After six years biding his time in the Indy Lights ranks, Wade Cunningham will finally make his IndyCar debut this weekend in the Firestone Twin 275s at Texas Motor Speedway, as IndyCar carries out its double race experiment Saturday night with a pair of 114-lap races on the 1.5-mile oval, with an hour in between.
The New Zealander, who announced his limited 2011 program with Sam Schmidt Motorsports in February, will join 29 other drivers this weekend, and will also race at the Kentucky Indy 300 on Oct. 2 and the IZOD IndyCar World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 16 in the No. 99 Creatherm Sam Schmidt Motorsports car. That's the same car Townsend Bell drove at the Indianapolis 500, and Bell is tipped to return to the car for other races. For now, though, the focus is on Cunningham.
"Our strategy for this year was to get my face out there and do as many events as possible and get as much experience as possible," Cunningham said. "We could have done the '500' or we could have done the program we're doing. It's such a tall ask showing up (at Indy) – the biggest race of the year with almost no prior testing other than what you get during the month – and then you're expected to go out and race against the best guys in the series who have the best cars and shine and then expect something to happen from that one showing.
"And that's assuming that it goes as good as it can. I thought that was too much risk for our sponsors and my exposure, so hopefully at the end of this year we get some exposure and we get momentum and next year I don't think I'd make the same decision.
"I've been around the paddock since 2005 and maybe it gives you a bit more perspective than some of the young kids that keep sticking up year after year and eventually they're going to hit the ceiling. I think my age now, 26, I'm a much more mature person and more mature driver and I'm going to make better decisions on the track and hopefully that plays into my hands when I do get the shot."
Cunningham found success at every turn early in his motorsports career. The Asia-Pacific Karting champion in 2001 and winner of the World Karting Championship in 2003, Cunningham moved to the United States to race cars. He finished fifth in the 2004 Cooper Tires Formula Ford Zetec 2000 series, and claimed the Firestone Indy Lights championship with Brian Stewart Racing (finishing in the top five in 13 of the 14 races).
He competed in two Firestone Indy Lights races in 2010, winning the Firestone Freedom 100 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for a record third time and finishing third in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
"I'm 100 percent certain that if I had not won at Indy with Sam in 2009 and then 2010 I wouldn't be here now," says Cunningham, who sat out the '08 season. "I would say my passion and success at Indy kept me going."
Maybe those years in the wings will prove fruitful for Cunningham, who expected to slide into an IZOD IndyCar Series ride following his Firestone Indy Lights success in '05. When that didn't materialize, he began being more proactive with the business side of his career.
"It's part of the process of going racing," he says. "I'm used to it, especially the last few years when things were never going as planned or expected. I try not to get too far ahead of myself, but it was pretty tough being at Indy and (seeing drivers) having a good time on the track, especially the rookies I've been racing against."
Cunningham advanced two positions to finish second at Texas in 2005, the last time Firestone Indy Lights competed on the oval.
"It's super-quick, and I love the mile-and-a-half racing and the pack racing," he says. "It's so close and that's something the last couple of years in Lights the racing has been extremely close. That's what I expect around Texas, just flat-out on every lap in every corner."