Brazilian driver Matheus Leist is a unique blend of competitor in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
The youngest pilot in IndyCar was born September 8, 1998 and has been alive for nearly as many Indianapolis 500’s as his A.J. Foyt Racing teammate Tony Kanaan has participated in.
Leist’s meteoric rise has included stops in Formula 3 and Indy Lights, and his win in last year’s Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway may have been the selling point to team owner A.J. Foyt who yearns for another victory at the 2.5-mile oval.
On Sunday, Leist will start 11th in the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 (11 a.m. ET, ABC) and is the highest qualifying rookie in the field with an average speed of 227.571 MPH on Pole Day.
Leist is part of Foyt’s dramatic turn around in 2018 as the team struggled mightily at Indianapolis and other tracks last season.
In last year’s ‘500, Foyt’s pilots included Conor Daly, Carlos Munoz and a third car running then-rookie Zach Veach. While Munoz’ prowess at Indy muscled him to a 10th place finish, Daly would exit the race at lap 65 in a single-car accident with Veach eventually dropping out on lap 155 with a mechanical failure.
Not only did Leist and Kanaan place in the top four rows of qualifiers this year, but the satellite team working with James Davison (No. 33 Foyt/Byrd/Hollinger/Belardi) turned their car around between Bump Day and Pole Day to set James a respectable 19th on the starting grid.
For the 19-year-old rookie, Leist has enjoyed success early and often at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. In his first start at IMS on the road course, Leist placed 5th from a 9th place starting position in Indy Lights. For the second round of that doubleheader he reached the podium with a 3rd place run, before wrapping up his 2017 month of May with a win at the Freedom 100.
In a dominating performance, Leist led each of the 40 laps while challengers Aaron Telitz, Dalton Kellett and Neil Alberico were all over his rear wing.
He finished five spots ahead of current Dale Coyne Racing driver Zachary Claman de Melo and well ahead of last years ‘Light’s champion Kyle Kaiser, who would finish 9th.
Despite finishing 21st in the INDYCAR Grand Prix, Leist has been pleased with the team’s performance on the oval.
“Since our first day here, the car has been quick,” Leist said following Pole Day. “We knew that we could have a fast car today. I’m so happy for the team and for Tony. Both crews did an awesome job preparing us for qualifying and we were just fast.
“I’m just so happy for this team. Everyone deserves it. I’m looking forward to the race now.”
Naturally, Leist has been flowing through the month of May with confidence despite his relative lack of experience.
While Kyle Kaiser had accumulated years of experience in the Mazda Road to Indy before moving up to IndyCar, and Robert Wickens spent the last couple of seasons in DTM sportscar racing, Leist jumped headfirst into IndyCar with confidence as the Brazilian’s greatest attribute.
“Yeah, I was expecting to be up front (in qualifying) with Tony,” Leist stated. “I think that we both did a great job… I don’t feel the pressure… I think I’ve learned how to deal well with being nervous.”
Leist is one of the more interesting drivers in the field of 33. Despite his low-key nature, his favorite song is “Lose Yourself” by rapper Eminem. More predictably, one of his favorite movies is “Fast and Furious” while Leist’s racing idol is the late Ayrton Senna.
The teenager knows how to cook for himself, says a prayer for each race and values dedication and loyalty in others.
Also, don’t bother leaving him a message on his answering machine because he hardly checks it – Leist doesn’t even have a greeting message set up.
Sunday’s 500 miles will be the longest race Leist has contested in his relatively young racing career, as if the challenges of the Indy 500 weren’t great enough.
Sometimes being naiive to challenges is the best way to face them, and for better or worse, Leist will stick with the only style he knows.