Little about Ed Jones’ path back to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES fits the mold.
For starters, Jones spent pandemic-impacted 2020 studying rather than driving. He had intended – and signed – to drive an Audi in Europe’s DTM touring car series, but being based in Dubai restricted his travel, and his financial backers weren’t keen on being involved in a sports landscape turned upside down.
Jones used the time away from motorsports to prepare for life after driving, and that included taking online classes from MIT – yes, that prestigious academic institution – where he studied artificial intelligence and digital business management.
“Something I wanted to do to keep myself busy and learn something new,” he said. “Probably not what other drivers did.”
Jones also invested a significant amount of time sim racing, which he believes kept him sharp for his return to on-track action. When time came to start planning for 2021, Jones did something else unique to NTT INDYCAR SERIES drivers: He reached out to a former employer.
Dale Coyne was receptive to the call because he didn’t want to lose Jones in the first place. They had a stellar start to their partnership in 2017, with Jones delivering four top-10 finishes in his first seven races, including a third-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. In any other year, Jones would have been voted Rookie of the Year. Even with Fernando Alonso’s stellar month, Jones had a case to share the award considering he finished third with a hole in the car’s nose, which slowed his straightaway speed.
Coyne tried to keep Jones for the 2018 season, but Chip Ganassi and his championship-winning organization beckoned. Coyne understood Jones’ decision, just as he did last fall when Alex Palou left the team to join Chip Ganassi Racing.
“That’s not a bad thing; it’s a good thing,” Coyne said of losing drivers in such a manner. “People come to our team and want to prove themselves. Obviously, everybody wants to drive for Penske or Ganassi.
“If drivers can do a nice job with us and move up, that’s good for us.”
After the 2018 season, Ganassi hired Felix Rosenqvist to be Scott Dixon’s running mate, and Jones’ best option for ’19 was to share Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 20 car with Ed Carpenter, taking the road and street races while driving the team’s third car in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Jones’ results at ECR were mixed. He qualified fourth for the “500” but recorded only one top-10 finish in 13 races and was on the move again for 2020, a season that didn’t happen for him.
Still, Coyne viewed Jones as a driver with significant talent and untapped promise. When Jones, who turns 26 in February, raised his hand for the No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda of Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan, the three team owners jumped at the opportunity.
“He’s going to jump back where he left off with his consistency,” said co-owner Jimmy Vasser, CART’s 1996 champion and 10-time INDYCAR SERIES race winner. “You look at his numbers: Thirty percent of his INDYCAR starts have (finished) in the top 10. So, he’s a finisher.”
An interesting part of Jones’ oval perspective is that he enjoys them in all sizes, important since the 2021 season features with a pair of races in early May at Texas Motor Speedway, a high-banked 1.5-miler, and includes Indy in May and World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway in August, a short oval.
“To be honest, if I could race INDYCAR ovals every weekend, that would be my dream thing,” he said. “It’s something which I love to do.”
Coyne said Jones “is a very good racer on the ovals.”
This team has had some of the fastest cars at Indy the past four years, with Sebastien Bourdais setting a blistering pace in 2017 before crashing in Turn 2. Bourdais’ injuries forced him to miss nine races and thrust Jones, then a series rookie, into the challenging role of leading the team from the drivers’ side through the middle part of the season. Not having four-time INDYCAR SERIES champion Bourdais to share ideas with certainly didn’t help Jones.
Jones’ 2021 technical effort will be led by new engineer Ross Bunnell, whom he worked with in ’17. Coyne said Bunnell is “a diamond in the rough” and ready for the challenge.
Jones and the driver of the organization’s second car to be announced next week will begin testing next month. Jones will be ready.
“(Sitting out 2020) was a negative, but on the other hand it was a good time to reflect on things, get recharged,” he said. “As Dale said, we have unfinished business (together).”