Sebastian Saavedra is returning for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil after enduring an emotional year away from “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
One heartbreak precipitated another in a span of two days.
Convinced his race team couldn’t be competitive, the Colombian driver decided with AFS Racing owner Gary Peterson to not participate in last year’s 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. Two days later, on April 4, Saavedra’s father, Wilson, died from cancer at the age of 61.
The five-time Indy 500 starter mourned the loss of a man so instrumental in his racing career, then took stock in his own life and married girlfriend Jane Selke on July 8. And he set his mind to returning to the Indy 500.
Saavedra, 26, was announced today as the second driver for Juncos Racing, the successful Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires program that will make its Verizon IndyCar Series debut on the greatest stage in motorsports. Saavedra will drive the No. 17 AFS/Juncos Racing Chevrolet and team with Spencer Pigot, who was announced Tuesday to drive the No. 11 Juncos Racing Chevrolet.
“Go for it. Make it count,” Saavedra said of the opportunity this month. “I’m incredibly blessed and incredibly grateful to (team principal) Ricardo (Juncos) to motivate Gary to come back and push the envelope. We’re into an amazing program with amazing personnel with a real shot at being competitive, which we knew we weren’t going to be last year. We put all the effort that we didn’t put in last year into this year and it’s showing. Since Jan. 1, we’ve been non-stop. That’s what we’re hoping to portray throughout the month of May.”
He thinks back to last year, specifically the final months with his father, and shakes his head.
“It was a really rough time,” he said. “Everything was happening. We never gave up (on the Indy 500) until two days before Dad died. We were always fighting. At that moment, we decided this is what is going to happen this year.
“Dad was the trainer, Dad was the manager, Dad was the everything. All through his last four months, I didn’t want to do anything else but be by his side.”
Saavedra has a longtime connection to Peterson, whom he appreciates not just for sponsor support but as a parental-like influence. Juncos also connects as an Argentinean who won championships with Pigot in the top two levels of the Mazda Road to Indy developmental ladder.
“We share a lot of the same culture because we’re Latin American,” Juncos said. “We speak the same language. There are a lot of little things in common.
“Sebastian obviously is still very young, but he’s done the Indy 500 five times. He has the experience and now he’s mature enough to learn from that experience, the good or bad things in the past, and put it together for this Indy 500. It’s a good opportunity for all of us.”
Chip Ganassi Racing ran Saavedra’s 2015 Indy 500 entry with AFS Racing, in which the driver finished 23rd. His best result was 15th for KV Racing Technology and AFS Racing in 2014.
“As much as I missed it, I think it was the best decision,” Saavedra said of backing out of last year’s Indy 500. “We had everything to do it, we were set to do it and we were the only ones to pull the plug. We were not going to be competitive. We were not only late in the game but the personnel that we managed to basically scramble to get wasn’t who we wanted.
“Racing for (the sake of) racing is something we don’t do, something AFS Racing is not meant to be doing. Yeah, it was rough. You’re sitting there on the outside of the 100th running; there’s only one of those in a century. But I think it was the best decision because it led to us to kind of regroup, kind of sit down and oversee all the different opportunities.”
Saavedra says he’s not the same wide-eyed, 19-year-old kid who arrived at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for his Indy 500 debut in 2010, when he finished 23rd for Bryan Herta Autosport.
He’s raced for six teams in 60 career starts with one pole at the inaugural INDYCAR Grand Prix in 2014. He stalled from a standing start and an ensuing crash knocked him out of that race in 23rd place.
“From the first time I did it when I was 19, I’ve matured a lot. I had no idea,” he said with a laugh. “I did not get what the Indy 500 was. I accept that. I have no shame. With Ganassi, it really hit home. I was there and it was kind of like, ‘I need to understand how big this event is.’
“I’ve learned a lot. I’m an engineering maniac. I want to know absolutely everything that has to do with the car. I’ve been this way since go-karts. So, I’m really trying to develop a car and develop a great relationship with engineering and the staff. That’s something that has evolved as well. I pinpointed every single component I wanted on this car and very few racers can say that.”
Last year at this time, after losing his father, Saavedra admits he didn’t have the mindset to jump into a race car. Now, he hears his dad’s voice in his head as he eagerly prepares for the challenge ahead.
“My father is still a crucial part of the team,” Saavedra said. “He’s always been. Still is. That’s not going to change ever. I feel proud of Dad and I feel proud of where he got me. The thing that really upsets me is to continue on the path without him by my side. He might not be my side, but he’s above, he’s still there. I still hear him.”
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