Matheus Leist recently returned home to Brazil for the first time in about 18 months.That’s a long time away for the 20-year-old A.J. Foyt Racing driver. And so much has changed since his last visit.
For starters, Leist was accompanied by his girlfriend, Karissa Wampler. They met at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when he was preparing for his first Indianapolis 500 in 2018. He also advised family and friends that he had purchased his first home in Delray, Florida.
“I’m feeling old,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m moving in in September.”
As much as Leist enjoyed the two-week visit, the fact that he purchased a home also signified his intention to stay in the U.S. He is in the second and final year of his contract with Foyt and is 20th in the NTT IndyCar Series points standings, which means his racing career is uncertain.
“I don’t know what the future is going to be like, but I want to stay here no matter what,” he said. “If I’m racing in INDYCAR or not in INDYCAR, I want to be here, I want to stay in the States, I don’t want to go back to Brazil. I decided to buy a place at the beginning of the year.”
Leist did deliver the team’s best result since 2015 when he splashed through the rain to a career-best, fourth-place finish in May’s INDYCAR Grand Prix. But he concedes his second season in this series has been mostly frustrating.
“I have until the end of this year,” he said. “I still have nothing for next year.”
That would make any driver nervous, especially a youngster with ambition. Leist rationalizes he has four races remaining to prove himself worthy of another ride.
“We had a lot of problems in the 500, but still finished 15th,” he said. “We’re just trying to figure this thing out, the team. We’ve been struggling all season outside of Indy.
“I’m OK. I’m doing my part, doing my job and working as hard as I can. Things will come around either way. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be and I’ll be back here next year.”
Leist realized during his trip to Brazil that he wasn’t homesick but also the importance of staying connected with family and friends.
“It was very good,” he said. “I got to spend a lot of time with my family. My grandparents, they don’t get to come here a lot. My parents, my siblings, cousins and my friends, it was a nice time. Brazil is where I grew up. It’s where I went to high school. It’s where I started racing. It’s a very special place.
“When I went back this year, I was like, ‘Man, I should go more times, more often. It’s important.’ When you realize your grandparents are getting older and you don’t get to see them a lot, it’s important. I think from now on I should go back to Brazil three or four times a year.”
His girlfriend is attending college in Tampa, so he’s not that far away with an apartment in Delray Beach. Because his parents don’t speak English, Leist helped prepare Wampler for the Brazil trip by teaching her his native language.
“I’m trying to teach her Portuguese so they can communicate with each other,” he said. “I called her every night and we tried to speak in Portuguese for like 10 to 15 minutes. She’s always practicing. She’s getting better.”
Leist likened the experience to how he’s learned English.
“It’s gotten a little bit better since I met her, but of course I have this huge accent, but my English is a little better,” he said.
That he brought her with him showed how much the relationship means.
“I think so,” he said. “She’s a very nice girl from a very nice family.”
He chuckles when sharing how they met. It was just before his first Indianapolis 500 practice laps at IMS.
“I was walking to the pits with (team president) Larry (Foyt) and this girl and I made eye contact,” Leist said. “She asked, ‘Can I take a picture?’ She handed the camera to Larry because she wanted a picture of both of us. That was it. I didn’t talk to her or anything. I went out and did my laps.
“Later that night, I was checking my Instagram and she sent me the picture and thanked me. I usually don’t answer. Sometimes (I do), (with) some fans, maybe, but you have so many people texting you and sending you stuff. That one, I was like, ‘OK I’m going to answer this one.’”
So they started chatting.
“I qualified for the 500, and we met the Monday after qualifying for the first time,” he said. “She came for the race and met my parents.”
Leist has embraced American culture to the fullest and couldn’t be more committed to wanting to race in this series. Earning another racing opportunity is the key.
“That’s the main thing,” he said. “Everything comes down to this moment here, being at the track, doing what I love.”
Next up for the NTT IndyCar Series is the Aug. 18 race at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. The ABC Supply 500 is the first of four races to close the 2019 season. NBCSN will have the television coverage at 2 p.m. ET (green flag at 2:45 p.m. ET). The Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network provides the radio call, with coverage on SiriusXM Radio (XM 209, Sirius 98, Internet/App 970).