“I’m hoping he thinks I’m even now!”
John Brunner couldn’t help but chuckle in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Saturday afternoon. It was all the Abel Motorsports team manager could do to hold back tears after RC Enerson qualified the No. 50 Chevrolet in 29th place for the 2023 Indianapolis 500.
Brunner decided to manage the team’s 500 effort in January when he knew that Enerson was driving the car. By qualifying for the 500, Brunner believed that he had finally repaid a favor to Neil Enerson that he had done several years ago for Brunner’s own son, Justin.
The Enerson father-son duo operate the Lucas Oil School of Racing for amateurs looking to pursue racing as a more serious endeavor. Several years ago, the elder Enerson put Brunner’s son in a car for a track day in Savannah, Georgia after the pair of sons raced against each other online in iRacing. The elder Enerson asked if he could enter Brunner’s son in the final race of that year at Sebring, to which Brunner said yes.
After the younger Brunner started on pole and finished third in his debut race, he connected with the elder Enerson to concoct a plan to take drivers from iRacing and put them in real racing cars. That plan put Justin in a car for the 2017 Lucas Oil Formula Car Race Series.
“We figured he’d just pound around there,” Brunner said of his son. “[Justin] ended up winning the championship. Luckily we never crashed anything, so I didn’t owe anything on that, but it was a pretty big moment for my son.
“Neil did an unbelievable thing for my son a few years back that I never could have repaid him for. And I think I can feel like I’m pretty even with him.”
While Brunner feels a tremendous sense of accomplishment for Enerson simply making the Indianapolis 500 starting field, much of the rest of the IndyCar paddock also feels like they are part of the accomplishment, too. Once information about the effort leaked to different teams, contributions and assistance offers flowed in steadily.
All around the paddock there were text messages inundating Brunner from different crew members asking what they could offer to help put the effort together. While Chip Ganassi Racing prepares their cars for practice, almost every day someone from the team walks across the aisle in Gasoline Alley to the Abel Motorsports garage asking Brunner if the team needs anything that morning.
Brunner needed some rims to tow the car back and forth from the garage area to pit lane. Arrow McLaren stepped up and gave the team towing rims. When Abel Motorsports needed some brake caliper seals, Arrow McLaren came through again to help.
“I mean every single team in this paddock has, for the most part, offered support in some way,” Brunner said. “Whether it was just support in general or actually loaning us things or whatever.”
The team started their IndyCar operations in January in preparation for a future full-time IndyCar Series entry. The team’s biggest hurdle to getting on the 2023 Indianapolis 500 entry list was getting an engine.
Brunner visited IndyCar President Jay Frye in January and said he wanted to put together an entry for Abel Motorsports for the Memorial Day Classic. Frye told Brunner he needed an engine and to call Rob Buckner at Chevrolet, which started a whole new process.
Brunner kept texting Frye asking what he knew about the engine situation, and on the Wednesday before the IndyCar race at Texas Motor Speedway Frye replied that Brunner should probably go to Texas.
“I said fine, I’m coming, and I did,” Brunner said. “It was good because I pestered the shit out of [Frye]. But I think it meant they were pulling for us.”
Brunner secured the engine lease on April 1st, the Saturday of the Texas race weekend. The mechanics could finally finish their race car that they had been working on for months, according to the younger Enerson.
“We were already prepping the car before we’d even gotten the engine,” Enerson said. “So we were already anticipating that we would be able to run. That was the last piece, once the engine lease came through it was full sails from there and then in a little over a month put this program together and we just showed that it was really, really top notch.”
The first laps Enerson took in the car were a few days ago on Wednesday morning when IndyCar had the Floridian run a three-stage rookie refresher program. The car ran flawlessly with one minor telemetry defect that wasn’t caused by the team.
Before turning a lap in qualifying, Enerson ran 129 laps in official practice sessions from Wednesday through Friday. Several drivers ran more practice laps in one whole day than Enerson did in three. Enerson only needed one four-lap qualifying run to make the race.
Enerson’s qualifying average of 231.129 mph was good enough for the middle of the 10th row in the 2023 Indianapolis 500. At Indianapolis, cars are ranked by their average speed over a four lap qualifying run, and Enerson was 29th out of the 30 cars that were locked in following Saturday’s qualifying session. Three more cars will qualify in a special session Sunday afternoon.
“I’m just so proud of these guys,” Enerson said. “I mean John, he put together an amazing crew here. I mean, even all the teams around here were trying to help out as much as they can. And Bill Abel (team owner), he’s been amazing. It’s just everybody around here, it’s been just an awesome effort, especially John. I mean, he’s put this whole entire team together in two months, whatever the very short period of time was.”
The team can now focus on making their race day setup adjustments in the post-qualifying practice sessions before race day on May 28th.