FORT WORTH, TX — Felix Rosenqvist was the 11th driver to qualify on a nice Saturday afternoon day at the Texas Motor Speedway. He quickly went to the top of the leaderboard after his qualifying attempt. Then came the anxiety. He had to endure 16 attempts for those trying to top him. Among the drivers waiting?
Every series champion since 2012. Every Texas race winner with the exception of two since 2011. Among them was the pole king Will Power who’s four shy of tying Mario Andretti for most ever.
“I know, it was a bit of a torture to watch that thing unfold,” Rosenqvist said.
That anxiety of just waiting? Well, he’s been waiting a while to feel like this again.
Just a few short years ago, Rosenqvist was the next big star waiting in the wings. In 2015, he won the F3 championship. In 2016, he came over to run some in Indy Lights. In just his second start, he won. Rosenqvist, made 10 starts that season in Indy Lights. He won three of them.
He’d even test a Chip Ganassi Racing car in Mid-Ohio. He wowed the team then. But, he didn’t have the budget that it’d take to land here full-time so off he went back overseas to run in Formula E. It’d take him just six races before picking up his first win there. He’d finish third in his rookie season overaeas in 2016-2017. A year later, he won two of the first three races. 3 wins in 15 starts in Formula E. However, he was led back to the United States to race for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2019. They had an opening in their No. 10 Honda and had never really lost track of their future star.
Rosenqvist, won Rookie of the Year Honors in the NTT INDYCAR Series in 2019 after scoring six top fives including a pair of runner-up finishes towards the end of the year. He had three top fives in the final five races with both of those second place results coming then.
2020 would be his breakout year, right?
Unfortunately, an Aeroscreen, a pandemic and a lot less track time saw him actually have a regression. Rosenqvist did finally get his INDYCAR win. He did so in the fourth race of the season at Road America. But, that was his only top 10 in the first six races to the year. He’d finish in the top five in just two of the 14 races that season.
His confidence was gone. While he’d join Arrow McLaren SP for 2021, the results stayed the same. He’d have no top 10’s in his first eight races and among them was a frightening crash in Belle Isle which forced him to miss two races due to injury.
From the start of 2020 until the summer break of 2021, Rosenqvist had 12 finishes of 14th or worse in 22 races. In an ever competitive series and having been driving for teams of Ganassi and AMSP’s caliber, his confidence waned.
Was it him? Was it the cars? Was it circumstances? What was it?
“When you don’t have a good result, there’s always excuses and reasons and things, but if you don’t have the result, then at the end of the day it’s going to eat away at your confidence, right?” Rosenqvist said. “Definitely. I feel like I’ve done a good job recharging every weekend, and I’ve gone into every weekend positively, but you don’t actually have the confidence that you can do it in a way because the last time I had a good result was really a long time ago. Things like this is really important where you just kind of break the trend and like, hey, you can do this, we can do this. Our car is strong. We do a good job. We don’t need to focus too much on the others, and just do our thing. Yeah, confidence if something goes up and down for sure.”
Now, Rosenqvist is a pole sitter in INDYCAR again. He held off all 16 drivers to score his second career Indy Car pole as he’ll lead the field to green in Sunday’s XPEL 375 (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).
Confidence is back. He felt it at the end of 2021 as he finished the year with much better pace than previous. However, after a rough season opener, he still held his head high because of what was coming next – Texas.
Initially, Rosenqvist was scared to death of this place. In 2019, he just rode around trying to stay out of the way. The crash in Pocono that year didn’t help ease his mind when he came back in 2020. But, that season opener allowed him to find his groove. He qualified ninth and was running second in the end before getting caught on that PJ1 compound and crashing with 10 to go.
That didn’t help his confidence for the season but did for this place. Now, two years later, he’s on the pole.
“I mean, I think it goes from track to track,” he said. “Particularly this track is a track where I feel very confident, and last year we had two really good races here. We just didn’t get a good finish for other reasons really, but yeah, I feel like you sometimes have to forget what happened and just kind of have fun with it. Don’t overthink things. You need to think — there are so many details you need to do right, but if you start thinking too much, you’re never going to get better, so at some point you just have to let go of the demons and just jump in the car and have fun, and I think that was a good example today.
