Doyel: Santino Ferrucci is a grill master, emergency vet and legit 2023 Indy 500 threat (2023)

INDIANAPOLIS – Santino Ferrucci is late for our interview because he’s walking his dog. Already I like the guy. We’d been planning to speak near his motorcoach inside Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but this is better. He’s walking his dog, is he? Well then let’s go find—

Sure enough, there’s Santino Ferrucci. A few days after one of the 10 fastest qualifying attempts in Indianapolis 500 history, he’s walking his dog on the IMS infield. Well, more like the dog is walking him. A Great Dane, biggest head you ever saw, is patrolling the grass as Ferrucci follows her, his right hand covered in what we in the dog-walking business call a “poop bag.”

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He's legit, this guy. Legit at walking his dog, I’m saying. The bag’s on his hand, covering it, because that’s how you lean down and pick up … look, you get it. Want me to draw you a picture? No leash, either. The Great Dane, Kleo is her name, weighs 200 pounds if she weighs an ounce but she doesn’t need a leash. That’s how well she’s trained.

That’s how well Santino Ferrucci trained her.

He grew up on a farm, this guy. I know, you’re right, he doesn’t exactly have that farmboy look. Doesn’t have a farmboy name, either: Santino Ferrucci. Sounds more like a model from Milan, and that’s what he looks like. Tan skin. Square jaw. Thick blond locks, perfectly coiffed, the kind of hair you describe with words like “locks” and “coiffed.”

Doyel: Santino Ferrucci is a grill master, emergency vet and legit 2023 Indy 500 threat (1)

Grew up on a farm in Connecticut, though. Horses, chickens, dogs, cats. Eighteen acres there, Santino tooling around on a go-kart when he’s not caring for animals or making straight A’s. He’ll get expelled before his junior year of high school, a story nobody knows until you read it here in a minute, but first we have business to handle.

We’re walking his dog, Kleo, as IMS wakes up around us. A car stops to talk. Someone inside the sedan is making an X-rated joke and seeing my notepad and stopping and I’m assuring the guy – you’d never guess who – that we’re off the record here. A few minutes later a member of Graham Rahal’s team stops to congratulate Ferrucci on starting the 2023 Indy 500 from the fourth position.

Now here comes someone on a scooter, a little too cheerful for my liking, probably because he’s horning in on my interview’s final moments. Ferrucci has places to be. It’s race week. Beat it, Scooter Guy.

“Morning!” the guy shouts as he hops off the scooter.

“Good morning buddy,” Ferrucci tells him. “Good job.”

Scooter Guy wants to know: “Get any sleep last night?”

“Yeah,” Ferrucci says, “I slept in. I know you didn’t get a chance to.”

Scooter Guy smiles knowingly – this is Monday morning, little more than 12 hours after qualifying – and scooters off.

Who was that, I’m asking Ferrucci.

“Felix Rosenqvist,” he says of the Swedish driver who will start Sunday’s race one spot ahead of him, on the outside of Row 1. “Great guy. One of my better friends out here.”

Seems like you have lots of friends out here, I’m telling Ferrucci, and I can see why. We shake hands. I’m about to leave.

“I appreciate that,” he says. “A lot of people don’t like me.”

Because you’re young and good? Is it the hair?

“No,” he says. “Europe.”

This is me, staring blankly.

“I went through some controversy in 2018,” he says. “A lot of people still love to hate me.”

Do you have 90 more seconds?

Doyel: Santino Ferrucci is a grill master, emergency vet and legit 2023 Indy 500 threat (2)

'The Great Santino' at age 11

He’d just turned 20.

Ferrucci was what you call a child prodigy, the subject of a story and photo spread in GQ Magazine when he was 11. “The Great Santino,” read the headline, and the story went from there, calling him "the most dominant young racer in America." He was racing against adults – in cars – before he could get a driver’s license, winning one pole and four podiums in eight starts in the 2013 F2000 Championship Series. One year later he’s a Formula 3 driver in Europe, still 15, racing in Germany, in Britain, in Macau.

By 2018 he’s one of the best teenage drivers in the world, and it’s not just GQ saying it. It’s everybody. Ferrucci’s moved up to Formula 2, still 19 when the season starts, and he’s holding his own with four top-10 finishes, but he and a teammate on his Italian-based Trident race team are having issues. There’s plenty of “he-said, he-said” to this story, and to be clear, all of my information here comes from Internet research after leaving Ferrucci’s motorcoach. I’m doing it on my phone in my car, still in the IMS lot. Lots to read, easy to find, and this is reportedly what went down:

The teammate, Arjun Maini, had shoved Ferrucci after a race on the previous day. Why? Don’t know why. But during their next race, 24 hours later, Maini tries to pass Ferrucci and Ferrucci isn’t having it. They’re making contact that later was determined to be Ferrucci’s fault, though he disputed that in a 2019 interview. Whatever the case, Ferrucci has to pit to fix his suspension and winds up 16th of 17 finishers, and he’s furious. On the cooldown lap he’s trailing Maini, planning to give him a hand gesture of some sort, but he’s so angry that he rams into him. Nobody’s hurt, but still.

When all’s said and done Trident suspends Ferrucci and then fires him, though Trident said the dismissal was related more to a sponsorship issue, something Ferrucci had not been able to deliver, even as he’d been spending part of the summer in America driving for Dale Coyne Racing, making his IndyCar debut at the 2018 doubleheader in Detroit. A court in Italy later orders Ferrucci to pay Trident a half-million Euros.

