When it comes to the Verizon IndyCar Series field, there are typical rookies, and then there’s Max Chilton.
A native of Reigate, England, Chilton currently sits 16th in the IndyCar points standings after four races with Chevrolet’s Chip Ganassi Racing. Teammate to defending champion Scott Dixon, Chilton caught the eyes of fans and critics alike with a seventh-place performance in IndyCar’s return to Phoenix International Raceway, and currently holds the top spot in a rookie of the year battle featuring former part-timer Conor Daly and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi.
For a most rookies, a solid top 10 and an edge in the rookie battle would be plenty to smile about, but Chilton’s ambitions reach far beyond rookie of the year honors.
At just 25 years of age, Chilton already has a wealth of experience in the upper echelon of motorsport. The Briton has two years of experience competing on the Formula 1 tour, and has made starts in numerous marquee races, including the Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of LeMans.
As Chilton gears up for his first Indianapolis 500 start, Frontstretch’s Aaron Bearden caught up with him to discuss his experience transitioning from F1 to IndyCar, how preparing for Indianapolis has compared to the other major races he’s competed in, and what his expectations are for the rest of the year.
Aaron Bearden, Frontstretch: You came in last year from Formula One and moved over to Indy Lights. That was a major step for you. Was that a difficult step for you?
Max Chilton: I think it was more about realizing that my F1 time had come to an end. I’m not saying it’s over forever, but I’m enjoying racing in America. I soon realized that in America there’s a good chance of making a professional career, and the opportunity became available with Carlin to do it.
Originally, it was just testing. But then we did the first race, and it sort of went on from there.
The one frustrating thing about last year was that I missed three races because of LeMans. I think if I hadn’t have missed three races in the Lights series, I would have been a contender for the title in the end at (Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca), but that’s the way it goes.
I had a win on an oval, which was very unexpected, because the racing’s very different from the rest of the world, when it comes to racing on ovals. It was something I’d never experienced.
I hadn’t really ever looked into it. I’d never attempted to watch an oval race. But it went pretty well, and after I won at Iowa (Speedway), I had every team contact me but one, and we whittled it down to two.
I managed to get the team that I wanted. I’m really thankful to Chip (Ganassi) for giving me the chance. Racing in America’s been really good fun.
It’s still very competitive. I think used to think… Generalized throughout the world, people maybe don’t look at it as much – everyone hones in on F1. But I think it’s more competitive than any other series in the world.
There’s top drivers, and because everyone’s in a well made car, to the point where everyone’s got the same base car, you don’t really know who’s going to win each weekend, compared to F1, where it’s pretty predictable.
I’m enjoying it. I’m with a team that’s giving me a good chance. We’ve had a frustrating season so far, or at least frustrating in a way. We’ve got good speed. We had a really good oval race a Phoenix (International Raceway), qualified and raced well. That was good.
But, for example at Barber (Motorsports Park), we qualified 11th, which is not an easy track to go to in your first year in IndyCar and qualify well, but then I got hit on the first lap. The car had no aero for the rest of the race, and I ended up coming last because I had no downforce.
Things like that are frustrating, but you’re gonna get that sometimes. That’s the way it’s been so far.
Bearden: One of the big things for you this year has been learning after making the step up from Indy Lights. What have you learned in your first four races this season, working with teammates like Scott Dixon and Tony Kanaan?
Chilton: My teammates have been fantastic, all three of them. A lot of people forget about Charlie (Kimball), but he has six years of experience. He’s been really helpful. TK’s been very helpful. You know, he’s a champion, and has won the Indianapolis 500.
Scott, in my opinion, should have had time in Formula 1, because he’s the elite of the elite. He’s a very nice guy, and as professional as you get.
It’s great to have those kind of teammates to give you advice. I think between TK and Scott they’ve got 30 years of experience in IndyCar. Just having them around, giving me information along with Dario (Franchitti, CGR driver coach) as my sort of guider – he’s always on my stand at the races he comes to – it’s invaluable.
I don’t think the season has started amazingly well. We’re the fastest rookie team, so we can’t complain, but that’s not my overall focus this year.
My focus this season is to do well overall in the championship. I think things are starting to come together, that we may see, starting with this Month of May, that we have a few good races.
Bearden: The Month of May offers a chance to get things on-track for the season, but before the Indianapolis 500 comes the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. It’s strange for someone coming from F1, but it seems like you’ve struggled more on road courses than ovals thus far. Is this something you feel you can improve on in Indianapolis to build momentum for the 500?
Chilton: I don’t think there’s any momentum from the GP into the 500 because they’re completely different even though they’re at the same place, but I quite enjoyed the GP track last year.
I thought it was quite a good track. There are plenty of opportunities for overtaking. I had a pretty good weekend there. (Chilton finished fourth and third in the two Indy Lights races that weekend).
