NTT INDYCAR SERIES rookies Callum Ilott and Christian Lundgaard were dropped into one of the most unique experiences of their young lives March 2 at Texas Motor Speedway: their first laps on a high-speed oval.
They were two of six drivers to take part in the speedway rookie test on the 1.5-mile oval, which they must complete before they can race in the XPEL 375 on Sunday, March 20 (12:30 p.m. ET, live on NBC and INDYCAR Radio Network) at TMS and participate in the Indy 500 Rookie Orientation Program.
Ilott, a 23-year-old Brit, had never even completed oval laps on a simulator. So, the driver of the No. 77 Chevrolet for Juncos Hollinger Racing went into the nine-hour test virtually blind. And it was quite an experience.
“I think whoever came up with the idea is crazy,” Ilott said of oval racing, with a laugh. “He’s got my respect for whatever balls of steel he has.
“On the other hand, I have a real appreciation for it with the finer details. In one way, it’s very simple. The principle is very simple from a very European outsider perspective. But the difficult part is all the finer details with the car, with the feeling and with the way you drive it. That’s where the best guys exploit that. That’s the thing that I try to understand straight away.”
Lundgaard, meanwhile, had driven many laps in the simulator, both in preparation for Wednesday’s test and before he decided to come to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES to drive the No. 30 Shield Cleaners Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.
The 20-year-old Dane was overjoyed with the experience.
“It was fun. It was pretty damn fun, to be fair,” he said. “Not having ever experienced it before, I wouldn’t have known what to expect. For sure, I had a lot of fun.”
According to media reports, Ilott acclimated to the high-banked oval with ease by posting the second-fastest lap of the day, just shy of 220 mph. The top speed came late in the session when the group of rookies ran in a pack.
Ilott said the initial plan was to build his comfort level throughout the day and not focus on the speed of the car. But he exceeded JHR’s expectations in his first three runs, so the team started focusing on making the car faster and race-ready for Texas in two weeks.
“Honestly, I had no idea what to expect with these ovals,” Ilott said. “I knew that we would have a good car for the ovals, and obviously it takes some adjustment and some feeling for me, but the goal wasn’t to be quick straight away. I adapted to it supposedly quite well, as they say. The speed was good. In the group running, I did some good times.”
Lundgaard spent majority of his day getting up to speed. Teammate Graham Rahal hopped in his car in the morning and helped create the baseline setup that balanced speed and comfort for the driver who has only made two career NTT INDYCAR SERIES starts.
Lundgaard learned from Rahal by listening to him communicate with the team about the setup in the morning. From there, Rahal coached his new teammate on trusting his instincts, not pushing the car too far and more.
Much like how he burst onto the scene last year on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, starting fourth and finishing 12th during Brickyard Weekend, Lundgaard felt he picked up on this style of racing relatively fast.
“I just jumped in the car and drove and didn’t really think much of what could happen or what might happen,” he said. “It was more just driving around and getting up to speed, which in the end actually happened a bit like Indy last year.
“Throughout the day it was just taking a calm approach and learning, getting all the laps in and not ending up in the wall and ending the day early. I knew that I had to get the experience, because we’re racing here in two weeks.”
While Lundgaard was taking advice from his veteran teammate, who is a two-time oval winner at Fontana and Texas, Ilott listened to the wise words of 2012 NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion and 2014 Indianapolis 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay.
Ilott first approached Hunter-Reay late in the 2021 season at Portland and WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for his advice. After “Captain America” departed Andretti Autosport at the end of the season, he agreed to come to the Texas test and help both Ilott and JHR.
“As a team, we’re very in the dark,” Ilott said. “We don’t have an extra car, we don’t have an experienced driver, we don’t even have a rookie driver. I just have me. Which sometimes is very good, but maybe not good enough in these circumstances. Just to have an extra person there who has done this for so many years at the top in all the different cars at all the different tracks was great to get his opinion and really push me on a first day.
“I honestly couldn’t have asked for a better guy to help me out on that day. I hope I can have him for a few more sessions and races this year, but that was invaluable on the first day to have him there and coach me and to help me improve as a driver.”
Now Ilott and Lundgaard, as well as Kyle Kirkwood, Devlin DeFrancesco, David Malukas and Jimmie Johnson, will compete in their first NTT INDYCAR SERIES oval race in just two weeks. Ilott and Lundgaard know that with 27 cars on the track, it will be a completely different feel than testing, but they’re ready.
“With only five other cars are around you, it’s less fun, but at the same time it’s exciting,” Lundgaard said. “I’m just looking forward for the other 20 cars to get on track, because once we’re out there it’s going to be a completely different story. I’m feeling pretty good about the race now.”