One of the first stars of the MAZDA Road to Indy, Gabby Chaves is in the midst of an impressive rookie campaign in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Chaves, 22, earned a scholarship and a ride with Bryan Herta Autosport following a 2014 championship run in Indy Lights. In his first 11 races, the Columbian has impressed, completing all but 17 of the first 1,307 laps and finishing inside of the top 20 in every race, including two top 10s at Belle Isle and Texas Motor Speedway.
In an exclusive interview with Frontstretch, Chaves takes the time to discuss his rookie campaign to date, including the quirks of driving for a one-car team, the difficulties of adapting to the new aerokits and the excitement of running the Indianapolis 500.
Aaron Bearden, Frontstretch: For the average IndyCar fan, who doesn’t know you very well, give us a quick rundown of yourself. Who is Gabby Chaves?
Gabby Chaves: I’m Gabby. I was born in Bogota, Colombia. I moved to the United States when I was eight years old, so most of my life has been spent basically living as an American. I went to elementary school, middle school as well we high school all here in the U.S. I come from a lot of American backgrounds, as well. All of my family is from South America.
I got into racing when I was 11 years old in go-karting. The family background on that was my grandpa started local racing in Colombia, you know, as kind of a weekend warrior kind of thing. After that, my uncle started racing more in a professional way. Even my mom and my aunt were racers as well, so it kind of runs in the family. We’re very big motorsports fans.
Again, I started racing when I was 11, I got into go-karts, and kind of made my way up from there. Now I’m enjoying my first season in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Bearden: Before you got to IndyCar, you started in the MAZDA Road to Indy, racing Pro Mazda and Indy Lights. How did everything come together for you, and how has your experience been so far?
Chaves: I spent three years in the Road to Indy, one year in Pro Mazda, two years in Indy Lights, winning the championship in Indy Lights which helped me move on to the IndyCar Series, with the scholarship there.
The experience has been very positive – tough at times, but always positive – always getting good experience out of it and adding to that learning curve. Obviously, as a team and a driver we’re looking to keep growing, keep improving every time we’re on-track. That’s the main focus right now. We want to see results. We want to know that we’re moving in the right direction and we’re always moving forward. So far it’s been a great experience with a lot of learning, but always in a positive way.
Bearden: Bouncing off of that, how would you say your rookie year has been? More specifically, how has the learning curve been for you?
Chaves: I mean, a lot of what’s happened, I expected, so I was a little bit prepared for what’s happened. A lot of it I wasn’t prepared for as well. You kind of go along with whatever’s going on and you try to get the best out of it, get the most experience and learn as much as you can from it.
I would say the year so far has been a tough year. Being a one-car team, and being a rookie, it’s never an easy task, but as a team, and myself personally, I think we’ve done a pretty good job handling each specific issue each race as best as we can. You just keep learning every time out, and I think we keep improving.
We’ve led the rookie standings from the first race of the championship, and we intend to keep leading those standings after the championship’s over and win rookie of the year. It’s one of our goals. It at least shows that as a rookie, we are the best team in that stage. Ultimately, this is a small goal. It’s not the real goal. That’s to try to get out there and race for the podium every weekend. That’s what we’re shooting for, but obviously we know that it’s a process, and we just want to make sure that we’re still on-task to do that.
Bearden: You mentioned being on a one-car team, working with Bryan Herta Autosport and Honda this season. How challenging has it been operating as a one car team when you’re competing against the Penskes and Ganassis of the series?
Chaves: It’s a unique experience. It’s usually harder than it is easier. Obviously, we’re very limited on what we can do during the race weekend, when you’ve only got one or two practice sessions before you’ve gotta go to qualifying. When you’re going up against guys that have more experience or four drivers on a team, it’s very easy to fall behind in development.
That’s been the toughest part, but I think it’s part of the challenge. I think it’s part of growing in the sport, both as a driver and a team, so we do what we can to make the best of it. We try to maximize our time and be as efficient as we can. When we do things right, we’ve proved that we can be very competitive.
Bearden: Up until the most recent race at Fontana, you’d completed all but four laps on the season, which is really impressive. Has that surprised you, or was that what you expected coming into it?
Chaves: I’m not sure. I mean, I think that if you can have a first season where you finish every race, you’re constantly putting in laps, putting in miles, it’s just going to help that learning curve be a little bit quicker. To kind of expedite things on that, you can’t learn and keep progressing if you’re not finishing races and you’re crashing out. It’s always part of our goal to do the best with what we have, and part of that is finishing races so that we can improve and see where we’ve got to improve for the next races.
Bearden: You mention your goals and working with what you have. What kind of goals did you set for yourself in the preseason? Was your goal to get rookie of the year, to run up front? What were the team’s expectations entering the season?
