It takes dozens, if not hundreds, of people to help build successful race car drivers in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, but some of the people involved in the race wins, championship runs and Hall of Fame careers are driver coaches.
Coaches help drivers train throughout the week, prepare for race weekends, analyze on-track sessions, work on racing lines and much more. Jonatan Jorge works with Kyle Kirkwood and Benjamin Pedersen as they develop their racecraft in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires and try to build successful careers.
“It's one of those things where, for me, it's far more than just teaching people how to drive cars,” Jorge said. “I think that that is obviously a big part of it, but I would say it’s exploring and making them come to themselves as an individual in the sport, making them the best they can be without changing who they are. It reflects in the way they drive the car.”
As NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookie Kirkwood put it, if you’ve made it to North America’s premier open-wheel series, odds are you don’t need to be coached on your driving ability because you’ve made it to the top.
But that’s where mentors like Jorge differ from what you would expect from a typical driver coach.
Jorge expects the most out of the drivers who work with him under JJ Racing Development, which he started in 2009 and has tutored drivers such as Oliver Askew, Spencer Pigot, RC Enerson and more. The way Kirkwood describes it, Jorge doesn’t tell him what he’s doing wrong but instead teaches him how to try different things and styles of driving that he wouldn’t normally consider.
First order of business is total dedication on race weekends. That’s why when the series is on the road, Kirkwood stays with Jorge so the two can focus on the on-track product. When the NTT INDYCAR SERIES is paired with Indy Lights, Pedersen takes precedent in rooming with Jorge because he’s newer on the scene.
Kirkwood first began working with Jorge in 2016 when Jorge discovered him while he was serving as a judge for the Team USA Scholarship. From there, the two paired up, and Jorge worked with Kirkwood as he became the most successful driver in the history of the Road to Indy and tied Greg Moore for the most Indy Lights wins in a season at 10 last year.
“He has a very different way of doing things as a driver coach and what I would be used to or what most people would be used to,” Kirkwood said. “Jonatan's got a very different way of teaching drivers how to think and how to process things. And he kind of thinks outside the box on a lot of things, which is why it's crucial to have him around with our program. I think he makes it very easy for me.”
Kirkwood said Jorge excels during a chaotic race weekend when Kirkwood is bouncing between meetings and team obligations surrounding his No. 14 ROKiT/AJ FOYT RACING Chevrolet. Jorge will put together all the video and data needed to show Kirkwood where he went wrong in a particular area and make it digestible in five minutes so Kirkwood can quickly grasp what he needs to apply on the track.
“I think he's a major asset to have on to the team,” Kirkwood said. “He doesn't think anything like other driver coaches, which is why I really like having them around. There's not many people that can think like Jonatan.”
Jorge is even more involved in helping Pedersen grow as a budding NTT INDYCAR SERIES driver as he drives the No. 24 in Indy Lights for Global Racing Group with HMD Motorsports. Jorge has been instrumental in helping Pedersen become immersed in AJ Foyt Racing to observe Kirkwood and understand how an NTT INDYCAR SERIES team operates.
Jorge also serves as one of Pedersen’s spotters during races. Often Pedersen will hear Jorge’s voice in his ear telling him how to improve his driving through a certain corner or how to fix a mistake he just made.
This is just the second full season Pedersen has been a part of JJ Racing Development, joining last year for his rookie season in Indy Lights. Pedersen estimates he talks to Jorge during the week more than his parents or friends.
“He's a mentor to me in some ways, and he's a friend that we talk a lot together,” Pedersen said. “The amount of people he knows and what he understands about the sport is amazing. It helps me to learn what he's going through with Kyle, as well. So, it's just everything.”
Make no mistake about it: Jorge spends so much time with Kirkwood and Pedersen that he’s great friends with them and wants to see them succeed. And that might just be the key that makes Kirkwood and Pedersen feel like they struck gold with Jorge as their driving coach.
“Building that trust that we have is vital,” Jorge said. “We spend so much time together that we end up becoming best friends. While they're in the car, their personality shows through their driving style. So, the more we can understand each other on the track and understand why you do the things you do and what makes you tick, it just makes it easier. It helps to just stay ahead of what they're doing in the car.”
And as a former driver, Jorge knows how much is happening inside the cockpit and what is going through a driver’s mind. So, he attempts to think like them during an on-track session but also looks ahead to what they might want or need to know to help them reach their final destination. The only way for him to do that is to understand his pupils.
“When you are in the car, your brain is at capacity,” Jorge said. “It's essentially just making their brain bigger while they're driving. I find that is where the benefit really comes from. It’s teaching them how to separate priorities. It's so little to do with the actual driving the race car and everything else that comes with it in terms of mental preparation.”
Jorge insists he’s not the only one helping the future or current stars of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, nodding to fellow driver coaches Barry Waddell (Meyer Shank Racing), Bob Perona (Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Jack Harvey) and Lee Bentham (Ed Carpenter Racing). Indianapolis 500 legends Rick Mears and Dario Franchitti coach drivers with Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing, respectively, as part of their duties with their teams, and other former INDYCAR SERIES stars periodically work with current drivers.
But the way Jorge works, maybe it’s less about being a driver coach and more about being a friend, psychologist, mentor and support system for those looking to leave their mark in open-wheel racing.