Less than 24 hours after scoring his best result of the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires season, Jacob Abel was up early studying. Interestingly, his eyes weren’t fixed on car data or video from the day prior at Portland International Raceway. This was corporate finance work for a class he is taking at Butler University in Indianapolis.
Such is the life of a 21-year-old student/athlete on the rise.
“It’s tough because the farther I go in school, the harder it gets,” Abel said. “And the farther I go in racing, the harder that gets, too.”
Abel has shown progress on both fronts. In college, he is over 70 hours toward his bachelor of science degree in marketing, which makes him a junior as he goes to school part time, year-round to accommodate his racing travel. Last weekend in the Indy Lights Grand Prix of Portland, Abel finished a career-best fourth, holding off two-time series race winner Hunter McElrea in a spirited duel that lasted for about 15 of the 35 laps.
Abel and McElrea have battled in different categories over the years and are friends. But what distinguishes them this year are the resources behind them. McElrea drives for Andretti Autosport, which has three of the top four drivers in the standings and four of the top six. McElrea is third in points heading to this weekend’s season-ending doubleheader at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and he could finish as high as second to Linus Lundqvist, the HMD Motorsports with Dale Coyne Racing driver who will be the runaway champion.
Abel’s first Indy Lights season is with his family-owned team, Abel Motorsports. It works from a much smaller facility in Indianapolis, without benefit of having the expertise of an NTT INDYCAR SERIES group to draw from. Not only is Abel learning this year, the team is, as well.
There are benefits to Abel’s situation, though. For one, the expectations are in check, and the comparison, he said, is what Kyle Kirkwood is experiencing at AJ Foyt Racing in his first NTT INDYCAR SERIES season. Abel said Kirkwood has been given the freedom to learn without the pressure of delivering big results with one of the sport’s smaller teams.
“If I was at Andretti, I’d be expected to win races right away, the same would be true at HMD,” Abel said of the organizations fielding 75 percent of the cars this season, with Abel Motorsports and Force Indy the only other teams regularly participating. “From the time we picked up our Indy Lights cars last fall, we figured we’d spend two years in this series, at least, because it’s a bit ambitious to think you can show well in Year 1.
“It’s taken some of the pressure off me and the team. We can learn at our own pace.”
Through 12 races, Abel has finished races, on average, exactly where he started in the No. 51 Abel Speedwagon. But if two unfortunate DNFs in Detroit are factored out, his norm shows that he has raced well. He has advanced or held his position in seven of the other 10 races, highlighted by the eighth-to-fourth improvement in Portland. Twice he has gone from ninth to fifth (in the second race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course and at Road America).
From a team perspective, Abel said it has been beneficial to field a second car this season when the opportunity presented. Antonio Serravalle was with the team for the first two races of the season before Ryan Phinny stepped into the ride for the next four races. Flinn Lazier, the 23-year-old son of 2000 INDYCAR SERIES champion Buddy Lazier, made his debut with the team at Portland, and he will return for the Laguna Seca doubleheader.
Fielding two cars defrays the fixed costs while adding manpower to the organization. For example, having two drivers and their two engineers at the track doubles the data Abel Motorsports can derive from the weekend.
“Having that second car is super helpful for a team like ours,” Abel said. “It’s double the brain power, and I think it sets us up well for next season.”
First, there’s this season to finish. Abel is all but assured of finishing eighth in the standings, effectively best in class behind four drivers from the Andretti camp and three from HMD’s. It’s progress, he said, one that is as gratifying as it is real.
“I’m not really expected to beat any of these HMD and Andretti guys, so what we’ve done this year has been pretty impressive,” he said. “It’s always sweet, like at Portland, to split those guys up (in the finishing results), and it helps the sport, too.”
This weekend’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires doubleheader begins with the first practice Friday at 4:15 p.m. ET. The races will be Saturday at 3:25 p.m. ET and Sunday at 1 p.m. ET, with both able to be viewed on Peacock Premium and INDYCAR Live!