By: Ashley McCubbin
After spending seven years away from Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires competition, Matthew Brabham made his return to the top-tier of the Road to Indy ladder in 2022 in style by winning the season-opener on the streets of St. Petersburg.
Fresh off the success, NEWS FROM THE PITS caught up with the Andretti Autosport driver to discuss the victory, the road back to Indy Lights, and more.
ASHLEY MCCUBBIN: What are your thoughts reflecting back to the win at St. Petersburg?
MATTHEW BRABHAM: It felt great to get a win and to be able to come back fast as ever. After all those years and having success, it makes it feel and mean that much more. It was a lot sweeter victory and it meant a lot more just because of those factors going into the race and coming back.
ASHLEY: How has the transition for you been like getting back behind the wheel of an open-wheel car?
MATTHEW: It’s been more difficult than I thought it would be. It’d been a difficult transition for sure. I think a lot of it just getting back to competing at that level and being on the edge of an open-wheel car like that. open-wheel cars have no room for forgiveness. Other racecars, you can get away with a lot more, but with an open-wheel car, it’s always on a knives edge with set-ups and driving and you have to be perfect. I think I’ve just had to really refine my driving and get back into the swing of it.
When I first went out, everything seemed like it was happening too fast and my brain couldn’t process it. It’s been difficult and challenging – and it’s not easy to come back in and racing with people who have racing five, six years straight opposed to me who spent time away. Yeah, I was racing other stuff and doing a lot of one-offs and different things, but sometimes you get good habits and bad habits from driving and I’ve definitely had to adjust a little getting back to the Indy Lights car.
ASHLEY: Now that you have the win, though, how much does that boost your confidence?
MATTHEW: Oh, absolutely. It’s definitely a bit of a relief too because you never know if you come back if you still have it. I always knew I had it – I was just surprised I came back and had the success so early. I thought I was going to have to get into the season and slowly chip away to get to the top. I got lucky in the race with a few people crashing out and Christian (Rasmussen) running out of fuel, but it’s the perfect start to the season so I can really just refine those driving techniques I need to get back in crack and have a good shot at the championship and winning more races.
I definitely can be right there at the front of the field, and that’s the goal for the rest of the year – and trying to be top-three every race, being consistent, and finishing every race. It’s a huge confidence boost for the year and it really helps, and I think it’s going to help down the track for sure.
ASHLEY: How did the opportunity for you to return to Lights come about? Why now?
MATTHEW: It was one of those things that just came about and I said yes. It wasn’t like I went chasing it exactly, but my plan has always been to get to IndyCar especially when I got in for those races for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and the Indy Grand Prix. I thought I did a really good job and just felt if I had more opportunities in IndyCar I could’ve stayed in there and done really well. That was what I was working towards, and I just never gotten anywhere with it. The opportunity didn’t come up and there were no seats available and I didn’t have the funding.
That’s why I sat out for all those years and obviously when I was approached with this opportunity, I thought I’d never get another chance at IndyCar because I’ve been out too long and I’m not in the system racing open-wheel cars so I’d get overlooked by guys running Indy Lights and those things.
So when I got approached by Andretti and some of my sponsors and supporters that I’ve had through Andretti over the years, they approached me asking if I’d want to do Lights and I said absolutely. I’ve got nothing else and got nothing to lose. I’ve always said yes to opportunities and that’s why I’ve been jumping all over the place doing Stadium Super Trucks, off-road, Baja, all different things. I just love to race and I always say yes to opportunities.
ASHLEY: As you make this return to Indy Lights, you’re surrounded by great teammates – both Indy Lights and through Andretti’s IndyCar program. What does it mean to you to have their support?
MATTHEW: I’m saying Andretti does one of the best jobs of being open with all the teammates. Even the IndyCar guys help us a lot, too. Their motto this year is All Andretti this year and between my teammates in Indy Lights, they’re all really good drivers and we’ve all been at the front this year – whether testing or the first race at St. Pete. We’re all really good and everybody is open with each other.
There’s no secrets between us and we all keep everything open. We’re always testing stuff for each other, and finding stuff that works for other drivers, and passing it on – and that goes for all the levels at Andretti, which is just partially why they’re so successful, too. I have worked with a lot of the IndyCar engineers in the past with Andretti because I’ve done test days in the past with Andretti, and there’s a lot of the same guys still there. They come down from the indyCar side and work on the Lights side with us a lot as well, so it’s been great to have that network and support that Andretti provides, epically for someone coming back because it helps me learn a lot quicker.
I definitely gained a big advantage from my teammates this year. They’ve been a big help and it’s a big credit to those guys and everybody on the team of being so open and getting along together. it’s going to be a great year for all of us.
ASHLEY: I know you mentioned the variety of different vehicles that you’ve gotten the chance to be behind the wheel of. Outside of an IndyCar, is there anything else that you have circled to try one day?
MATTHEW: Absolutely. I think one of the top things on my list that I want to try is Sprint Car racing, and short oval racing, and sprint cars and midgets. That’s something that I’ve never really driven but certainly when I drove the super trucks on dirt and did some dirt ovals, it was so much fun. I can defiantly see the appeal to things like the Chili Bowl and different sprint car races. That’s something that I want to try before the end of the my career. That’d be awesome, especially being here in the States where it’s so big. I’d love to give that a shot at some point.
ASHLEY: Stadium Super Trucks – what was that experience like for you getting to drive those the past couple years?
MATTHEW: It was incredible. I think that’s some of the most fun racing that there is in the world and it produces and teaches you really good car control and skills because there’s been a lot of us that have come out there. One of my biggest rivals with Sheldon Creed, and he’s gone on to win a NASCAR championship and going through the ranks there and doing incredibly well. I just loved super trucks, it teaches you so many good things, and it’s so much fun for the fans to watch.
The crowd is always entertained – it’s always one of the crowd favorites, and competing against guys that have driven so many different things. Robby (Gordon) is one of those guys that is a jack of all trades, and been successful in everything that he’s done. to learn and follow those guys for so many years, you pick up some good tips and tricks. Robby has taught me a lot, Sheldon has taught me a lot, and all of those guys – they all have a great time racing those things. It’s some of the best fun that I’ve had, and I’ve been so grateful to have that experience in my racing career. It’s been a lot of fun.
ASHLEY: What is one of piece of advice that you’d give to someone getting started based on your own career to date?
MATTHEW: I mean I would have to say is your advice is molded by your own experiences, right? so for me if I was going to give anybody advice coming up through the ranks is the most important thing and what you have to work on is, and the hardest thing is the funding, and pulling the funding together to get the opportunities you deserve. That’s one piece of advice that I give to any driver. you have to figure out the funding and the sponsorship and everything you can to be media savvy and all the off-track opportunities.
It’s one of the most important things these days – racing and the driving comes as a bonus, and almost not as important especially when you’re younger and in the lower ranks. When you get to the top, you want to be the best and win everything, but that’s the advice that I would give everyone. When I came up the ranks, I was probably too focused on winning and not so much the other stuff. That’d be the one thing that I’d look back on and wish that I did better with was sourcing the funding, and keep the connections and funding so I could keep having the opportunities that I thought I deserved.
That’s obviously been the one thing that has hindered my career. I won all the championships in the Road to Indy, and that propelled me to the top – but then when I got to the top, and didn’t win the championship, I was nothing. Just as fast as I rose through the ranks, I was out of the ranks and nothing. I was just too focused on winning and very successful in that, but that’s the one thing that I look back and wish I did a bit more of – the funding, media side, the networking.