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INTERVIEW: Matt Brabham discusses Indy Lights, SST career

16 Mins read
Credit: James Black/Penske Entertainment

Matt Brabham has had an interesting career, to say the least. A member of the legendary Brabham family, he looked to be the next big thing in American open-wheel racing before sponsorship woes doomed his aspirations in 2015. Seven years and three championships in the Stadium Super Trucks later, he is back in Indy Lights and already a race victor after winning last Sunday’s season opener in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

Days after his emotional triumph, The Checkered Flag caught up with Brabham to talk about his return to Indy Lights, his dreams of racing in the NTT IndyCar Series and potentially dabbling elsewhere, and the influence of his family and colleagues in SST. TCF previously spoke with him in 2015.

Some text altered to remove verbal pauses and improve readability

TCF: One race in, first Indy Lights start in 2,506 days, and you’re already the points leader. That’s 19 wins in 48 career Road to Indy races for you, second best win percentage all time. How does it feel, like has it truly sunk in yet that you’re not only back in the IndyCar ladder, but you’re also winning?

MB: It was definitely a sweet victory to come back and have that success. But I think it’s sunk in. I mean, there’s a lot of work still, there’s a lot of season left, and having some early success like that is just… as you said, it’s 2,800 days and an old stat. It’s coming back and working hard and having everything come together and having success like that in the first race. I wasn’t really expecting it, but I’ve definitely celebrated it and, if anything, I’m ready to get back to work and just keep plugging away at the season. But yeah, I mean it was a very special and gratifying kind of moment to get that under the belt. It was lucky but I mean, I’ll take it and that’s definitely, definitely pretty cool.

TCF: Does it feel a little more special knowing that it was at St. Petersburg, which is basically like your home track?

MB: I love Florida and I was originally born in Florida. I’ve been to St. Pete quite a lot and it’s usually the first race of the year for a lot of series. It was special but I think the thing that made the whole result and the ending the most special and made it so gratifying is that, as you said, the time off and being out on the sideline for so long watching, and then finally getting the opportunity to come back and having some of that gratification of, “I still got it and I can still do this. I’m back and I’m ready to go.” I would say that was the overwhelming part of the emotion was the time off. But yeah, for sure, it being in Florida and at St. Pete was a small factor as well.

TCF: You’re 28 now, you’re the oldest driver in the field by quite a margin and considering everyone else is in their late teens, does it ever feel odd knowing you’re much older and more experienced with the series than everyone else, or do you feel like that time away kind of levels the playing field to the point where you’re basically starting back at square one?

MB: A bit of both, really. I’m definitely the older guy coming back and I’m constantly reminded of that by my younger team-mates and everyone else. But I think if you look back at the series, there’s been a lot of guys the same age, if not older than I am, that come back and race Indy lights before going to do other things. I can think of a couple of names as examples: Max Chilton went from F1 back to Lights to get used to the American side of things, and then Felix Rosenqvist from Formula E coming and doing Lights. When I raced Lights in 2014, I remember there was a 28-year-old and his name was Luiz Razia. He just finished second in the Formula 2 Championship, and there was no spots for him in F1.

I think that I’m not the only one, right? Obviously, I’m the veteran this year and the older guy, but as you said, I think that time off… It’s not like I have a huge advantage over all these kids. I’m experienced and I’ve raced a lot of stuff and I can bring that knowledge and use it to my advantage. But you can look at it the other way where my team-mates have been racing for five, six years all in a row in open-wheel cars and the Road to Indy, whereas over the last five or six years, I haven’t been racing open-wheelers full-time yet and I’ve been doing the trucks and stuff. It’s not like it’s a super close style of racing, you know.

Credit: Rob Harris

TCF: Let’s switch gears over to stadium trucks then. You made your SST début at Toronto 2015 as a substitute for Paul Tracy before going full-time in 2016. Even though SST supports IndyCar, considering your background in open-wheel, what made you decide to commit to an off-road truck series?

MB: Honestly, it just all fell into place, much like this opportunity in Indy Lights. I didn’t have too much else going on and I was driver coaching at that first race in Toronto when I jumped in. As much as I love driver coaching and helping young kids out, it’s not where I want to be, right? So I just kind of fell into that opportunity. The way the Super Trucks were structured with the prize money and getting opportunities from the sponsors that were involved in the series to keep racing, it just made perfect sense for me to do and make a living doing it. It paid bills and it was a great lifestyle and we were travelling all over and having a lot of fun. I mean, I loved it. That to me is almost as pure racing as you can get, living off the prize money and racing with some seriously good competition in Robby Gordon and all the other off-road guys and people from different disciplines coming in. I just absolutely loved it.

