IndyLights – Rusty Mitchell, Horses, and Horsepower

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A curious thing crossed my virtual desk here at OpenPaddock this week, a press release. …no, that’s not especially unusual, but its content sure was. Normally, teams and drivers issue a release previewing their thoughts and expectations for the upcoming event, but this was a bit more than the simple “we hope to roll off the transport fast and win” type of hype and blase quotes. This was a nice little background piece on Rusty Mitchell, with whom we spoke prior to his running the Firestone Freedom 100 back in May. If you missed that episode of Inside the Helmet, download it from iTunes or listen to it here.

Since our conversation back in May, when he had only a two-race deal with Team E Racing, Rusty has secured additional funding and raced at Loudon, NH and at the Baltimore Grand Prix. He’s also slated to race at the Kentucky Speedway this coming weekend. Below is a piece connecting the equestrian passion of the Mitchell family in Texas, the passion for horses and equestrian pursuits for which Kentucky is famous, and the passion for motorsports. They’re not as different as you might imagine. I hope you enjoy reading this piece as much as I did.

Horses and Horsepower Come Together in Kentucky And at the Mitchell’s House

SPARTA, Ky., Sept. 27 – Both horses and horsepower will be in the spotlight in Kentucky this weekend.

Kentucky Speedway, which will host Firestone Indy Lights as part of the Kentucky Indy 300 this weekend, is centrally located in the middle of horse country in Sparta. Louisville, home of Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby, is about 50 miles east. Lexington, which has a plethora of Thoroughbred horse farms and the Kentucky Horse Park, is about 50 miles west.

Equestrian sports and motorsports have a lot in common, and sometimes equestrians and racers are members of the same family. Those family members often find life is a constant balancing act, since there’s only so much free time in any given week, only so many weekends in a year, and only so much money to spend.

That’s the way it’s been for Mike and Gayle Mitchell of Midland, Texas throughout their 30-year marriage. The females in the family have gravitated to equestrian pursuits, while the men are focused on motorsports.

The Mitchells’ only son, Rusty, 28, is a rookie in Firestone Indy Lights, the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy before the major leagues of the IZOD IndyCar Series. He will make his first start at Kentucky Speedway this Sunday at noon in Team E Racing’s No. 17, a bright blue car that is sponsored by Motorola and Petro Communications.

He’s following in his father’s footsteps, as Mike Mitchell has been involved in drag racing, stock car racing, SCCA racing and even IndyCar racing on the side for years. In the past he was an electronics engineer and a rear tire changer for team owner Jim Hall of Chaparral fame and also Davis Racing, working with drivers like Gil de Ferran, Gaulter Salles and Arnd Meier.

This weekend Mike Mitchell will be high on top of Kentucky Speedway’s main grandstand, spotting for his son.

His wife will be with their daughter at a collegiate rodeo.

Gayle Mitchell has owned horses for years, using them primarily for pleasure riding and some barrel racing. The family currently has five Quarter horses and one Paint.

Rusty’s sister, Michelle Mitchell, 21, is a four-time world champion in open pole bending with the American Paint Horse Association. She is currently on a rodeo scholarship at West Texas A&M University, where she competes in barrel racing, breakaway roping, team roping and goat tying. She’s studying equine business industry (genetics and reproduction) in college with an eye towards a career in the horse breeding industry, and she plans to go pro and compete in the Women’s Pro Rodeo Association next summer.

Rusty said his mom put him on a horse for the first time when he was 3 or 4 years old.

“Horses never really were my thing, but they were always around and I rode a lot with my mom,” he said.

“I was hoping he would take an interest in my horses, but he was always more interested in cars,” his mother concurred. “He would carry Matchbox race cars in his pocket and ‘drive’ them round the saddle while we rode.

“He would also play with his toy race cars out in the horse pens,” she added. “I recently found one while I was cleaning stalls. It made me tear up, remembering him playing out there, building race tracks in the dirt and playing for hours.”

Her son’s Matchbox cars eventually gave way to go-karts, and he’s been moving through the ranks of formula car racing ever since.

It’s not surprising that having two children in two different and very demanding semi-pro sports makes for some hectic schedules and some interesting family conversations.

“We insisted that both of our kids get degrees in something they can make a living at before hitting the pro circuits,” Gayle Mitchell said. “Rusty and Michelle are both extremely competitive, and thrive on perfection within their sports.

“It’s interesting to listen to them when we get together for holidays,” she added. “They’ll compare car racing and barrel racing – rating down, apex of corner, acceleration going into a turn and coming out, when to kick or change gears – in a way, barrel-horse racing and race cars are a lot alike.”

After a full season in Star Mazda last year Rusty Mitchell has been doing a limited schedule in Firestone Indy Lights this year with Team E Racing, a top team owned by Neil Enerson that is based in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area. Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway will only be Mitchell’s fifth Firestone Indy Lights race ever, but Team E Racing has an excellent record on oval tracks and Mitchell himself has never finished outside of the top 10 in his six previous oval-track starts.

Mitchell got his first look at Kentucky Speedway’s 1.5-mile, D-shaped oval at a private test last Thursday, during which he completed 118 laps.

“It’s fun; it’s big and it’s quick,” Mitchell said afterwards. “It’s definitely more line-dependent than you would think, especially with the dogleg on the frontstretch. For ovals that I’ve been on before it’s a mix between Chicagoland Speedway and Iowa Speedway; it’s kind of right in between both of them.”

Kentucky Speedway’s turns carry 14 degrees of banking. The track is 70 feet wide. Although everything is new to Mitchell, the track has added seats since Firestone Indy Lights last visited here, and the pit lane is now closer to the main grandstand.

Testing is a luxury in Firestone Indy Lights, so Team E tried to get a great deal done last week. Engineer Daryl Bear, chief mechanic Dave Metcalf, mechanic Harv Sweezie and the rest of the pit crew concentrated on fine-tuning the car’s initial set-up, as it must go fast by itself during time trials at 5:15 p.m. Saturday and get a good starting position before it has to go fast in a draft during Sunday’s race.

“We just tried to get the most speed we could out of the car,” Mitchell explained last Thursday after the test. “The track was dirty and we cut two tires down, but it was great to get to test instead of seeing the track for the first time on race weekend. I’m excited to be coming back here next week because I’m comfortable in the car now. We’ll just try to fine-tune our set-up and get some more speed out of it on race weekend. Team E is always good on ovals, so I’m really looking forward to racing at Kentucky Speedway.”

Sunday’s race will be televised live on VERSUS.

Additional information can be found on the team’s Web site at, Mitchell’s Web site at and the series’ Web site at Fans can also find behind-the-scenes info and special giveaways on Team E Racing’s Facebook page.

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