“I mean, I remember the first time I came here. Then it was definitely not fun. I was really scared the first time I was here, and it was actually the first super speedway I ever did, but, yeah, I think from 2020 onwards it’s been a track where I feel really calm and confident, and I kind of know how to attack the race and how to work with the driving line and how the car needs to be set up, and I think it suits me pretty well naturally, and, yeah, definitely I feel like I have some unfinished business at Texas.”
As to what he did mentally to change his approach?
“On these kind of tracks you’re always your own worst enemy, right? You’re always debating with yourself. You know, should I trim out? Should I change my tools? Should I go freer? Should I go tighter? It’s always a constant mental thing, and I think it showed that just attacking it a bit more calmly has been good for me. Not overthinking it.
“Kind of same at Indy. Also getting better and better every year. I mean, you can really get deep inside your head on this these places and same thing there. You just have to, like, trust yourself and switch off and do it.”
Rosenqvist, beat second place starter Scott McLaughlin, so also was the final qualifier on the day, on Lap 1 of qualifying.
Rosenqvist’s opening lap was the different maker. He went 221.316 mph. The last qualifier of the 27 car session in Scott McLaughlin went 221.166 mph in his No. 3 Chevrolet on Lap 1 but was 221.027 mph on Lap 2. That was quicker than Rosenqvist’s lap of 220.905 mph. But, that difference on Lap 1 was what kept McLaughlin from adding a second straight pole award trophy to his case.
“I certainly felt I had a little bit of scrub off turn one and two on that last lap, and that potentially — it may have cost me a little bit, scrubbed a little bit of speed there,” McLaughlin said on the difference in margin and what he could have done differently. “I knew it, so on three and four I was like, oh, I’m making a little bit of a weight jack adjustment and bars, but then I looked at the score and I was, like, 209.9 at the end. That might not be enough, and then sure enough they said P2. Like I said, great job for Team Chevy to have a front row. I think it’s three in the top four, so it’s leaps and bounds, and we’re getting ready for Indy now.”
Rosenqvist said, “The first lap was a bit loose, and the second lap was a bit under-steered, but you’re never going to get it right. Yeah, it was good. It feels really good. I think for the whole Arrow McLaren SP Team and the 7 Car in general, it couldn’t have been better timing to get this pole. It’s a good boost mentally for all the guys and girls working on the car, and I think everyone just showed today that we refocused and came back. A little bit of a disappointment in St. Pete and, obviously, last year, but coming back here just fully focused and doing our own thing and putting the car on pole is really amazing.”
But, for McLaughlin’s case, he knows Rosenqvist’s pain. He was there last year too. See, McLaughlin came over to the United States as the third all-time winningest driver in Team Penske history.
The New Zealander dominated the Super Cars Series amounting 56 wins and three championships in the process. But, McLaughlin wanted more. He was known for his racing prowess Down Under, but why harness his talents to just one corner of the world.
He wanted to feel challenged again and the best way to do both – come to the United States. His paychecks were being signed by Team Penske and after all, they have NASCAR and INDYCAR teams to offer here.
The best path?
The NTT INDYCAR Series.
So, McLaughlin made his first career start in the 2020 season finale on the streets of St. Pete. Less than two years later, he’s made the tough decision to come over here payoff.
McLaughlin, 28, not only won the pole for the 2022 season opener, he’d win the race 24 hours later too.
This was huge for his psyche because after a rough go of it in his rookie season last year, he was down. He wasn’t used to not winning. 56 wins overseas was a lot. To go from that to being lucky for a top 10, well that hurt his confidence.
See, he came over here in the middle of a pandemic. For a family man that’s close to his parents, to go through a season like he endured in 2021 was difficult to not have them by his side either.
It was just he and his wife and that’s it.
