The garages at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are a flurry of activity as teams from the NTT INDYCAR SERIES are hard at work, pushing their respective machines down Gasoline Alley and onto pit lane for last Saturday’s GMR Grand Prix.
Pre-race festivities make way to the thunderous roar of 27 engines firing and taking to the track’s 2.439-mile, 14-turn road course for the fifth round of the 2023 season.
Back at the garage area, though, a silence drowns out an area once buzzing with energy and the winding of air tools. Then comes the occasional clattering sound off in the distance from one of the bays. There is no sign above the door, only red banners hanging on the back wall as a handful of members dance around a Dallara chassis with wrenches and screwdrivers in hand.
This is Abel Motorsports.
Team Manager John Brunner finally has a moment to breathe after spending the majority of week running between Abel’s full-time team in INDY NXT by Firestone and this upstart one-off squad trying to make its NTT INDYCAR SERIES debut in the 107th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The chance to be still allows him some serenity with a cigarette in hand, looking every bit like a silhouette of Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke” as he continues to peer back through the bay door at his team’s hard work.
“It's been very interesting running back and forth,” said Brunner, exhaling a cloud of smoke like it’s lifting a temporary weight off his shoulders. “Luckily, the guys on the INDYCAR side that's here are very experienced, and we're just really still building. So, there hasn't been a ton of things; definitely getting lots of texts from both sides of needing something, but it's OK. I've tried to keep most of the focus on the INDY NXT series, and that changes pretty much, now.”
In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for the Indy 500-only entries to load in on the Monday leading into the event’s gamut of practice sessions. However, an opportunity to arrive early came at the recommendation of Chevrolet, the engine supplier of the team’s No. 50 entry driven by RC Enerson.
With the approval of INDYCAR, Abel Motorsports was able to unload into IMS last Thursday, the perfect gift to ignite its Month of May.
“Chevrolet came Thursday with engineers in the afternoon and actually started the car,” Brunner said. “We've been through gears, so some of the things that have been making my stomach a little uneasy made me feel better Thursday evening.”
Getting an early start helps provide an opportunity to get a jump on any potential mechanical issues that risk hindering progress to get Enerson through the Rookie Orientation Program (ROP) on Tuesday, May 16.
“Yeah, the gremlins are the problem,” Brunner said. “That's probably my biggest concern right now is do we have a little mechanical this mechanical that Tuesday; we've got a two-hour window to get through ROP … We have two hours, and if we can't get it done in those two hours because of something that's went wrong, then that moves us to the next day, which means we've lost three hours’ track time. That's the concern.”
The band of mechanics on Abel Motorsports’ NTT INDYCAR SERIES venture is full of veterans that have extensive experience in previous Indy 500s, many having been part of additional one-off entries for the likes of AJ Foyt Racing – where Brunner worked with a few in 2020 – and Dale Coyne Racing.
Brunner has brought in veteran Mike Colliver to be the lead engineer. Eric Peterson, who was on the timing stand as lead engineer for Enerson’s “500” effort in 2021 in which he failed to qualify, has come on to assist Colliver.
As for who will call strategy on the car, that remains a question.
“We're discussing it,” Brunner said. “I may do it or I may bring somebody else in to do it. We've not made a final decision on that. I haven't done it since '21, and before '21 I hadn't done it since 2010. That part's not huge, really. We'll make that decision here shortly.”
The emotions are tough to keep in check at times as this project for Abel Motorsports began to take shape back in January but accelerated after meeting with Chevrolet during the NTT INDYCAR SERIES weekend at Texas Motor Speedway in early April.
“It's been a lot of different emotion,” Brunner said. “Trying to get the deal done for as long as it took to get the deal done, I think I walked out of the Chevy office at the Texas race, and I didn't know if I was excited because I knew I got the deal done or if it was just an, 'Oh, (shoot). Now what?' It was like you're chasing, chasing and chasing and then you caught it, and then it's, 'What did you just catch?' All of the emotion has been pretty crazy.”
Brunner, a four-time veteran of the Indy 500 who has cut his teeth in the INDY NXT by Firestone paddock, doesn’t shy away from knowing the next week is the most challenging of the year. The focus is squarely on making the field of 33 and not being the lone entry to not participate in the race Sunday, May 28.
Everything is in place to give the small team a puncher’s chance during PPG Presents Armed Forces Qualifying on Saturday, May 20 and Sunday, May 21. However, everything has to go right from the start of the rookie test, scheduled for Tuesday but possibly delayed by a day due to morning rain in Indianapolis.
“Fingers crossed that the car just does what it's supposed to do, and we can get through that (ROP) program,” Brunner said. “That would be huge. I'm anxious to see the car on the track. My INDY NXT guys that have been working on this thing off and on for the past however many months, it was cool to see their faces when the car fired Thursday night because they felt it. You know, their blood and sweat are in this car.
“Even though we keep saying we're not going to affect the INDY NXT team, 'I'm doing this separate. I'm not going to mess you guys up.' These guys have worked their asses off for me. I already knew I had a great crew, but for them to work as hard as they have on the car and then we're handing it over to a completely different group of people, we're going to have a few INDY NXT guys on this crew because they've earned it. It's really their baby. My crew chief is going to be my INDY NXT crew chief because he's built this car, and Greg (Senerius) deserves that. It's going to be pretty cool.”