By MICHAEL MAROT, AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Felix Rosenqvist sensed Swedish race fans started following IndyCars earnestly again in 2019.
Marcus Ericsson’s Indianapolis 500 victory will only fuel the momentum.
After becoming the second 500 winner from Sweden, Ericsson’s homecoming later this summer could be fit for a king.
“I’m planning to go home for mid-summer, that could be a good mid-summer party, right?” he said Sunday, winning with a Hulski Chocolate, a Swedish-based company as his primary sponsor.
First, Ericsson must complete a weeklong victory tour. That’s followed by races next Sunday at Detroit and the following Sunday at Road America before a two-weekend break may finally allow Ericsson to bask in the celebration of his home country.
But the 31-year-old Ericsson doesn’t mind the busy schedule, especially given the long, arduous path he took to join his mentor Kenny Brack atop the world of IndyCar racing. Brack won the 500 in 1999.
And Ericsson’s rapid ascension is likely to keep the interest in American racing percolating throughout Europe.
Ericsson’s trek could serve as a model for other international racers. After failing to make the podium in 97 Formula One starts, Ericsson left for IndyCars in 2019. He finished 17th in points as a rookie, was cut loose by Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and bought a ride with Chip Ganassi Racing.
Since then, Ericsson relied on the advice Brack offered all those years ago to produce three top-five finishes in each of the past three seasons and three wins including Sunday’s. Brack isn’t surprised by the results — and understands how Sweden will embrace its newest star.
“It’s great to see, so a big congratulations,” Brack said on an impromptu phone call Sunday. “I don’t think you realize yet what this means for your career, but you will find out in time.”
While Ericsson’s victory sweeps Sweden, it’s a boon for the series, too.
Three Nordic country drivers are already full-time IndyCar drivers — Ericsson, Rosenqvist and 21-year-old rookie Christian Luundgaard of Denmark. Add 21-year-old Rinus VeeKay of the Netherlands and Ericsson’s teammate, defending series champion Alex Palou of Spain, and there’s a distinctly influential European flavor developing.
With American drivers such as Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden, Mexico’s Pato O’Ward of Mexico, the 500 runner-up, and a strong but aging group of South American drivers continuing to win the hearts of IndyCar fans, there’s no indication the pool of global talent is abating.
Four-time Indy winner Helio Castroneves compares what’s happening in Northern Europe today to the transformational South American contingent he helped lead two decades ago.
“It does,” the Brazilian said. “I can’t even pronounce those guys’ names because they are Swedish, but I think all these guys are watching what’s happening and they should. If you have enough talent, why don’t you come to a place where if you’re good, you’re going to have your opportunity?”
Rosenqvist and Ericsson certainly found it in America.
They made the jump together after Rosenqvist’s F1 quest ended. He initially landed with Ganassi’s team, earning 2019 rookie of the year honors and his first career win at Road America in 2020.
Rosenqvist moved to Arrow McLaren SP last year and while he hasn’t yet returned to victory lane, the 31-year-old has won one pole, posted four top-10 finishes and was in contention for the win Sunday before finishing a career-best fourth, giving the Swedes two spots in the top five.
“Obviously, people that follow me and Marcus, the word kind of gets spread around,” Rosenqvist said. “There was a big spike in 2019 when we both came here and now it’s a consistently growing fan base in Sweden. With all the new talent in Sweden, I think we have a good future in the U.S.”
The question is how much will Ericsson’s big victory help?
Drivers with previous Formula One experience, such as Ericsson, Romain Grosjean of France and Takuma Sato of Japan, have found more success in America than overseas.
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso of Spain may return to the 500 at some point, too.
There’s no indication the influx of talent or opportunities are abating.
The series already fields 26 full-time entries, its highest total in a decade, and at least three additional teams — Cusick Motorsports, Paretta Autosport and Dreyer & Reinbold Racing — would like to run full time.
That could open the door to even more Swedes as Ericsson’s 500 win gives him IndyCar’s top spot as the new points leader.
“It’s something you dream of for so long. To actually do it, you have to pinch yourself,” he said. “All that support (from Sweden) is very important to me. I’m extremely thankful for that. I hope they enjoyed that moment.”
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