“Yeah, I came over three times,” he said. “I had won straight back-to-back championships, and I know I’m a rookie and I wasn’t kidding myself, but at the same time it’s hard to go from the mindset of, okay, win every week and that’s all that matters, nothing less, to going, hey, I’d love a top 15. I don’t work like that. I’m a competitive bloke. I want to win. I want to get poles. I want to dominate races and not even worry about things.
“It definitely took — I did that for four years, and then coming here and was basically — it just mucks with your head, and you’ve got to be realistic about things, and I put a lot of pressure on myself, like why isn’t this happening, why am I sucking in qualifying when I’m good? I’ve done that before, I’ve proved that.
“It’s a mind game, man, and you’ve got to be on top of it. You’ve got to just believe in yourself.
“Like I said, Karly has been my absolute rock with that. She’s put the belief in me. I would be nothing without her.
“Definitely some hard times, but she’s pulled my head in, Roger’s pulled my head in, and we just got on with it. Speaking pretty candid, it’s just how it is. As a professional sportsman you go through highs and lows. You’re getting paid good money and you’re running 15th, it’s not good. For me it’s not good. I drive for the biggest motorsport team in the world. For me it wasn’t good.
“But I feel like today, this weekend, we proved that hard work, perseverance, you can get there, and I felt very proud of that.
“I miss my mom and dad dearly and my family. Wish you guys were here. What a day.”
The last time he’s seen his parents?
January 2020 he said. He last saw his sister during his INDYCAR debut in Oct. 2020. That was the last time for both.
“Yeah, I miss them dearly. My mom and dad, they’re the ones that got me here and made me believe in myself. My mom and dad have been infatuated with the USA for many years, and I guess that put the love of the USA and the want to come over here to the big leagues when I was a young kid, even way before my Supercars success.
“Then obviously I met just a guy named Roger Penske and we kicked it off. I’m tremendously grateful for the position my mom and dad put me in and the position Roger and Tim Cindric put me in.”
Now, he’ll start second along side of Rosenqvist.
He finished runner-up here in his Texas debut last May so being in second place at the start of this year’s race is a difference maker too.
“I think there’s momentum and also self-belief and believing that you guys can do it as a squad, guys and girls,” he said. “I think the Car 3 team, before we went to St. Pete we believed we could pop out a result here and there and be strong, but the way that St. Pete went for us was fantastic. Certainly when you have that confidence early, it’s a fantastic thing, but now it’s all about keeping that going, and, yeah, I believe the momentum is that. The momentum, you’ve got to — even if we did qualify a little bit further down today, I still think we would have rolled into tomorrow’s race feeling pretty good.
“It’s a good vibe on the team, and I put that down to Benny Bretzman. He is such a great team leader, great for the camaraderie between the guys and girls on the team. He puts a lot of confidence in me and my ability. That certainly is a momentum-builder for all, for sure.
“You just go out and wheel the thing and see what you’ve got. I feel comfortable with what I’ve got, and I put myself down that I can be as good as anyone in this series, and that’s why I’ve come here to challenge myself. Yeah, confidence is a big thing, and I lost a little bit of that last year, and it’s nice to get some of that back, but we’ll see what we’ve got tomorrow. Yeah, all good.”
He’s confident and has a hunger still for tracks that he didn’t know he’d grow to quickly love.
“I just enjoy ovals. I enjoy the challenge. It’s very intricate. You have to think about all parts of the corner. There’s almost eight or ten parts of the corner that you have to really think about to give feedback for the engineer. We took turns one, two, three, four, but for me I break it up into almost 20 parts throughout the track, and I enjoy that.
“I guess one thing as well last year for me was I had bad habits on the road course, straight course that I had to iron out, and ovals I could come and just be brand new. I just learned off Will and Josef and Simon. I just copied what they were doing and found my own way, and I’m really enjoying it, and I just love the racing.
“INDYCAR is oval racing. I feel like we have to have ovals. I enjoy it. It’s part of our DNA, and that’s why I’ve come to America for INDYCAR racing for ovals.”