Chaves: We have a lot of goals and objectives. Obviously the rookie of the year is a good one, but I think ultimately we just want to go out there and challenge for podiums and top fives, and eventually wins every weekend. We’re prepared, and we know that it’s going to be a process. We weren’t by any means expecting to go out there and win our first race, but that is the goal.
Bearden: What things have you surprised yourself with so far this year?
Chaves: I think we’ve been pretty competitive. We’ve gotten things right all around. I expected that when we were doing well we’d have a top-10 car, and we’ve done that, but sometimes we’ve been doing well enough that we can break into the top five and almost challenge for podiums when the car is really good and things are going right. It surprised me in a positive way. We haven’t had as many weekends as we’d like, but I think it shows some potential for the future that we can do it constantly and consistently.
Bearden: How much do you think it says about your BHA team that you’re able to go out on a good day and compete with the top organizations?
Chaves: I think it just shows that the team’s motivated. We know we’re a small team, and it doesn’t make it any easier for us. It just shows that we know what we can do, we know how to do it. It’s just a matter of being able to do it consistently every time out, and not just every few races.
Bearden: On the flip side, what is it that you feel you’ve struggled with this year and need to improve on?
Chaves: I think we’ve had some trouble just finding a direction in general. Some of the tracks we’ll get to and we’re not even in the ballpark from the very first session. That’s not so much of a problem when you’ve got a whole day to practice, but most these race weekends, we’ve only gotten one or two practice sessions to work with, and then you go straight to qualifying.
When you start the race weekend behind the 8-ball, it’s very hard to get out of that hole and catch up. We’ve struggled with that a little bit this year, but we expected that we were going to have some of those weekends. We just have to move forward.
Bearden: Do you just think that’s a result of the team not having a lot of time together with you, with it being your first year?
Chaves: I just think it’s lack of miles and lack of on-track time. If we had a really nice, long preseason, we would have a better idea of what we need everywhere we go, but we went into the season with just two test days, which is not a lot. It’s very hard to get an idea of what we need to do, and that wouldn’t have been a problem if I had raced with this team last year. The problem is when you come into a series that has new aerokits, new engines, everything basically new and open for development this year, all of the sudden your job is 20 times harder than it was.
That’s the problem. We can’t go off of anything the team has worked with in previous years. We’ve gotta come up with something new at every racetrack we go to, because we’re not working with the same packages.
Bearden: You came in as the Indy Lights champion from last year with Belardi Racing. How have the cars compared, especially with the move to the new aerokits?
Chaves: Overall, it’s just a faster car from every angle that you look at it. It has more power, faster acceleration, higher top speed. You’ve got more downforce, so you’re going to have more speed and grip through the corners. A lot more G-forces are going to hit you (in the cockpit), so it’s gonna feel heavier, it’s going to be physically a lot harder to drive. You’ve got better, stickier tires, so it’s going to be more physical. You need to be more prepared to drive the car, and the races are longer, so that’s harder still. You’ve got pit stops, so there’s a lot more team strategy as well.
From every angle you look at it, it’s a completely different monster that you’ve gotta deal with, but I think it’s a great challenge for a driver to step up and try to adapt to the new car.
Bearden: How have you grown with your team? Have you guys grown closer, and do you have any fun stories?
Chaves: Absolutely. I spend almost every day of the week at the team shop. I spend time with the engineers, the mechanics. I think we have good working chemistry. I feel like that’s always a good, positive thing for a working atmosphere and environment, and you know the guys you’re working with are by your side.
Bearden: What’s been your favorite memory of the season so far?
Chaves: Hmm. I want to say probably being on the grid before the start of the Indy 500. Just kind of looking up and seeing 400,000 people there to see you race was definitely a life-changing moment for me. I remember that very well, and probably will for the rest of my life. The very first time debuting in the Indy 500 is a very important memory.
Bearden: What was that like, making your first laps at Indianapolis? I know it’s one of the more challenging and fast tracks on the circuit. What was it like to run on that hallowed ground in an Indycar?
Chaves: It’s fantastic. It’s a life-changing experience. I’ve ran there before in Indy Lights, won there before in Indy Lights, so I have an idea of what I’m dealing with, but you’re not prepared for the emotional part that comes with it when you see 400,000 people around you, watching you. 32 cars on the grid running 230 mph is something you can never be prepared for.
Bearden: What are your plans moving forward? Do you have anything lined up for 2016 yet, or are you only focusing on the end of the year?
Chaves: Right now, we’re focused on this season, on trying to end the season on a high note with some strong results. But moving forward, we’re committed to trying to build a future with the team, and trying to see where that goes. Obviously nothing is set in stone, and we want to do what’s best for me as a driver and for the team as well. We’ll see where it goes, but hopefully sooner than later we can know what we’re going to be doing.