Mikhail Aleshin

INDIANANPOLIS – When Bill Vukovich was dominating the Indianapolis 500 with back-to-back victories in 1953 and ’54, he was known as “The Mad Russian.” It was an inaccurate nickname considering Vukovich was born in Fresno, California, and of Serbian descent – not Russian.

When Mikhail Aleshin of Moscow walked onto the starting grid of the Indianapolis 500 in 2014, he was the first true Russian to compete in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” an accomplishment so big in his homeland, it was the first Indianapolis 500 televised in Russia.

Aleshin is back for his third Indianapolis 500 this weekend with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, qualifying 13th for Sunday’s race with a four-lap average of 230.271 mph in the No. 7 SMP Racing Honda.

Aleshin continues to gain fans and make friends in the United States with his fearless nature behind the wheel.

“The response has been great from the beginning and I have no idea the reason for that,” Aleshin said. “It was definitely very nice for the people who supported me so much and I always felt that support from the people cheering for me. It makes you stronger because I feel that support inside the race car and I’m very thankful.”

Team co-owner Sam Schmidt knows the reason for Aleshin’s popularity in the United States. It’s called “raw speed.”

“The first time we did the rookie test Mikhail was flat (on the accelerator) the fourth time by,” Schmidt recalled. “We had to slow him down to get within the rookie parameters. He is not intimidated.

“Now, after California Speedway he has a lot more respect what can happen.”

What happened at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California, was a massive crash in final practice for the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series finale. Aleshin sustained a concussion, fractured ribs, a broken right clavicle and chest injuries.

He would miss the 2015 Indianapolis 500 recovering from the injuries before climbing back into the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda for the final race of the season at Sonoma Raceway. Aleshin returned for the full season in 2016, finishing 15th in points and winning the pole and finishing second at Pocono Raceway.

Although Aleshin never competed in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires ladder system, Schmidt knew Aleshin was a fast driver from his European racing success.

“You don’t get through the European ranks and win Formula Renault 3.5 over (current Formula One driver) Daniel Ricciardo and you don’t have the resume he does without being talented, period,” Schmidt said. “So we knew he would be talented. Now, he is energized, poised and focused on being able to win races. I think this is going to be a great year for him.

“He has no distractions. He is totally committed. He loves living in Indianapolis. I think he enjoys INDYCAR racing even more than Formula One because there aren’t all the distractions and politics involved.”

Aleshin started racing go-karts in Russia at 7, but auto racing was not very popular then in Russia, so he went to Europe. Aleshin showed raw speed and made his way through the ranks from go-karts in the European championship, up to Formula Renault 3.5, A1GP, GP1 GP2 and finally testing for several Formula One teams.

“I knew at some point I wanted to do something else like INDYCAR,” Aleshin said. “Together with my support from Russia, that’s how I got here.”

Schmidt gave Aleshin his chance and it has developed into an impressive combination. The driver led 33 laps at Mid-Ohio last season before being involved in an incident on pit road. In the next race, he started on the pole at Pocono and led 87 laps before finishing second to Team Penske’s Will Power.

He has created interest in the Verizon IndyCar Series in Russia and calls the Indianapolis 500 is the “Olympics of Auto Racing.”

“Everything you do with Mikhail is unique,” Schmidt said. “He has a great sense of humor. He has that old-school attitude; he just wants to race. He wants to dice it up and have a good time. He has no intimidation whatsoever on the ovals. He has the ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I think you are going to see some really good things from him this year.”

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