I definitely get momentum there, but it’s not like the season’s gone bad. I’m not saying that. We’ve had some bad luck, but sometimes you do create your own luck. Hopefully we can work harder and get there.
It is quite surprising that I’ve been better on the ovals so far. In my short time in America I’ve actually seemed to be better on ovals than road courses, which isn’t what I’d be expecting, but you can never predict the future.
We’ll keep working. The Month of May’s going to be very busy. We’ve got lots of days on the oval, and I’m super excited to run in the 500.
It’s amazing to be doing the 500 for the first time with the big hype of the 100th Running. I’m really looking forward to experiencing that, because I’ve never even been there to watch it.
Bearden: You’ve competed in a lot of big events in Formula 1 and elsewhere overseas, but the Indianapolis 500 is your first major American race. How does everything feel for you leading up to this race compared to others you’ve competed in?
Chilton: It’s amazing. I don’t think it’s really hit home yet. I’ll be standing in my RV for 3-4 weeks at the track, so I hope to just really suck up the atmosphere. It’ll be an amazing experience.
In my opinion, I think the biggest races in the world are the LeMans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500. I’ve been lucky enough to race in Monaco twice, and I did LeMans for the first time last year, and I’m going to be doing the Indianapolis 500 for the 100th Running with Chip Ganassi. I’ve had a chance to compete in the greatest races.
The Daytona 500 is obviously a big race as well, but the Indianapolis 500 is a lot bigger. I feel really grateful that Chip Ganassi and his team have given me the chance to have a go at it.
Bearden: You’ve competed twice on the road course at Indianapolis, but have never ran on the oval. That said, how important are the weeks of testing leading into the race, and what are your expectations?
Chilton: Last year I was in so much trouble, because my main focus was as an LMP1 driver for Nissan. I would do anything for them, so I was flying back and forth from LeMans simulator testing, and LeMans was around the time of Indy weekend last year.
I actually missed a lot of the open testing for that Indy Lights race last season, but I think I did alright on the weekend. We had 45 minutes of practice, and I figured I was going to be near the back. I qualified (seventh) and didn’t even get to start the race because I had a fuel issue.
It’ll be a little shock to the system, but from what I hear Carb Day, the Friday before the race, everyone sort of gets into a pair and simulates racing, sees how their car performs following another car and such.
The hype will be a lot different on race day, but hopefully I can simulate what it’ll be like on Carb Day and the days before.
Bearden: How much do you plan to lean on your teammates for this race? You have two 500-winning teammates in Dixon and Kanaan, and Kimball’s finished in the top five before.
Chilton: I’ve definitely got the right team around me, and I will lean on them. I’m going to soak up as much advice as I can.
I think I’m going to start things slow and steady, and try to work things out myself. If there are things I don’t understand, or if I want some guidance, I’ll ask, but I always think it’s best to go in and learn it yourself, and when there are things you don’t quite understand, you can ask.
Bearden: Expecting any funny gifts? Last season the team gave (then-rookie) Saga Karam a Camaro.
Chilton: I’ve actually just ordered a (Chevrolet) Silverado, which is the perfectly crafted to go on the back of my RV. I got the team to put the order in, and because I needed it so quickly I said, ‘Just get anything they’ve got sort of ready in a dark color’.
I’ve have a feeling they ordered it in dark purple or something. I’ll find out when I get there and see what color they’ve ordered it in. I’m sure there’ll be some sort of pranks along the way.
Bearden: What is your opinion on the safety of the sport? You’ve come from F1 where your Marussia teammate (Jules Bianchi) was involved in a tragic accident. Now you’re in IndyCar, and they’ve had their own share of issues in the last year. Is that in the back of your mind when you go to these races?
Chilton: Um… I think it’s in the back of everyone’s mind that races on ovals, because the speeds are escalated compared to those seen at road courses. When the speed escalates, the risk escalates.
I’ve said comments in the past. I’m not going to get into it all again. I’ve sort of expressed how I feel.
It’s something they’re working on. F1 is working on it. It’s one thing everyone should be working on continuously, and they’re making good progress.
Bearden: You’re in the midst of a tight rookie of the year battle with Conor Daly and Alexander Rossi. How important is it to you to win that battle?
Chilton: I would love to win it. There are some great names that have won it in the past.
That said, I’m coming from Formula 1. I’d like to think that I should be focusing on the overall standings, and not just the rookie of the year.
It’s fairly close right now, but I genuinely think I’ve had some bad luck. I should be further ahead than I am.
Bearden: What are your expectations for the rest of the season?
Chilton: I think I’d love some good results. I’d love some podium finishes. I think if you’re getting podium results, then you’re not far off of race wins, and that should put you into the top 10 in points. That’s what I’m working for.