None of this sounds like the guy walking his Great Dane in the IMS infield, a magnet for opposing drivers and team members, returning to his motorcoach to put Kleo inside before coming out with a surprise: His other dog, Kodak, a yellow lab who can whisper on command.

Standing outside his motorcoach, giving Kodak a leftover treat in my pocket – my dog Cap won’t mind – I’m asking Ferrucci:

Were you wrong in 2018?

“Yeah,” he says. “I made a terrible mistake, 100%.”

It’s been five years, I’m telling him. Are you still living it down here?”

“If you Google my name,” Ferrucci says, “it’s finally at the point to where it’s off in the distance. But people who know…"

He pauses.

“It is what it is,” he says.

You were a kid, I say, still unaware of what happened.

“Yeah,” he says, practically sighing now. “That’s another thing. I wish I had some of the knowledge then that I have now.”

You’re an old man of what, I’m teasing, 24?

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m trying. At the end of the day, everyone makes mistakes.”

He's smooth, but a real pain in the...

As a kid he was a real pain in the ass. That’s what Ferrucci is telling me, just like he’d been the one who told me about the incident in Europe. He’s not hiding who he was, who he is, who he’s trying to be. As far as being perfect, no, he’s like the rest of us: Not close.

But as far as being likable? He's off the charts. In the best of ways, understand?

His nickname as a kid was “Smooth,” because that’s what he was – you don’t get profiled by GQ at age 11 if your nickname is, say, “Clunky” – but when I bring that up, he mentions another nickname:

“Pita,” he says.

This is me, staring blankly again.

“Pain in the ass,” he says, and now it makes sense: The first four letters: P-i-t-a.

“I could be a pain in the ass because I always knew exactly what I wanted out of everything I drove, and I knew how to change it myself,” he says. “A 12-year-old turning wrenches isn’t exactly ideal for most people.”

Ferrucci turns wrenches even now, but the folks at A.J. Foyt Enterprises will let him go only so far.

“They’ll let me pull it apart, but they won’t let me put it together,” he says. “Fair enough. I don’t need to be the one responsible for putting the car together. But I know exactly what I’m looking for out of racecars, so I tend to be…”

He pauses.


Even now?

“They don’t call me that here,” he says.

I lean closer. This is me, rubbing my hands together wickedly.

They will after reading this!

“Maybe,” he says. “I know to be a good racecar driver, you have to know what you expect out of a car, and some people mistake that as being a pain in the ass.”

He's a surgeon with super glue

Between being the grill master and performing emergency surgery on a Great Dane, it’s amazing Ferrucci has time this week to tell me about being kicked out of high school. He does so after I ask him – knowing he spent so much of his adolescence in Europe – if he graduated with a G.E.D.

“Nope,” he says. “I got my diploma. I went to public school my whole life, but I was kicked out before my junior year. Funny enough, I was a straight-A student, but I was gone 90 days my sophomore year and I was bringing down the school’s attendance and they kicked me out. I finished online. I finished a year early, too.”

Funny enough, I’m saying, repeating his words. Do people think you’re not smart?

“I’m a racecar driver,” he shrugs.

If Ferrucci ever stops being this transparent, IndyCar will lose one hell of an interesting – and likeable, I’m telling you – driver. Either way, his surgery skills are on point.

This was Saturday night, after the first round of qualifying, and Ferrucci is unwinding by walking Kleo in the infield. She stumbles in the dark onto something sharp, possible leftover shards from a series of crashes during the 2023 GMR Grand Prix two weeks earlier on the IMS road course. She’s bleeding badly from the abdomen, and it’s late, and while the IMS infield has a golf course and a gas station, it lacks a 24-hour veterinarian.

Ferrucci’s granddad fought in World War II. I’m telling you that, here and now, because Ferrucci has a curious mind and loves history and happens to know, thanks to research inspired by his grandfather, that in a pinch Vietnam medics used super glue to heal wounds. Turns out Ferrucci’s got some of that in his motorcoach, and he seals up Kleo’s cut and covers it with bandages. He’s peeling back the bandages to show me his work, and the wound looks fine.

Kleo was feeling so good 24 hours later, she attended the party Ferrucci and his fiancée, Renay Moore, threw for A.J. Foyt Enterprises’ No. 14 and No. 55 teams. The shindig lasted four hours, and Kleo and Kodak were in doggie heaven, wandering from guest to guest, all the hamburger scraps they could eat.

“We flipped 50 burgers,” Ferrucci telling me.

And how many of those do you think you flipped? This is me, asking. And this is Ferrucci, looking puzzled.

“All of them,” he says.

You said we, I’m reminding him. You’re a “we” guy, not a “me” guy?

“My fiancée – I am a ‘we’ guy – I wouldn’t have been able to it without my fiancée,” he says. “Poor thing was cutting up onions and doing all the grocery shopping. She laid out everything, toasted all the buns, and my dogs were so happy. They saw all the food coming in, and they were like freaking out.”

They live a pretty good life here, these dogs. Their owner is a real threat to win the 2023 Indianapolis 500, someone who races here better than he qualifies – his average starting spot in four Indy 500s is 20th; his average finish is seventh – plus he’s generous with treats and handy with super glue.

Last I saw of the driver who will start the 107th Indy 500 from the P4 position, he was being hugged by Kleo. They’re outside his motorcoach and the Great Dane is up on her hind feet, with her front paws draped around her owner’s neck, just someone else in the paddock who seems to really like Santino Ferrucci.

Find IndyStar columnist Gregg Doyel on Twitter at@GreggDoyelStaror

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