Having said that, as much as I loved it, my ultimate goal has always been IndyCar. Even though I was racing and quite content in the Super Trucks and doing well, every single year I’ve been racing trucks, I’ve also been trying to get opportunities in IndyCar and open-wheel again. I think, for sure, it’s definitely my time to re-enter the open-wheel stuff and start following my kind of childhood dream of going to the Indy 500 and racing in IndyCar full-time and having success there.

TCF: Super Trucks and open-wheelers are completely different worlds in terms of things like vehicle setup and driving style, but you have proven that you can win in both. Do you feel that there is anything that you might have picked up from SST that can be applied to driving an IndyCar or vice versa?

MB: Yeah, I think so for sure. I think a lot of the stuff that I learned from Robby and all those guys from different disciplines was making different driving styles and different approaches work for different types of corners. Those guys are so versatile that I think open-wheel drivers can definitely get caught in a little bit of a rut. I think that’s like one of the biggest crossovers I found is that the Indy Lights car originally, it’s completely opposite to really what I am used to driving style-wise with most open-wheel cars. I think because I’ve just adapted to so many different cars, I’ve been able to just completely alter my driving style and adapt to the Indy Lights car, which I think, obviously, if I jumped in an IndyCar, I might have to do as well. The Indy Lights car has been quite weird to drive, and if I had been driving the Indy Lights car the way I did in 2014, I would be terrible. I think that’s been huge is just having the versatility of adapting the driving style.

I think what crosses over from the open-wheel side is the road racing stuff and the corner speed and kind of the smoothness of getting the most out of the tight corners and slowing corners, whereas I think the off-road and the Super Truck guys tend to be a bit more ragged and on the edge and less smooth. But they’re still fast, but I think that’s kind of the differences I found. I’d say the biggest thing is the off-road and the Super Truck style is a bit more aggressive and over the grip limit and you’re sideways a lot more, whereas the open-wheeler is, you always push the front of the car into the corner and you’re always a lot smoother.

Having done all of that stuff, I think it’d be interesting to see. Maybe there’s a wet-weather race this year and I’ll be really good with all my dirt experience and the wet weather, and who knows? Maybe I’ll be really good at ovals too, being used to the car being loose. I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes. But I think the Super Truck has been a massive help, and you’ve seen that with guys like Sheldon Creed too going to NASCAR and doing well. The Super Trucks definitely prepares you for anything.

TCF: You’re not the only driver in Indy Lights with SST experience because Jacob Abel, he ran at Nashville and Long Beach last year. Have you two ever talked to each other about either series, like him approaching you for pointers on driving a stadium truck?

MB: Yeah. I try to help everyone out with the Super Truck as much as I can, and I try to help Jacob but he was actually really good at the Super Truck at those races and I was quite impressed. Obviously, he’s running his own team and there’s a lot of struggles with that, but I think he’ll be good this year too in Lights, especially once he kind of figures it out. It’s cool to have someone who has that experience because at least, I can kind of bounce things off of them, and kind of relate to them in a way that they’ve experienced the Super Truck and compare it to open-wheel cars on how different it is. But yeah, I think it’s pretty cool to see him doing well for sure.

TCF: To kind of stick on the topic of other drivers in the field that you raced against: Ernie Francis in Trans-Am. What was that experience like, when you were subbing in for Chris Dyson (at Circuit of the Americas in 2021)?

MB: That was awesome. I had so much fun. I think the Trans-Am probably relates more to the Super Truck than the open-wheel car too, with the way that the car moves and the horsepower and everything. I had a great time jumping in and we had a awesome race. We were side-by-side the whole last lap of that race and I just come away with the win. He was great, fun to race with him, and he’s a good racer too. It’s great to be racing with him in the Lights too and same thing with Abel. There’s a lot of stuff that I can relate with him, coming from Trans-Am and having that experience we can talk about and get along with, how it’s different to the Lights car. I’d say for sure, he needs a bit more time to get used to it than me coming from Super Trucks and Trans-Am. I was telling Ernie the other day, I’m like, “Man, you’d be good in a Super Truck too because that’s basically similar to the Trans-Am.” But yeah, it’s a lot different to a Lights car. It’s definitely taking me time to adjust, it’s going to take him time to adjust too.

That race with Chris… Chris had some issues and my thoughts are with him, but that was just amazing. I am so grateful to Chris Dyson and that team. His team is one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with. I mean, they’re so professional and do such a good job that it just made it easy for me to jump in like that and do well, but I’d say most of that credit goes to the team and Chris and his guys.

Credit: James Black/Penske Entertainment

TCF: Your racing portfolio is pretty diverse now. We got things like Formula E, Supercars, sports cars, vintage cars, and even jet skis. Have you ever thought about expanding your horizons more by racing in like NASCAR or rallycross, should the opportunity arise?

