This weekend, 33 drivers will take to the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an effort to qualify for the 2022 Indy 500 — but just two weeks ago, no one was sure the race would see a full field of drivers. Enter Stefan Wilson, driver of the No. 25 DragonSpeed/Cusick Motorsports Chevrolet, who secured the race’s final entry on May 5.
“A lot has happened very quickly in order to take us from where we were to where we are now,” Wilson told Jalopnik. “Realistically, those sort of dominoes started to fall probably four weeks ago, pretty much the week after Long Beach. That’s when Don Cusick had his meeting with Elton Julian, the owner of DragonSpeed, and we decided to partner together.”
Wilson explains that an Indy 500 attempt requires five parts: Budget, car, engine, crew, and equipment. They had the crew, engine and budget. “At that point it was just two more pieces to get the puzzle, which was the equipment and the car. That came together with A.J. Foyt Racing.”
Normally, Wilson says he tries to seek out sponsors first. A quality Indy 500 program costs “right around a million dollars,” he said. In this case, the financial backing was set; finding the car was the biggest challenge.
When it comes to one-off entries for the Indianapolis 500, drivers generally try to forge a partnership with an existing team and ask them to add a spare car — like the No. 33 Ed Carpenter Racing machine, a third entry for what’s typically a standard two-car team. But pickings were slim this year, Wilson said, leaving his team to adapt Tatiana Calderon’s road-course car for speedway duty after the checkered flag flew at the GMR Grand Prix.
“We’ve still got road-course aero kits on the car, which are producing a lot of drag,” Wilson admitted. “The Dragonspeed crew are meticulous; they’re already making improvements, just trying to make this car that we’ve received as good as it can be.”
Wilson is no stranger to one-off Indy 500 runs; this will be his fourth time competing at the 500 as a standalone event. But it’s one of the tightest squeezes he’s had in terms of putting a deal together in time to race.
“What’s it like to be gunning for that 33rd spot?” I asked. “Is there extra pressure because you know you’re going to be the one to flesh out the field?”
Wilson laughed. “It almost feels like Survivor. You’re partnering up with people, and they’re telling you the right things, but you don’t know if they’re talking to someone else, too. So definitely a little paranoia goes on, like, ‘Have I made the right alliances here?’ And in this scenario, we did. The alliances held, and it paid off for us. We didn’t get voted off the island.”
That doesn’t fully illustrate how much work goes into securing a ride for this one event. Wilson told Jalopnik that he, along with “maybe seven or eight other” one-offs, starts making phone calls on June 1st for the following year’s Indy 500. Basically, as soon as the checkered flag flies, he’s thinking about next year’s seat.
“I would estimate that I spent at least 200 days where at least some part of the day I was working on this,” he said. “You can’t sit there and just make phone calls and emails all day. There’s a ton of time waiting for people to get back to you. So you make some phone calls, you learn some information, you use that information to then make the next phone calls ... a lot of time, you’re just waiting for people to get back to you.”
In the meantime, Wilson is a driver coach in various different motorsport disciplines, and he also competes in the IMSA WeatherTech Series. Balancing the pursuit of a 500 ride on top of a busy schedule, especially as May approaches, can be an emotionally complex task.
“Every day you get closer [to the 500], it makes it harder to do it right. Every day that you can have working on that car and making it Indianapolis Motor Speedway ready, the better it can be,” Wilson said. “You definitely feel that sort of pressure. ‘I need to get this done so we can be fast come the month of May.’
“At the same time, other deals start forming and solidifying, and those spots become fewer and fewer. So you’re just trying to put something together and, at the same time, you’ve got a list of teams that you want to work with and those spots dry up.”
The pressure of the pursuit, though, is behind him. On Tuesday, May 17, Wilson completed his refresher course around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, proving to himself and race officials that he’s capable of reaching competitive speeds. That was the only time Wilson had spent on the Indy oval at the time of our interview. I was hesitant to ask about expectations, but Wilson was willing to share his thought process, giving us a peek behind the curtain of a driver’s evolving mindset during a race weekend.
“Qualifying is really important here because track position has become so crucial over the last two years,” he said. “The dirty air that you experience behind another car when you’re following is so bad it’s really hard to make passes.
“I think we’ll evaluate how [practice] goes. If we have a shot of improving our starting position significantly, then we’ll really invest a lot of time in making our qualifying car as good as it can be. But if we feel like we’re already going to be back of the pack, then we’ll focus on the race car and sacrifice qualifying,” he continued.
“Our expectations are all realistic,” Wilson continued. “Every day you get closer to the race, waiting for that deal to happen, you have less time to prepare. Less time to make the car as good it can be. And we definitely didn’t have that time.”
As for those other racers looking to secure a one-off Indy 500 seat? Wilson has advice for them, too: “Watch a bunch of Survivor and don’t get voted off the island.”