Where's your father?
When IndyCar rookie Gabby Chaves walked out of an office for an interview at Nola Motorsports Park recently, the natural reaction was to think he was the son of one of the crew members for Bryan Herta Autosport rather than the sole driver for the team. The youngster was coming to say when Chaves or his engineer would be available, right?
Chaves, 21, looked considerably younger than his age and even sported a pimple. He is not the youngest driver on the IndyCar circuit — that honor goes to 20-year old Sage Karam, who competed in the Indianapolis 500 last year — but the thought of this cherubic-faced "kid" racing against veterans driving more than 200 miles per hour is jarring at first.
Until he starts talking, that is. There's nothing kid-like about his conversation.
"I just had motivated people around me," he said. "My family has always been 100 percent supportive. This is my life, really. I've sacrificed what I needed to get here, and now I'll try to be as determined as I can be and go after my dreams."
Chaves, a Colombian-American who was born in south Florida and lives in Indianapolis, considers himself mature beyond his years. It is the reality of participating in a sport as potentially dangerous as auto racing, a process that began when he took up Go-Karting as a pre-teen.
He enjoyed tennis and soccer back then, but they did not compare to getting behind the wheel.
"You are out there 11 years old driving 70 miles an hour, and all of a sudden it's not a broken hand or a broken leg that you're dealing with," he said. "You're playing with, not only your life, but other people's lives. Your mentality just has to mature a lot quicker, and I think that's what makes me ready to take on this challenge of leading a team like this."
Chaves earned his spot on the top level of IndyCar racing by winning the 2014 IndyCar Lights series, which is equivalent to Triple-A baseball. He tied British driver Jack Harvey in total points (547) and first-place finishes on the 14-race circuit, edging Harvey on the next tiebreaker with five second-place finishes to Harvey's one.
That razor-thin margin was enough to give him a shot at the pinnacle of his profession when most people his age are still in college. Instead of taking the traditional life route, Chaves, who graduated high school with honors, raced in Asia when he was 15 and competed for two years in Europe from 2010 to 2011.
His parents were with him for his Asian stint, but he lived on his own in Europe.
"They were life-changing experiences, not only from a racing perspective but in a human perspective," he said. "When you go to a third-world country in Asia, it's almost like you value everything a little bit more when you come back. I learned a lot."
Back in the United States, three years in the IndyCar minor leagues prepared him for his debut at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg (Fla.) on March 29. He finished 17th out of 24 drivers, ahead of fellow rookie Stefano Coletti of Monaco.
His team hopes for a better result on Sunday at Nola Motorsports Park. When Chaves tested with Bryan Herta's crew in December, both sides liked what they saw.
"I was the perfect match for (Herta's) team, and I really believe that he was the perfect match for what I need," Chaves said. "I couldn't have asked for anything better. I don't want to just do a year here and then be done with it. I want to have a long career ahead of me."
Chaves' makeup helped Herta's team look past his age.
"He's definitely a different person when he gets in the car," Herta Autosport race engineer Steve Newey said. "You don't think of him as being a kid when he's in there talking to you because he just downloads like a computer. He tells you exactly what he thinks — this is good, that's not good, I don't like this change or we should be doing this. That helps us. In the past, a younger guy wouldn't have a clue what to tell you to do."
Contending for a podium spot (top-three finish in a race) will be a challenge this season. Bryan Herta Autosport, which has been a full-time competitor for the past three years, is one of four teams fielding only one car per race in a expensive sport where the big three of Penske, Andretti and Ganassi have four cars, more money and scores of extra information as a result.
Herta's sole victory on the circuit was the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with Dan Wheldon, who died in a crash at Las Vegas later that year. Jack Hawksworth, Herta's driver in 2014, had only one top-five finish, placing third in Houston.
Penske's team alone had four of the top five finishers in St. Petersburg. In practice sessions, teammates can bounce ideas off of each other and compare notes on how the cars are driving.
Chaves does not have that luxury.
"When you look at Gabby Chaves, he's in a hard situation," 2014 IndyCar series champion Will Power said. "He's not able to look at any data or understand where he is quicker or slower. That's tough for him. The more cars you have, obviously the more information you have."
Half of the drivers on Sunday will be under age 30, so the sport is getting younger. Chaves carries that youth to an extreme, though, and he recognizes his responsibility. His goal is to be more than just the top rookie. He wants to do everything in his power to win races.
In other words, he cannot think like a typical 21-year old.
"You have to follow a proper diet plan, a proper fitness plan and have proper mental training," he said. "You can't be out there taking risks and going snowboarding every week. It's how much do you want it and what are you willing to give up to be the best you can be. You have to grow up faster than you'd like to." Guerry Smith/The Advocate