MB: Absolutely. I keep telling the rallycross guys, I’m like, “Look, I race on dirt and do way bigger jumps in the Super Truck and I’d be really good at rallycross.” No opportunities have come up there yet, but I keep telling them, “You stick me in a rallycross car, I’m gonna be pretty good.” No opportunities yet, but I’d love to do anything as you said. Doing all that stuff helps at the end of the day. But yeah, I’d love to do it. I did a little bit of NASCAR stuff a while ago: I did a Super Late Model race with David Gilliland‘s team a long time ago, and I really loved that NASCAR stuff too. The racing is so competitive and that’s what’s fun, I found super fun with that too.

The one thing I haven’t really done is like the midgets and the sprint car stuff, like the Chili Bowl or I know they a race at Indy at the IMS on dirt (the BC39), that small dirt midget racing and sprint car racing. I think that’s something that I’ve been missing out on for sure. Talking to all the racing drivers that do it, they say that’s on the bucket list, so I’d love to give that a shot at some point. Obviously, my focus this year is Indy Lights and doing it best as I can in that and hopefully moving on to IndyCar. Who knows when any of those opportunities will come up? As you know, I say yes to everything, so I’m definitely open to it all.

TCF: So let’s say you can pick one NASCAR race to run. What would it be? Like I imagine the Daytona 500 is on everyone’s bucket list, but you’re also pretty savvy with road courses and obviously, there’s Indianapolis too. If you can pick one, where would you like to race?

MB: [Having raced at Indianapolis in the 500]*, there’s a lot of stuff I can relate in terms of like the strategies and the pit stops and you know, racing in a pack in the draft. […]* But I’d have to pick the Daytona 500. I’d love to do that. I think if I was going to have the most chance of winning a race, probably a road course because those guys race on ovals every weekend. If you’re not racing every weekend on an oval, it’s tough to keep up with the competition. I’d say my chances of winning would probably be better on a road course, but I mean, if I had to pick one, I’d pick the Daytona 500.

TCF: You’ve gone up against your dad (Geoff) a couple of times in vintage cars. How big of an influence was he for you as a driver and how special was it to get to race against him?

MB: It was massive. His influence on my career and everything is, you know, he’s been the guy that’s taught me everything, really, in terms of racing. We raced go karts together and all the way up through, and he’s always been supportive of my racing. He’s been the driver coach. We never had driver coaches until recently, and now it’s getting a bit more of a big deal; even a lot of the IndyCar guys have coaches and people helping them out with the driving side of things. But for me, it was just always my dad and he always helped out tremendously.

To race like vintage with him? I mean, it’s not often that you get to say, or any racing driver can say, that he’s raced with his dad and raced competitively. Dad was competitive in those vintage races. We had some really good on-track battles, passing every lap and out-braking each other. Obviously, Dad’s not in his prime, but in his prime, I mean, oh man, it would be crazy to race him. He’s pretty good and he’s still very good. It was just an honour and obviously grateful that I’m able to to do those things and Dad is able to do those things too.

TCF: On the other side of your family, your mom (Roseina): she does jet ski racing and I believe you have raced against her a few times as well. How has that been like, like how has jet skiing applied to your driving skills in cars?

MB: I think it all relates. I’m pretty good on a jet ski and the racing and the competitiveness that shines through on everything. It’s kind of the same feeling, you know, obviously racing with my dad was a pretty big honour and it’s special and I’m just grateful because how many people get to do that? I get to do it with my mom too, and I’ve raced against my mom. Having raced against her and my dad, we share that competitive passion and it just brings us closer together.

I have an absolute blast racing jet skis, and it relates too. There’s lines and there’s ways that you approach the apexes of the buoys and it’s the same kind of theory with race cars where, you know, “slow in, fast out” and getting on the power, and reducing the time that you’re off the throttle and it all relates. You kind of get the feeling and the knack for what feels fast and what doesn’t, and it’s exactly the same feeling on a jet ski. I had a great time transitioning over to jet ski racing and doing that for fun on the side as a hobby with my mom.

TCF: Any plans for the future or are you just planning on taking things one race at a time? IndyCar is still your ultimate goal, but have you considered maybe returning to Stadium Super Trucks every once in a while if it doesn’t clash with your Indy obligations?

MB: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve said this to a couple of people: racing Indy Lights is going to be hard to make a living and pay the bills because it’s just the way Indy Lights is, so I might have to do a couple of Super Truck races and here and there to kind of keep the bills going and pay and keep the rent up. I’ll definitely try and do races that don’t clash. I don’t I could do like a doubleheader weekend, where I race both Trucks and Indy Lights because Indy Lights just takes up all my time, especially on the engineering side, whereas Trucks is a bit easier. I’ll try not to do any of the Truck races that clash and just focus on Lights if that’s on the same weekend, but there’s a possibility of me doing Long Beach in a Super Truck because we don’t have Indy Lights.

