 p.m. ET) and a Saturday morning practice (10:25 a.m.) from the Florida temporary street course will stream live on INDYCAR Pass, the direct-to-consumer product from NBC Sports Gold. Sign up for INDYCAR Pass at the discounted yearlong price of $49.00 by March 10.

NTT P1 Award qualifying, consisting of three knockout rounds concluding with the Firestone Fast Six, begins at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Pass. The 110-lap Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg airs live Sunday on NBCSN (12:30 p.m.) and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network (1 p.m.).

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