Jones shows speed, maturity in first Indy 500 appearance

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INDIANAPOLIS – Before he continued to be impressively fast in practice Monday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Ed Jones visited Sebastien Bourdais at IU Health Methodist Hospital.

Jones, the 22-year-old understudy, was there to check on the health of his 38-year-old Dale Coyne Racing mentor, Bourdais, who is recuperating from pelvis and hip surgery after a scary qualifying crash Saturday.

But Bourdais, as usual, welcomed the opportunity to counsel Verizon IndyCar Series rookie Jones, who qualified 11th Sunday in his No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda for the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

“He was just helping me like he always has the whole time,” Jones said later in Gasoline Alley, “like what to expect from the start.”

Jones has proven himself quite capable on the track as well as absorbing information off it. The 2016 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires champion handles his business like a more experienced racer. He’s 12th in the points, which includes a season-best sixth place in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach last month.

When Bourdais crashed, Jones showed once again he’s not a normal rookie. He didn’t let it affect him, although he couldn’t forget it. Bourdais sure seemed like the pole favorite. An oversized cardboard $10,000 check presented to Bourdais for turning the No. 1 lap on “Fast Friday” still hangs on the Coyne garage wall.

Then just like that, two-plus laps into what was looking like the fastest qualifying run Saturday, four-time Indy car champion Bourdais, from France, was removed from the equation. The next day, an unfazed Jones went out and secured the best Indy 500 starting position in Coyne’s 27-year history at IMS, eclipsing Justin Wilson’s 14th in 2013 and 2014.

“I didn’t have to say anything to him,” Coyne said of Jones while on pit road before the qualifying run Sunday. “He’s very professional for his age. He’s very much focused on the job at hand. It showed (Sunday) morning. He ran 233 mph (in practice), 2 mph clear of the field.

“We’re all racers. You strap it on and you get after it. That’s what he is. If you think about the risk, you shouldn’t be here.”

Jones drove one of the fastest cars in practice Monday with a speed of 228.118 mph, which ranked second.

Truth be told, Bourdais would have been extremely upset if Jones was adversely affected.

“Yeah, exactly,” Jones said. “I can’t do anything about it. At the end of the day, I’ve seen a lot of incidents, and you’ve got to get to a stage where, yeah, it’s scary, but it shouldn’t affect you and it can’t affect you. If the moment starts affecting you, you should stop racing.”

His own intestinal fortitude was tested just three years ago, when Jones broke his back in a Formula 3 crash in France. What did he learn from that?

“That I don’t want to stop racing,” he said.

Jones tried to come back in five months. He endured three epidural injections to try to ease the pain, but was forced to sit out another month.

Racing is what Jones has always wanted. He was born to English parents in Dubai, United Arab Emirates — he prefers to represent both countries — and go-kart racing eventually took him to Europe.

Although not much for hero worship or idolizing anyone, Jones admired the exploits of Nigel Mansell, who became the only driver to ever hold Formula One (1992) and Indy car (1993) titles simultaneously and nearly won the Indianapolis 500 in his first attempt in 1993. Jones also identified with boxer Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, who won heavyweight and cruiserweight championship belts.

“(Boxing) actually applies to racing, the mentality to a certain degree,” Jones said. “Evander Holyfield, he went through so much. In racing, there’s so many downs as well. You look at how much he had to put up with against Mike Tyson (who bit Holyfield’s ear in a bout).

“Racing is so stressful, there are so many things that go wrong, but you’ve got to come back every time and make yourself a stronger person. He’s a guy who proves that is possible.”

So, too, does Bourdais, who has already wondered aloud how soon he can return to racing. That’s not much of a surprise to those who know him.

Anyone looking to get to know Jones should also keep this in mind: He’s not intimidated or in awe of the competition. From his garage, he looked across Gasoline Alley at the Team McLaren/Andretti Autosport garage belonging to another Indy 500 rookie, two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso. The media buzz has been constant about the Spaniard, whose No. 29 McLaren-Honda-Andretti Honda qualified fifth. Throughout the process, Alonso has expressed a genuine appreciation for being part of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

“I have a lot of respect for Fernando,” Jones said. “All of us have a lot of respect for Fernando. He’s won a load of races and is one of the best drivers in the world.

“But at the end of the day, we’re racing him. You have to treat him as any other driver. It shouldn’t make a difference. You’re trying to be the best and you shouldn’t think of someone in a higher hierarchy.”

The understudy, again, is wise beyond his years.

“I’ve been living by myself since I was 14, traveling the world for the racing, trying to make this dream a reality,” Jones said. “Finally, this is my first go at the Indy 500. It’s a dream come true and I’m doing everything I can to make it as successful as possible.”

Miller Lite Carb Day on Friday presents the final time for the 33-car field to practice before the big race. Practice runs from 11 a.m.-noon ET and airs live on NBCSN.

Live coverage of the 101st Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. ET Sunday on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network. Tickets for Miller Lite Carb Day and the race are available at IMS.com.

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