So yeah, I think I might race Long Beach depending on a few things and do as many races as I can, just to kind of stay busy and I think it helps. If I’m racing every weekend, it’s better than not racing every weekend, right? I got the Super Trucks I can do, maybe a couple of races, and then I’ll also be doing the two-seater IndyCar as well at a couple of events coming up here this month. Definitely going to be busy in between all the Lights stuff, for sure.

Credit: James Black/Penske Entertainment

TCF: I think Toronto is on the SST schedule this year [and] it doesn’t clash with Indy Lights, and you have had success at Toronto in the past in SST. I remember in 2016, you had this great battle with Sheldon Creed for the finish. How was it racing against him?

MB: Oh yeah, he’s really good. I mean, he is like the epitome of competition for me, right? He always kind of finds that last little bit or that last inch of track to get down inside, and I’m the same way and it’s just resulted in some of the best battles I’ve ever had door-to-door. It’s always on, like when he comes to the Super Trucks, I step it up a level and he just elevates the level and I think it’s the same when I come and race with him in Super Trucks. We just push each other to that next level and I just loved racing with him. So yeah, Toronto could be a possibility and who knows if Sheldon, he raced a couple of races last year with us too. Who knows what he’s doing this year, but it would be great to get back on track with him. He’s great to race with.

TCF: Sheldon obviously comes from more of an off-road background than you. Would you say that his driving style has kind of rubbed off on you in a way or even the other way around?

MB: I think both of us have learned from each other. I think, for sure, he had that ruggedness of off-road where he was a lot more likely to throw it sideways and find time by doing that, and being a bit more rougher with the driving style whereas I was a lot smoother. I’ve noticed that we’ve definitely like crossed a lot of things that we’ve learned off each other. Like I’d say he’s a lot smoother driver now and when I race Trucks, I can be a lot more aggressive in that too. We definitely learn off each other and are things that we both use that we’ve learned off each other for sure.

TCF: Robby Gordon, you worked with him for seven years and he also has IndyCar experience. Did he ever serve as like a mentor for you for both IndyCar (and) off-road, but also anything off the track on the business side of things?

MB: He’s like quite the guy. Whether it’s engineering and designing a chassis, and his knowledge on that side has just blown me away. I think it’s kind of rare. There’s no one like that anymore, and that kind of reminds me of the old days, especially like, listening to stories of my grandfather (Sir Jack Brabham) and stuff. When my grandfather was designing cars and engineering, and running his own shop, I see that a lot in Robby. I’ve learned a lot from him, like how to set up cars, the suspension and engineering and chassis design, and all those things. It’s been really cool to kind of watch Robby go through that.

And he’s quite good on the business side too. He knows how to put on a show and he knows what good racing is and how to get good racing out of a car. That’s what’s been impressive to me. You watch all these series like NASCAR and IndyCar spend millions and millions of dollars and time and resources and years trying to make the racing good, and they can never do it. I feel like they always shoot themselves in the foot and they get greedy or something happens, and it kills the racing and the people can’t follow, and it’s not as exciting. For Robby, I think being a true racer and watching him kind of design the trucks and keep them in a place that they always race good. […]*

He’s kind of the same as Sheldon and myself a little, we’ve been learning off each other and he brings a whole ‘nother aspect to his driving.

TCF: Is there anything else you would like to discuss or comment on?

MB: No, not really. Obviously, it’s a long year ahead, so I’m going to go back and put my head down and just keep working away. I’m grateful and thankful to my sponsor MasterMine, and everyone that’s supporting me and been a big help and Andretti too. Andretti has been so good to me and they basically treat me like family, so to be a part of that and having success with them again, it’s definitely refreshing.

* – Technical difficulties involving the phone call resulted in parts of the conversation not being recorded. Replacement comments from Brabham in a follow-up text:

Yea I basically just said if I had to pick a race it would be Daytona 500 for the history. But I’d think I’d have maybe more chance of winning a road course race.

And second about Robby. I was just saying I learnt a lot from him and he reminds me of the old school drivers from back when my grandfather races. Because he does a lot of work in terms of car design and engineering. He does it all and it’s been massive for me to be racing and learning from him over the years in super trucks.

Full interview on YouTube (subtitled)

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About author
Justin is a History major at San Jose State University and lifelong racing fan who has worked for The Checkered Flag since 2018. His coverage mainly focuses on NASCAR, the Stadium Super Trucks, and off-road series like Extreme E and SCORE International. He also dabbles in other disciplines such as IndyCar, rallycross, and sports cars.
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