My Mazda Road to Indy: Shelby Blackstock
 November 24, 2015| 
  • Series News
A weekly series providing an inside look at drivers involved in the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.

PALMETTO, Fla. – Shelby Blackstock was recognized with a commemorative ring at the 2015 Mazda Road to Indy season-ending awards banquet joining a group of drivers who have completed all three rungs of the acclaimed ladder system. But Blackstock (“Shelbilly” to his friends and Twitter followers) has a much bigger prize in mind: a spot behind the wheel in the Verizon IndyCar Series. 

Blackstock, son of country music superstar Reba McEntire and manager-producer Narvel Blackstock, grew up in Nashville immersed in the music scene, touring with his parents and working as a roadie at a very early age. He graduated from an independent, progressive high school in Los Angeles and headed to the University of Arizona in Tucson. Searching for a vocation that would build on his passion for cars, his freshman year of college seemed to involve crossing more items off the career list than finding something he really cared about. 

Then, Blackstock seized on a plan: he would finish his first year of college if his parents sent him to a racing school. After the four-day racing class at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix, Blackstock knew he’d found his calling – and began the multi-series trend that has become emblematic of his career.

“A couple of teams had sent their drivers back for a refresher course, and I beat them,” says Blackstock. “I did the Fast Pass program at Skip Barber, which was unlimited racing, so I was racing formula cars and the Mazda MX-5 in eight or nine races a day. I was trying to catch up with everyone else and I wanted to become a better overall driver – running with both series worked and I kept doing that.”

In 2011, Blackstock claimed two wins in the Skip Barber Summer Series and finished fifth in the National Series, while also competing in Formula Ford 1600 and the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge. He turned his focus to the Mazda Road to Indy in 2012 but continued to run the sports car series. It was while driving a Mustang for Roush Racing that Blackstock set himself apart from his competitors by learning to not only drive the car, but work on the car as well. He believes it makes him a much better driver.

“Roush could have said ‘just come drive for us’ but they asked me to come work in the shop as well. I moved from department to department, learning the entire business and what it takes to build a top-level race car. I built the car I drove so I knew every inch of it. If something was rattling or not acting right, I knew what it was. I think that makes the driver more valuable. You’d be better on the equipment and in the end, less prone to crashing because you understand what the tolerances are and what it takes to fix the car. There have been things I’ve noticed on the Dallara IL-15, for instance, that not every driver would know. The mechanics respected the fact that I could talk their language.”

With an eye toward the Verizon IndyCar Series, Blackstock joined the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda in 2012, driving for Andretti Autosport – which is coincidental, as he would love to see a return to the multiple-series careers enjoyed by legends such as Mario Andretti.

“I’ve always loved open-wheel racing so my main goal was always a formula car. Formula One just wasn’t realistic and I’d always loved IndyCar racing, so that’s where I wanted to be. I think IndyCar is the most challenging series in the world, because drivers have to be good at so many disciplines: street course racing, ovals and road courses. But I’ll drive anything! I’d love to go back to Mario’s day, where a driver could drive anything – like driving a Formula One car on Sunday and a dirt sprint car two days later.”

Blackstock moved up the racing ladder with the Andretti team, earning a third-place finish in the 2013 Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires and fourth in 2014. He then joined the team’s Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires squad this season just in time to drive the debuting Dallara IL-15. The new car presented a new set of challenges. 

“Most of us had not run a turbocharged car before and that caught a lot of us out, especially since it has a very aggressive power delivery. There are so many positives; it’s definitely what the series needed. There are so many opportunities for the car to be even more effective in bridging the gap between Pro Mazda and IndyCar. It’s produced a great deal of interest, with new teams and new drivers from all over the world looking at it.”  

Many look at the Verizon IndyCar Series test last August that featured seven Indy Lights drivers as a pivotal moment in the series’ development. Blackstock believes it displayed the depth of talent throughout the Mazda Road to Indy. 

“I think the Sonoma test went so well because the maturity level is so high here. The talent pool in the Mazda Road to Indy and the level of professionalism that’s asked of them made the transition seamless. I think that is making people look a little differently at the drivers in the lower levels, because of how those guys handled themselves. 

“There’s nothing like this in the world,” continued Blackstock, ”where you have such a clear path. Drivers can go from karting to IndyCar, like Spencer Pigot did this year after winning the Indy Lights title and the Mazda scholarship. In stock cars and over in Europe, there are hundreds of different options; no one knows the equation to get to the top. Here, the steps are laid out and there’s a clear path.” 

Blackstock has the first part of his 2016 plans in place, announcing last month that he will return to the Andretti Autosport Indy Lights team. But naturally, he’s not satisfied with racing in just one series, so fans can expect to see the young American racing all over the country – and perhaps across the globe.

“I’ve been with Andretti for a long time and I fit in well here. We’ve started fresh – the team has made some changes and I have a teammate now. It would be easy for me to look at another team this year but I would like to see this through and go to IndyCar with them. And with Indy Lights sorted out for 2016, I’m looking at other things I can do, like IMSA or something in Europe. I’d love to do the Nürburgring 24 Hours again, or something in Australia.”
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