From 2012 to 2015, Matt Brabham appeared to be the next big thing in American open-wheel racing as he breezed through the Road to Indy. However, his progress was halted after slightly over one season in Indy Lights due to financial troubles. Seven years after his last start in the series, Brabham has another chance to pursue his IndyCar dreams as he will make his Indy Lights return in 2022 with Andretti Autosport, where he fills the seat vacated by champion Kyle Kirkwood, in the #83. Brabham had tested with the team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October as part of the Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test.
“I’m extremely grateful to Michael (Andretti, CEO), J.F. (Thormann, President) and everyone who is a part of Andretti Autosport,” Brabham stated. “They have given me many great opportunities over the years, including this one. We have accomplished amazing results together. We have won a total of fourteen races and a championship in the past. I’m absolutely ecstatic to be back racing full time in a proper open-wheel car again with a top team. I feel it’s where I’ve always belonged. I’m willing to give everything I have at this and more to follow my dream of getting back into the IndyCar Series.”
The third-generation racer from the legendary Brabham family quickly took the Road to Indy ladder by storm when he won the 2012 U.S. F2000 National Championship with Cape Motorsports in a four-win season. He advanced to the Pro Mazda Championship (now Indy Pro 2000) a year later for Andretti, where he completely dominated as he won all but three races in the sixteen-race schedule en route to another championship; the thirteen victories are a series record. However, his graduation to Indy Lights in 2014 meant his third different series in as many years, and the inexperience ultimately bit him in his lone full season as he finished fourth in points with just four podiums and a win on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield road course. On the 14 October episode of The Skinny with Rico & Ken, Brabham also attributed his struggles to difficulty in adapting to cars that had recently switched from Firestone to Cooper Tires; his USF2000 and Pro Mazda cars, as well as his Lights preseason test car, exclusively used Firestone.
Brabham was to run a second Indy Lights campaign in 2015, but only lasted three races before a lack of funding forced him out. Across his four seasons in the Road to Indy, he won eighteen of forty-seven races (approximately 38.3%), the second highest victory percentage in RTI history behind Kirkwood’s 62.5% (thirty in forty-eight). Despite his ladder ascent being cut short, he made his IndyCar Series début at the 2016 Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Indianapolis 500 for Australian outfit PIRTEK Team Murray. Both races are his only starts at the top level to date as he finished sixteenth and twenty-second.
Although racing options in the open-wheel realm dried up, Brabham remained involved as a driving coach at IndyCar race weekends and pilot of the two-seater IndyCar. In 2015, his presence in the IndyCar paddock became a new opportunity when he began racing in the Stadium Super Trucks, a popular IndyCar support class. Brabham elevated to full-time SST competition in 2016 and established himself as one of, if not the top driver in the series with twenty-three race wins and three straight championships. He dominated the 2021 season with podium finishes in every race and a pair of victories en route to a third title. His wins rank third all time and he is the only driver with three series crowns.
“Matt Brabham always pushed it to the limits in Stadium Super Trucks,” read a post from SST. “Congrats to the 3 time SST Champion on the Indy Lights deal for 2022.”
While he has been lighting up the trucks, his desire to return to Indy did not waver. In the weeks leading up to the Griffis Open Test, he began working with various Road to Indy teams, which included rejoining Cape Motorsports for a two-day “top secret R&D testing” at Road America in a USF2000 car. He teased his 2022 plans on The Skinny, a podcast co-hosted by the father of SST peer Robert Stout; Brabham commented that he had been fitted for two car seats during the week and explained one was to assist a team with development while the other is his new ride (the latter obviously referring to Andretti, in hindsight).
“I think when I was younger, I was like, ‘I just gotta win. I just gotta win, that’s all I’m focused on.’ And I wasn’t great on the business side of things, so I’ve learned over the years,” Brabham told The Skinny. “I’ve learned and seen a lot of people come through in a way they’ve done it. I think I can give it another shot and build up some momentum to get back to what I want to do and where I want to be.
“My goal has always been IndyCar so I’m really pushing for that, and that’s what I’ve been working on and I just haven’t had any traction in the last couple of years. Hopefully, it’ll start coming together and I can be smarter about it and get as many people and friends and connections and just get the whole thing going again[.]”
The tenth annual Chris Griffis Memorial Open Test, which took place on the Indianapolis Road Course, saw Brabham set the tenth fastest combined time among thirteen drivers. He was not the only Stadium Super Trucker at the test as Jacob Abel, set for his own entry into Indy Lights, was twelfth; the two joined Stout on the podium at Nashville Race 2 in August. Between the test and Monday’s announcement, Brabham continued racing in disciplines like historic motorsport and sports cars. On 7 November, he won the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association‘s Formula B and Trans-Am Series‘ TA class races at Circuit of the Americas, the latter of which came in his Trans-Am début (as a substitute driver for champion Chris Dyson) after passing seven-time Trans-Am champion and fellow Indy Lights open tester Ernie Francis Jr. coming to the finish.
While some teams have yet to announce their lineups, the 27-year-old Brabham will likely be the elder statesman of the Indy Lights field as drivers in the RTI are generally in their late teens or early twenties. For comparison, Francis was the second oldest Lights driver at the Open Test at 23 years of age.
For team-mates, Brabham will be joined by Andretti newcomers Hunter McElrea, Christian Rasmussen, and Sting Ray Robb, all of whom tested for the team at the Open. McElrea and Rasmussen move up from Indy Pro 2000, the latter as the reigning champion, while Robb finished eighth in the 2021 Indy Lights standings for Juncos Hollinger Racing.
“We’re really excited to have Matty back in our Indy Lights lineup,” said Andretti. “He’s always shown natural talent behind the wheel and was a great Road to Indy contender for us in the past. I’m really looking forward to seeing what our Indy Lights lineup accomplishes this year as all of their talents continue to grow.”