Every rising star in auto racing has plans to make it to the top of their respective sport, but very few make contingency plans should that not work out. That’s where Jacob Abel differs from many of his peers on the rising ranks of motorsports.
Abel, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, has been racing since 2015. His first race was in go-karts, and in the six years since his foray into motorsports, he has made the transition to single-seaters with the goal of reaching the NTT INDYCAR SERIES and the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.
But in addition to his intense racing schedule, Abel is a full-time college student at Butler University in Indianapolis, studying marketing. Abel, 20, admits following two different paths at the same time has been extremely challenging, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic that sent much of education online.
“I’m a junior-ish, more like sophomore-and-a-half,” he said. “It’s hard. I’ve just been taking 12 credit hours, doing the bare minimum just to be full time. It’s hard. It’s very difficult. But being at that small school helps a lot. You know all your professors and things like that. It’s been good, but it’s been hard.”
There is a method to Abel’s madness. His studies have allowed him to understand the business and financial side of racing. In an industry driven on sponsorship, Abel has made it a priority to understand what that side of the sport is like.
He said that knowledge has allowed him to be part of business conversations when trying to attract sponsors. He believes an understanding of the business side of racing will continue to help him in his racing career.
For proof of that, he looks to Ed Carpenter, who graduated from Butler University in 2003, also with a degree in marketing. Carpenter has used that education to run his race team, Ed Carpenter Racing. Dalton Kellett is the only other NTT INDYCAR SERIES athlete with a college degree (engineering physics).
Abel drives for family-owned and operated Abel Motorsports, which is climbing to Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires in 2022. He hopes to take charge of the family business one day, hopefully as an owner-driver, but at the very least as a race team owner.
“Maybe one day I implement some of that business stuff, and I take over the team,” Abel said. “I don’t think it hurts to have marketing and business experience in any part of the world.
“It definitely gets a lot of respect from sponsors and things like that when I can use those business terms and stuff. Most of the time when you’re talking to sponsors, it’s higher-ups in companies that have a lot of business experience.”
But the question begs, is the stress worth it? In addition to being a full-time college student in 2021, Abel was a full-time driver in Indy Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires, competed in an IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship race, ran part-time in GT World Challenge America as a part of Honda Performance Development’s 2021 Junior Factory Lineup and ran Stadium Super Trucks in Nashville.
The short answer is yes. Abel is the youngest of three children, and one of the biggest things he learned from his older brother and sister was that college was a can’t-miss opportunity.
“I always wanted to go to college,” he said. “It was always going to happen whether I took a gap year right out of high school or not. I’m a big guy on experiences, and I don’t want to miss out on that aspect of my life. I have an older brother and sister, and it was the best four years of their lives, they’ve said. I didn’t want to miss out on that at all, so I figured: ‘You know what? Let’s give it a try.’”
Since becoming the youngest student to complete the Mid-Ohio School at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Abel has competed part-time in USF2000, F3 Americas Championship and Indy Pro 2000. He scored two F3 Americas wins in 2019 at Road Atlanta.
He competed full-time in Indy Pro 2000 in 2019 and 2021. In 2019, he scored two top-five finishes and 11 top 10s en route to a ninth-place finish in the championship. In 2021, he finished sixth in the championship with two podium finishes, both thirds at Road America and Mid-Ohio.
That solid Indy Pro 2000 season landed him an offseason Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires opportunity at the Chris Griffis Memorial Test on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course. And now he and his family team are making the jump to Indy Lights in 2022.
Abel was impressed by the car and by himself during the Griffis test. He said he believes he made a great first impression with the car because of his experience driving so many different cars and because of the way he’s trained himself to adapt quickly.
“That was my first time driving it, and it’s a really fun car,” he said. “It’s got a lot of power, especially into Turn 1. It was good. I’ve driven a lot of sports cars and things, so I’ve driven things of this size and of this weight. It’s been kind of a combination of everything.
“It’s heavier, but it’s still an open-wheel car. It’s got more power, like the NSX GT3. I’ve just been pulling from all that previous knowledge and putting it together. At the end of the day after about 10 minutes, it’s just another race car you have to tame. It’s fast and it’s fun.”
The Road to Indy and Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires is meant to cultivate the next top talent in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. While many different roads can lead to INDYCAR, Abel is ensuring that he has a place in this sport, be in on track or off.