Santino Ferrucci always knew he wanted to check competing in NASCAR off his personal bucket list. He just didn’t know it would come at 22 years old.
“It was always important for me to do well and pick the right people to go with,” Ferrucci recently told Jayski.com of his transition to NASCAR. “It’s one of those things that was always on my list to do and I’ve very much enjoyed it.”
In early January, Sam Hunt Racing announced Ferrucci would make the jump from the NTT IndyCar Series to compete in a limited Xfinity Series schedule. Just a month prior, Sam Hunt, among the youngest team owners in NASCAR history, wouldn’t have been able to pick Ferrucci out of a crowd.
Knowing he didn’t have a full-time IndyCar ride secured for the 2021 season, Ferrucci knew this was his time to try competing in a fendered racecar. On a whim, he drove from West Palm Beach, Florida to Charlotte, alerting Darius Grala of FURY Race Cars that he’d be in town.
After having dinner with Grala and Hunt, Ferrucci ended up testing a super late model with Kaz Grala at Caraway Speedway. It was the first time he’d ever been behind the wheel of a stock car.
“I just wanted to stay in a seat, stay relevant, open up my eyes to the NASCAR world and see what I thought,” Ferrucci said. “Getting in that car, I was shocked because you hear about how horrible the NASCAR [racecars] handle, and I didn’t think it was that bad. Again, it was a super late [model] and it was sort of comparable to Xfinity, but not really.”
Going into the test, Hunt was concerned. Admittedly, he surfed Ferrucci’s name on Google to find out more about him. A lot of it was negative, as the driver is known for his strong opinions.
Even more concerning for Hunt was the way Ferrucci entered the test session: Slinging his personal matte yellow BMW M4 around in a four-wheel drift to enter the track property.
Still, Hunt entered the session open minded.
“I remember we were thinking, ‘Oh man, this is not good. This guy is out of control, this could be a disaster,’ Hunt recalled. “Luckily, it’s not our racecar on the track.
“We were hesitant at first because his grand entrance was pretty alarming and I didn’t know him yet. But then, he put a fire suit on and it’s like he flipped a switch and he was the most mature guy there, all business.
“At first, I thought he was going to hold the gas wide open and just destroy the thing. But he was calculated and worked his way up to speed. It almost baffled me how professional he was when he put the fire suit on.”
Ferrucci confirmed that once the test started, mentally he switched gears. Less than three weeks later, SHR announced Ferrucci to be one of its core drivers for the 2021 season. He would go on to compete in seven total.
The first came on Feb. 27 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Known to be a difficult racetrack, Ferrucci was excited for that challenge, as the worn out surface causes extreme tire wear. And, oh yeah, the fastest away around the track is rim-riding the wall.
Starting 21st, Ferrucci’s biggest challenge was getting the car off pit road. Quite honestly, he had no idea what he was doing on the pace laps, asking spotter Chris Lambert simplistic questions.
But it was a whole new realm of motorsports for the driver.
“I wasn’t sure what gear to start the race in and what to do when riding behind the [pace] car,” Ferrucci added. “It was a mix of second, third and fourth with fuel saving, and I had no idea if everyone rolled around in a specific gear or if they started in first or second because the cars have a lot of wheelspin.
“There was a huge learning curve in the first race and I just had fun.”
On that afternoon, Ferrucci got into the wall and finished 30th, despite showing promise throughout the race.
Andrew Abbott, the first year crew chief on the No. 26 team, was surprised by some of the maneuvers Ferrucci executed in his first start.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, and he went into Turn 1 and he’s three wide on the bottom, passing cars on the first lap,” Abbott said. “I knew he was going to be wild. Three-wide in the first turn of his first lap; I didn’t expect that. But he’s got a lot of natural talent.”
The strong showing continued in Ferrucci’s second outing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he finished a solid 13th, beating out series veteran Justin Allgaier at the finish line.
That proved to the driver — and owner — he could do this.
“By the time he figured [Las Vegas] out, he was a fifth- or sixth-place car and just ran out of time,” Hunt said. “Him and Justin Allgaier battled for the last 10 laps of the race and he ended up beating him. It was like a toe-to-toe true battle with an experienced guy and he beat him. He’s more than capable of doing this at a very high level, and he just needs the track time.”
Ever since the first race in Sin City, Ferrucci added a pair of 15th-place finishes to his resume at Phoenix Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway. He drove the No. 26 Toyota to 14th at Pocono Raceway, despite mixing it up with Josh Williams. In the July race at Atlanta, he finished 33rd after busting a rear shock. And most recently at Talladega Superspeedway, he finished 17th in his first attempt at pack racing.
Along the way, Ferrucci’s biggest battle is to find the limit of the racecar and manipulate the aerodynamic game. Unlike IndyCar, just because one driver gets a run in NASCAR doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily pull down to the inside and rocket by their competition.
“There’s a yaw in the car that you have to find where the car sets perfectly through the corners and that’s where I would compare it to the [dirt midget],” Ferrucci stated, “There’s a perfect angle to where there’s enough forward drive and enough slide to where the air off the body is working for you get the maximum out of the car.”
The No. 26 team also started referring to Ferrucci as “DJ Rightside” because, without fail, he never brought back the right side of the car clean.
Getting to know the driver more, Hunt notices how competitive Ferrucci is. He doesn’t care to be your friend at the racetrack, he simply wants to beat you. That has its pros and cons, according to the team owner.
“To him, each competitor and each team is in his way of succeeding,” Hunt said. “It’s a rare mindset, I feel like, these days because a lot of the garage is all friends and hang out on boats together. That’s cool, too, but he’s almost like an old-school mindset to where if you’re not on my team, you’re the enemy.”
All things considered, Ferrucci believes his limited schedule was a success in 2021.
“I thought it went pretty well,” he said. “I think we easily would have had seven races and seven top 15s had we done everything right and maybe a top 10. That’s experience. That’s being able to go back to these tracks twice, that’s having some time under my belt and having some practice or testing, which none of that we had.”
And though he doesn’t know what his future holds in NASCAR, Ferrucci would like to be back with Sam Hunt Racing at some capacity in 2022.
He said, “I’m working really hard to figure out what we’re doing and I’ve got a bunch of different options. I really like the Toyota option, I really like Sam and I would like to be back there if I can. I would love to see what we could do in a full season ride. I believe we’d be a playoff contender without a doubt.”
Hunt would welcome Ferrucci back. Surprisingly, the pairing has gone better than he could have expected, especially after making his grand entrance into Caraway.
“I would say it’s been an absolute success with him,” Hunt noted. “He’s been a big part of our growth and I’m going to support him in whatever he does.”