On first meeting, his size is what’s most striking. Depending on which way the wind is blowing and what he’s eaten for lunch, Santino Ferrucci stands slightly north of 5 feet, 3 inches and weighs slightly south of 117 pounds.
You’ll notice other characteristics, too. The wild, ever-changing hair. The perpetual smile. The constant chatter. The artful tattoos. The confidence of a CEO. The handshake of a wrestler. The soul of an old man in the body of a 21-year-old.
But his diminutive frame is the immediate impression, and immediate impressions are almost always off a skosh. In Ferrucci’s case, they’re completely off. The kid is hardly small. Quite the opposite. Through the first half of his first season in the NTT IndyCar Series, he’s standing a few inches above an impressive group of rookies.
As he prepares for Sunday’s REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR at Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, Ferrucci is ninth in the series’ driver standings. That’s best among 2019 rookies, including talents like Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Ericsson, Colton Herta and Patricio O’Ward.
Earlier in the season, Ferrucci was finding his way with Dale Coyne Racing, adjusting to the different equipment and venues. Now, with a coveted rookie award and a season-best finish to his credit, he’s gaining steam.
“I feel like I’m in a much better place,” he said. “I’m starting to feel a lot more confident and comfortable inside the team and inside the paddock. I feel like I’m understanding how the weekends are playing out and how to adjust and fix the car with my engineer. I know what I want now going from track to track. All of that is coming together now.”
And, as Ferrucci’s engineer says often, don’t let his size fool you.
“He’s bloody strong,” said Michael Cannon, lead engineer on Ferrucci’s No. 19 Cly-Del Manufacturing Honda. “He’s probably about 5-foot-3 or 5-foot-4 and all of 120 pounds soaking wet. There’s a hard time finding enough room in the car to put ballast in to make the minimum weight (required by INDYCAR). At the same time, he can still mash the pedals as hard as you need to, to deal with these cars. He has not complained about fatigue or the wheel at all.”
Instead, he’s been muscling it impressively. In the recently concluded run of five races in five weeks, Ferrucci finished outside the top 10 only once. Among his most impressive efforts was a seventh-place finish in the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge that resulted in the rookie of the year honor.
“Mario (Andretti) put it best: You can only win rookie of the year once,” Ferrucci said. “You can race the 500 numerous times and win it multiple times, but you can only get rookie once. To win it with this class of rookies was super impressive. It wasn’t me against somebody who’d never been in a car before. You’re competing against a former Formula 1 driver (Ericsson) and another professional in Felix who I’ve raced against and know is incredibly fast, and Herta, who was fast all month and had a great car. It wasn’t an easy task.”
His performance and attitude have impressed the people around him at DCR, including four-time champion Sebastien Bourdais.
“Probably the greatest endorsement I can give to Santino is that Sebastien likes Santino,” Cannon said. “In Santino, he sees a kid that’s quick, has a bright future and takes his job very seriously. Sebastien is very much a mirror. You get out what you put in. He genuinely appreciates a youngster quizzing him on different things and knowing when to ask questions and when to just sit and listen.”
The INDYCAR chapter of Ferrucci’s story, as you probably know by now, arrived with well-documented controversy. Last year, while racing for Trident Motorsport as a Haas F1 junior driver in a Formula 2 race at Silverstone, Ferrucci intentionally hit teammate Arjun Maini on the cool-down lap. He was fined nearly $80,000 for that and an accusation of using a phone while in the car. He was suspended for two races, publicly shamed by Trident on Twitter, then fired and sued by the team.
The response was – and, at times, still is – fierce. The media took swings, and social media piled on. Ferrucci was blasted as an ugly American, an oaf and a spoiled kid. He was called a racist, entitled and a right-wing zealot.
In July 2018, The Drive’s Caleb Jacobs wrote:
“He's young and talented and arrogant. We get it. And he's got a s*%$y attitude. And while F2 bigwigs decided to slap Ferrucci for his behavior, he did the most damage to himself by brushing off his antics rather than manning up and owning them.”
Since he signed with the Coyne team in May 2018 and competed in four races as a lead-up to a full season in 2019, Ferrucci has embarked on something that wasn’t intended to be a redemption tour but is, namely by way of results, redemptive. He’s not comfortable rehashing the controversies of last year, instead referring to an emotional August 2018 podcast with RACER.com’s Marshall Pruett as a reference point for the allegations, calling it a “full audit” of what happened.
“I’ve given up a lot to be where I am,” Ferrucci told Pruett. “I just hope people can understand and appreciate that.”
The full podcast can be heard here:
Rather than dwell on what happened in 2018, Ferrucci is focused on 2019, and that means carrying the momentum of a fourth-place finish June 8 at Texas Motor Speedway into this weekend’s REV Group Grand Prix presented by AMR at Road America. The road-course skills were evident even before he became the youngest winner, at 16, of a British F3 race in 2014. But the oval skills were, until Indy and Texas, unknown and unseen.
“What’s funny is I expected my better results to come on street courses as opposed to ovals,” said Ferrucci, who ranked 20th in Friday's overall practice at Road America as he learned another new track. “Ovals were one of those things where I just wanted to survive until the end and then see what happens. But in both cases – Indy and Texas – not only did we survive, but we had pace to run up front and stay in the top five. … I enjoyed the racing. It was so much fun. I’m looking forward to the next one.”
So does his team, which sees the skill of an experienced pro in his in and out laps surrounding pit stops, his tire management, his pit stops and his precision. They also like him.
“He’s got tremendous ability and tremendous confidence in his ability,” Cannon said. “He’s engaging. He’s a good person to be around. The interesting thing is he’s been racing for so long but he’s only 21 years old. He’s very much a professional race-car driver in a lot of aspects. He really knows his job.”
He appreciates his job, as well. Like many of his contemporaries, Ferrucci had F1 aspirations. INDYCAR wasn’t always the primary objective, but it is the current one. For that, he’s grateful.
“For me to end up where I am now in INDYCAR, I’m more thankful for the opportunity,” he said. “I’m just going to do my best, day by day, and take what I’m given and see what I can do. This is new for me. It’s a challenge, for sure, but I’m just trying to take it one race at a time. I’m not setting goals. I’m just trying to improve.”
In that regard, he’s standing tall.