Shelby Blackstock might not have had the traditional racing background, but he certainly seems to be making up for lost time.
A year after joining the Mazda Road to Indy, the 23-year-old Nashville resident is competing in Pro Mazda with Andretti Autosport. He has proven to be a quick study, as his current P3 in the standings has proven.
The son of country superstar Reba McEntire and her husband/manager Narvel Blackstock, Shelby is focused on moving up the Mazda Road to Indy and into IndyCar. For now, he’s looking towards developing through the rest of this Pro Mazda season. In the run-up to Pro Mazda’s race as part of Milwaukee IndyFest, Shelby (or “Shelbilly”, if you want to use his nickname) took some time for INDYCAR Nation to talk about his season and aspirations in INDYCAR.
You’re with a new team (Andretti Autosport) in a new series (Pro Mazda) this year. How would you rate this season so far?
SB: I’d say it’s been good. Overall, I mean it’s a mix of learning while I’m trying to go for the championship at the same time. I think we’ve had five straight podiums, and really the elusive thing right now is that win. I’m still just focusing on getting as many consistent podiums and hopefully wins as I can, and hopefully contend for the championship. Of course, my teammate Matt [Brabham] has been really strong this year. He’s such a good driver, and I’m learning a lot from him and the rest of the team.
How would describe the culture at Andretti Autosport, considering they’re a team that competes throughout the Mazda Road to Indy?
SB: Really good—they’re very welcoming. They have the right tools for the job—the equipment you’re in is going to be competitive. Every aspect there, from marketing to media to driver coaching, is excellent. It’s great to have that in-house, to be able to walk over to James Hinchcliffe or Ryan [Hunter-Reay] and ask him something about driving.
With Andretti, there’s experience and background with everything. You can go to Zach Veach, who did Star Mazda—back before it was Pro Mazda—and ask him how he’d deal with a car or how he drove, and try to apply it to what you’re doing. It’s really an awesome place to be, and you just have to be willing to take advantage of all those resources.
Is there a driver at Andretti right now you’d consider a mentor, or that you could say you’ve learned the most from?
SB: I’d say it would have to be Hinch. He’s very, very open, and he’s the sort of guy you can just walk up to and start a conversation. He’s extremely outgoing, and is the sort if you come up and ask him to look at something like data, he’ll point out where you can review. He’s also great with fans, and so he’s a great role model for young drivers looking to interact on social media.
Having said that, I also have watched Ryan Hunter-Reay, and see how he carries himself as a champion. As an ambassador and example of working hard while juggling a family, he has been really impressive to see. You sort of watch and learn, gauging everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and try to take what you can in bettering your own career.
You’ve mentioned your parents are into racing. Have they been pretty regular attendees at the track?
SB: Yeah, I think they’ve made them out to all the races so far this season. They definitely love racing, but are still learning. I’m the only person in my family to ever go racing, compared to my teammate Matt—I think his family’s been racing for what, 4-5 generations? In my family, they’re still learning, but they love it. They were at the Night Before The 500, and I’m pretty sure they’ll be at Milwaukee.
Speaking of Milwaukee, how’s your confidence shaping up on the ovals versus the street courses?
SB: It’s definitely something different. I think overall, my favorites are probably street courses, but I’m learning appreciation for them. It’s definitely not as easy as flooring it and turning left, especially with a formula car. Every movement has to be smooth and calculated. It’ll be interesting at Milwaukee—you can sort of wash out wide and still save it. Testing went a little rough for me at Milwaukee, but I thought we were getting into a rhythm by the end. 100 miles around Milwaukee is going to be interesting, especially with tire usage and wear.
On tire conservation, it seems like we hear a lot about that being key to doing well, especially in the ladder series. How much of a learning curve is there with having to conserve tires?
SB: I was lucky that I had experience in sports cars, where tire conservation is one of the most important things possible. It’s going to be very big at Milwaukee, for example. You’ve got to start with a certain pace and keep that pace. If you go all out, you might be done by Lap 60. If you take off a tenth or ease back just a bit, you might have a bit more towards the end of the race. Since we do have aero on these cars, you can hurt the folks behind you by making them use their tires up more. It’s sort of a double-edged sort, in that regard.
In terms of career development, do you feel pressure to move up the racing ladder one step every year, or would you be ok with a slower progression, such as staying in Pro Mazda for another year?
SB: It depends how the season goes. If I win the championship or finish runner-up and can point to making good progress and development, then I’ll look to move up to Lights.
I’m a little bit different story than a lot of the drivers. I’m 23 years old, but if I don’t hit those goals or finish runner-up, I’m ok with staying in Pro Mazda another year. It really depends on how the season finishes. I’d like to move up. The Lights cars look great, and talking with Zach Veach and Carlos Munoz, they sound like an absolute blast.
When you look at the career of someone like James Hinchcliffe, he’s someone who spent a lot of time in the development ladder before finally moving up to IndyCar. Given that you’re a bit older than some of your fellow drivers, is that a helpful reminder that you can take your time to move up the ladder?
SB: Absolutely. That’s the whole purpose behind the Mazda Road to Indy, is that you have these measured steps. So if I need to take my time, that’s what I do. I’ve seen people try to rush through the ladder, and it’s really hurt them. They folks who take their time, such as Hinch, have seen it pay off. Everything happens for a reason, right, and everything happens in its own time. I’m a firm believer in that. Look at Hinch—he’s ended up with one of the best rides out there.
In terms of your career, you’ve driven sports cars, you’ve done the first steps of the Mazda Road to Indy. Do you still want to do sports cars, or are you focused on making it to IndyCar?
SB: My main focus is IndyCar. I’ve been fascinated by open wheel cars, especially in the Indy 500, and I think that would be the most challenging, grueling race out of any of them.
I’ve done multiple sports cars events, including some of the big endurance events, and if I’m fortunate enough to make it to IndyCar, I’d still like to do something like Ryan does. I love the 24 Hours of Daytona, but when you’re an IndyCar driver, a lot in the sports car world can fall into place. For example, Ryan really isn’t struggling to get a sedan ride. I’ve noticed IndyCar really opens up doors to other events.
Thanks so much for your time today, Shelby. Anything to say to the fans watching or heading to Milwaukee this weekend?
SB: Thanks to everyone for the support, and I hope everyone comes out to watch us Friday night. We’ll do our best to put on a great show for you!
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.