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RC Enerson’s remarkable rise to Indy 500 rookie from Pasco County

How a driving instructor from New Port Richey and a mom-and-pop team shocked the racing world.
 
RC Enerson is a rookie in Sunday's Indy 500. He's a New Port Richey native who attended Gulf High.
RC Enerson is a rookie in Sunday's Indy 500. He's a New Port Richey native who attended Gulf High. [ DARRON CUMMINGS | AP ]
Published May 25, 2023|Updated May 26, 2023

Four days after New Port Richey’s RC Enerson became one of the most notable stories in the sports world, he still couldn’t believe where he was sitting.

Inside the RV lot for drivers in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500.

“It’s sinking in,” Enerson said.

The 26-year-old Gulf High alumnus didn’t merely qualify for one of the biggest races in the world, one he has been attending since he was a toddler. He did so after a two-year pause in a stop-and-start career, on a mom-and-pop team trying to compete against financial and historical powerhouses in the premier IndyCar Series.

Enerson’s road to the Indy 500 didn’t look this bumpy when he was speeding through the junior ranks, from karts to cars to the top of the Road to Indy ladder at age 18. He made his IndyCar debut in 2016 with three races for Dale Coyne Racing but couldn’t parlay one top-10 finish into extended opportunities.

RC Enerson's career includes a win in the USF2000 series at the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
RC Enerson's career includes a win in the USF2000 series at the 2014 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. [ Times (2014) ]

Instead, his professional races became a patchwork of one-offs and long shots. The Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2017. An IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in 2019. Two NASCAR stops — an Xfnity Series race in 2020 and a race in the Cup Series at Watkins Glen the next year. A failed qualifying run for the 2021 Indy 500 and a last-place finish in that year’s IndyCar event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.

Since then? Nothing.

Enerson has driven on simulators, but that’s more for fun than competition. He has tried to stay sharp driving a couple of events per month as an instructor at the Lucas Oil School of Racing, but the cars get up to only about 125 mph. That’s more than 100 mph slower than the speed necessary to compete in the Indy 500.

“I’m at least driving something,” Enerson said.

He was working, too, behind the scenes to come up with a Hail Mary attempt at the 107th running of the Indy 500. That included a conversation last winter with Abel Motorsports, a family-owned shop in Indianapolis that has fielded cars in other series but not at this level.

“It snowballed from there,” Enerson said.

The avalanche sent him behind the wheel of a No. 50 Chevrolet this month for orientation laps. He wasn’t used to the power and G-forces, and he was sore the next day from how much he tensed up. But when he saw 211 mph on his first lap, he knew the car was good. Enerson’s thoughts were confirmed Saturday, when he averaged 231.129 mph over his four-lap qualifying run and still thought the car had more speed in it.

That turned out to be fast enough. Not only did Enerson qualify for the race; he did so with only one attempt on the first day, without needing to sweat out a second-day shootout in which four cars fought for the final three spots in the race.

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“It was just, like, the biggest sigh of relief,” Enerson said. “You could see the entire team just be like, ‘Oh, we’re in.’ "

RC Enerson and his Abel Motorsports team are among the most unlikely Indy 500 qualifiers in recent years.
RC Enerson and his Abel Motorsports team are among the most unlikely Indy 500 qualifiers in recent years. [ DARRON CUMMINGS | AP ]

The relief turned to tears in the garage as the team celebrated its unlikely achievement. A driver that hadn’t raced at a major level in two years and an IndyCar team with four days of on-track experience had beaten more established racers, such as 2008 Grand Prix of St. Petersburg winner Graham Rahal, and more experienced teams, such as Dale Coyne Racing, to earn a spot on the starting grid of one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

“It’s still processing in my brain to this day,” Enerson said.

There’s a lot to process. Enerson will try to become the first native Floridian to win the iconic race. He’ll be driving in the event he has watched since he attended his first 500 at age 3. He grew up admiring stars such as Helio Castroneves and Scott Dixon; now he’s competing against them as a peer, whether that’s on the track Sunday or in the drivers’ pickleball tournament.

Eventually, Enerson will allow himself to think about what’s next. Another IndyCar event this season seems unlikely, but maybe something materializes for 2024.

For now, he’s content to sit in a spot he never knew if he’d be in — the drivers’ lot at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — and let the fulfillment of a lifelong dream start to feel real.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.