He first drove a go-kart in Russia at 7. Mikhail Aleshin knew he liked to go fast and he always wanted to be the fastest.
Racing became a part of his life, although Aleshin enjoyed other interests. He was involved in semi-professional kickboxing for four years until age 16. He started playing a guitar a decade ago and can be found on YouTube strumming at the fund-raising Rev event in May in Indianapolis.
But the first Russian-born driver to compete in the Verizon IndyCar Series realized at an early age that racing would take precedence over everything else. At 12, his racing routine monopolized about 30 weekends and his studies suffered.
“That’s when basically in the family we had to decide what we were going to do,” Aleshin said. “Are we going to study properly or are we going to race properly? Obviously you know what was the answer.
“I still finished school and then went to university and studied and graduated with a degree in management. So I’m not so crazy as you thought.”
Aleshin, 29, is ever mindful of his “Mad Russian” nickname, bestowed from his nationality and aggressive driving style.
In his second full season with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, Aleshin is hungry for stronger finishes – his best this year was fifth in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg, Fla. – but he’s acclimated himself to America and enjoys the experience. He had never been to the U.S. before his first test at Sebring in 2013.
“I didn’t expect anything really when I moved in,” he said. “It’s hard to expect something from the place where you never have been. But definitely it’s a better experience than I thought it was going to be. The people are very nice here, very good atmosphere.
“That’s a good thing about the U.S., you have so many nationalities here, and the country is not so old. I think the people are more polite than other people in different countries. I was living in other places around the world in my life. When you come here, you feel more comfortable than other places I have been.”
Aleshin made his series debut in 2014 for Schmidt Peterson, finishing seventh in just his second race and adding a runner-up finish at Houston later that year. He made history as the first Russian-born driver to race in the Indianapolis 500, where he finished 21st.
After being injured in a crash during practice for the 2014 season finale at Auto Club Speedway, Aleshin was away from the series last year until returning for the season finale at Sonoma. He raced in the LMP2 class of the European Le Mans Series. But he wanted to come back to INDYCAR. And he wanted to return to team co-owner Sam Schmidt.
“I understood it’s not very easy,” he said of the business side of racing. “There are different aspects. Everything has to be in order.
“I’m really happy to be here and really happy to be racing with the same team. I wanted to work with Sam to get the deal right. Yeah, I’m just happy because I’m doing exactly the thing that I want to do. That’s what makes me happy.”
Drivers often need time to familiarize themselves with each other on track. Juan Pablo Montoya said before the recent Road America race that there are several series drivers that make him nervous to race alongside.
If competitors consider Aleshin an unknown, that’s their problem.
“To be fair with you, I don’t give a crap what they think,” he said. “If someone doesn’t like me, that’s fine. I’m not a girl to be liked.”
Aleshin laughs at his comment.
“I’m very straightforward,” he said.
And he laughs again.
“I’m always telling the truth,” he said. “I don’t (lie). It doesn’t make any sense. If the people weren’t nice, I would tell you. I have nothing to hide. I don’t want to look nicer or worse than I am. For what?”
Teammates past and present enjoy working with him and consider him a friend. Aleshin’s first series teammate was Simon Pagenaud, now the points leader for Team Penske.
“He’s very, very interesting,” Pagenaud said. “He’s a really good friend of mine and a fantastic teammate to have, as well. He’s the most loyal guy I’ve ever seen.”
James Hinchcliffe, the Indy 500 pole sitter in May, is Aleshin’s teammate this season.
“He’s a great guy. He’s a lot of fun,” Hinchcliffe said. “He’s got a great sense of humor, that dry Russian sense of humor. And he’s a man of many talents, be it racing cars, playing guitars or rumors of something MMA-related that I can neither confirm nor deny.”
Aleshin clarifies it’s kickboxing, not MMA.
“Let’s put it this way, I wouldn’t want to run across him in a dark alley and be on the wrong side of him,” Hinchcliffe said, smiling.
While there’s not as much time to play the guitar, Aleshin will still pick one up from time to time for stress relief.
“It just helps me to chill,” he said. “It helps me to switch off, the same with kickboxing.”
Kickboxing helped him as much mentally as physically.
“You don’t have to be so strong,” Aleshin said. “You have to be smart.”
He’s proud to represent Russia in the series, calling himself a patriot for his country, although he wants to provide a more successful representation.
“I’m teaching myself to be patient, which is hard because my character is not to be very patient,” he said. “I know it’s very tough here. So far, I want it to be better, results, I mean. I’m confident about the team and the speed that we have. I’m really confident we’re going to do it.”