Rookie Tristan Vautier of Schmidt Peterson Motorsports hails from Corenc, France. He will start on the inside of the tenth row of cars at Sunday's Indianapolis 500 after qualifying at a speed of 224.873 mph. From his position at the back of the field of 33 he expects to feel and see the turbulent draft of the start at Indy.
"The other drivers that have been in the race before told me to expect it to be bumpy," said Vautier of his brief education at the Speedway prior to the 97th Greatest Spectacle in Racing. "I wish there was more room, the track was wider going into the first turn, but it is what it is."
Vautier is taking a leap from Indy Lights into the big cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway by virtue of his successful 2012 season in which he won the championship in the feeder series. A scholarship opportunity afforded him by the Road to Indy program put him in a seat with his former Indy Lights owner, Sam Schmidt, for a full season of competition in the Indy Car series and a chance to qualify for this year's Indy 500.
In many ways, Vautier is a role model for what IndyCar hopes will become a progressively faster and more reliable path to the Brickyard's Memorial Day classic. Vautier began racing in 2007 with Formula Renault, advanced to Formula 2, then to Star Mazda and finally to Indy Lights. He won the championship in Star Mazda to take a seat in Indy Lights, then moved to IndyCar following a championship year in the Lights car in 2012.
He's taken advantage of every level of competition to garner the fruits of his labor toward a faster ride, a bigger challenge and a role as one of the leading young drivers of the next generation.
"It's exciting to know I will be in the 97th race," he said. "It helps that I have experience in the (Indy Lights) Freedom 100 race at Indianapolis, but there we start as only two cars per row. So it will definitely be a different view with three cars side-by-side in the 500."
Vautier describes the upgrade in hardware from Indy Lights to IndyCar as "different" but not necessarily unfamiliar. The two chassis are hardly estranged members of the
Dallara family of race cars. "I've been able to adapt to the IndyCar fairly quickly," he said. "It works both ways: there are features of the Indy Lights car that are shared with the bigger car, and vice versa. The biggest difference is in the shifting." The current IndyCar Dallara DW12 model has paddle shifters instead of the familiar manual transmission of the Indy Lights car.
Tristan has drawn inspiration from his teammates in anticipation of his first start at Indianapolis. He cites both Katherine Legge and Simon Pagenaud as sources of knowledge and experience who have helped him fly into this year's Indy 500 in the 28th position on the grid.
He picked up late sponsorship with Indy Trading Post, a local Indianapolis sports shooting venue, to add to the value of his first ride in the big race as well. "I am really looking forward to taking the green flag on Sunday," he said. "It is without question the biggest race of my career, and I couldn't be more excited about it. It's the greatest race in the world."