Spencer Pigot has shown enough promise in racing primarily on road and street courses for two years to earn a full-time Verizon IndyCar Series ride with Ed Carpenter Racing next season, the team announced today.
“It’s nice to know that they believe in me and I can provide them with the results that they want,” said Pigot, who will replace JR Hildebrand in the team’s No. 21 Chevrolet. “There’s no other team I want to be with right now. I definitely enjoy working with ECR and I was really hoping I would get to continue with this team.”
The 23-year-old driver from Orlando will make his 11th start this season in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet at Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, the 2017 finale. Pigot also drove in this year’s Indianapolis 500 for Juncos Racing in a one-off deal. He has shared driving duties in the No. 20 ECR car since June 2016 with team owner Ed Carpenter, who races on ovals and will continue to do so in 2018. The team has yet to announce who will drive the No. 20 entry on road and street courses next season.
Pigot has three top-10 finishes for ECR this year with a best of eighth place in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. The 2015 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut in 2016, competing in three races for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing before joining ECR for the final seven road/street events on the calendar. He collected a pair of top-10 finishes, including a career-best seventh place in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio.
“All decisions like this are always tough when you’re making a driver change, but for us, evaluating where we are as a team and where we’re trying to get to in getting back to being in the championship conversation, we’ve seen real progress from Spencer this year,” Carpenter said. “We feel like Spencer has gotten to a point where he needs to be in a car full time to continue his development. He’s made big strides in what we’ve seen internally from Year 1 to Year 2.
“We’re confident he'll continue improving because he’s shown continuous improvement in regards to his driving fast and race pace. Qualifying is the biggest area he needs to improve on and, quite frankly, we need to improve on as a team. Looking toward the future of where we’re going, it seemed like the right time to make this decision.”
Carpenter conceded it was “an exceptionally hard decision” in regards to Hildebrand, for whom he has great respect and appreciation.
“It was a tough decision, with our history with JR and everything he’s brought to our team and done for us,” Carpenter said, “but I’m excited to have Spencer be in a full-time situation and continue his development and hopefully winning races real quick.”
Hildebrand, 29, of Sausalito, California, will race at his home track of Sonoma Raceway this weekend in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. He’s driven for Carpenter since 2014 – on a part-time basis until this season – and delivered three top-10 Indianapolis 500 finishes for the team. He was also the 2011 Indy 500 runner-up for Panther Racing.
Given a full-time ECR ride this season, Hildebrand finished second in the Iowa Corn 300 and third in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix, but did not have another top-10 finish and is 15th in the points heading to the season finale.
Carpenter said Hildebrand would be his first choice for another Indy 500 entry next season if sponsorship can be attained.
“I still think a lot of JR and would love to have him be a part of the team if it was the right decision and if we can make it happen at Indy,” Carpenter said.
Although Carpenter considered his strengths closely aligned with Hildebrand, he sees a lot of himself in the understated and focused Pigot. The poster child for the Mazda Road to Indy, Pigot has the most wins all time in the three-tiered development ladder (24), won the 2014 Pro Mazda Championship presented by Cooper Tires the year before capturing the Indy Lights crown and earned four Mazda scholarships to advance through the system.
“A much younger version with less gray,” Carpenter said of Pigot. “As a 23-year-old, he has a better check on his emotions and demeanor outside of the car and inside of the car than what I did at that age. I hadn’t quite gotten control of my emotions and temper as well as him. He’s definitely a quiet guy, very focused and very serious.
“We see a ton of potential in him and really view him as being in a very similar place to where Josef (Newgarden) was when we first started working with him, relative to how he performs in the car and his feedback with the team and everything else.”
Before ascending to the points lead this season with four victories in his first year driving for Team Penske, Newgarden won three races in two years driving for Carpenter.
“It’s hard to find drivers that you feel like can be a championship-caliber driver that has what it takes to succeed in all phases and compete with the Scott Dixons, Josef Newgardens, Simon Pagenauds, Helio Castroneveses and Will Powers,” Carpenter said, referring to the top points drivers entering Sunday’s race. “Spencer is not there yet, but we do believe he has the potential to be one of those guys and that’s a big part of why we want to take the next step in his development and career arc and give him an opportunity to prove us right.”
Pigot is eager to deliver, particularly in gaining experience on ovals. He’s started the past two Indianapolis 500s presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, finishing 25th for Rahal Letterman Lanigan in 2016 and 8th this year for Juncos, the team with which he achieved his Mazda Road to Indy success.
“I’m still relatively early in my INDYCAR career,” Pigot said. “Hopefully I’m around for a long time. There’s definitely more for me to learn, especially on ovals, which I haven’t raced on regularly in a couple of years.
“I can’t think of a better place to be to learn on ovals than with this team and with Ed as my teammate. I’ve been to every oval the last two years, always watching and listening and being a part of things. It will be different competing. I’m looking forward to testing and getting back to racing on them.
“This is probably the earliest I’ve ever known where I’m going to be racing next season. It’s nice to continue the progression of my career, now into a full-time role. It’s definitely some weight lifted off the shoulders, and now I can fully focus on driving and performing rather than the other aspects of racing.”