By RICHIE MURRAY
Back in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Billy Boat had established himself as a mainstay in the IndyCar Series as he traveled the circuit from Fontana, California to Nazareth, Pennsylvania and seemingly everywhere in between.
Right there alongside Billy, tagging along for many of those trips was his son, Chad. For Chad, it was easy to catch the racing bug. At the time, his dad was a racing hotshoe, a winner of numerous USAC Midget races on the west coast, including the famed Turkey Night Grand Prix for three consecutive years before heading off to Indy where he won the pole for the great A.J. Foyt at the 1998 Indianapolis 500.
It was an environment that Chad latched onto and one which provided him opportunities to hang around some of the most legendary figures in the sport, even if he didn’t even know it at the time.
“I went to every race I could with my dad when I was first allowed to go,” Chad recalls. “I still remember going to all the races and getting to hang with A.J. Foyt. At the time, I didn’t quite realize how cool that really was. I probably have more A.J. Foyt autographs than anybody out there. It was definitely cool growing up in that environment.”
Nearly two decades later, Chad Boat, now 25-years-old and an established racer himself, aims to join not only his dad and A.J. in becoming the next driver to transition from the dirt track bullrings of USAC to the Indianapolis 500.
The first step in that process began when Chad inked a deal to run a pair of Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires oval races beginning this Sunday afternoon when he makes his debut aboard the Belardi Auto Racing No. 84, sporting the same black scheme and number as his Tucker-Boat Motorsports midget on the USAC trail.
Chad first became familiarized with the car during an extensive test at Iowa Speedway two weeks ago. Chad had to adapt to a few elements that he hadn’t experienced in quite some or, in some cases, ever. But, now that he’s gone through the initial stages of acclimation with a rear engine car and wings, he feels confident he can have a good showing come this weekend.
“A couple weeks ago, I was able to do the open test at Iowa,” Chad relayed. “I ran around 200 laps over two days. It was good to get acclimated with the car. It’s been a little while since I was on asphalt. It was the most downforce I’d ever had on-track. Testing allows me to process everything over the weeks leading up to the race and gives me a chance to look at the data and get a good idea of what I have to do as a driver going into race weekend. I’m able to look at my teammate’s data traces and see if they’re a little bit better than me. If I can use all the tools that have been given to me, there’s no reason we can’t go to Iowa and be successful.”
Many people may be unfamiliar with the fact that Billy Boat made the move to formula cars a decade before he ever made an appearance at Indy. In 1986 and 1987, Billy made 11 starts in the American Racing Series, a forerunner of the Indy Lights series of today. Billy competed on both the roads, the streets and the ovals as a 20-year-old, scoring a career-best third-place finish with the series at Phoenix International Raceway in 1986, in a field that also featured, interestingly enough, USAC National Series winners Stan Fox, Sammy Swindell and Nick Fornoro, Jr. The race was won by 1987 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Fabrizio Barbazza.
With similar experience in his back pocket, Billy has been able to lend some advice to Chad, who will have him in his ear as a spotter this Sunday.
“Dad is definitely not a bad person to have in your corner helping you out,” Chad reassured. “He has experience in all sorts of cars and, obviously, has a lot of experience in IndyCar. I believe the IndyCar and the Lights car translate fairly close. Obviously, you’re going a lot faster in an IndyCar compared to the lights car, but Dad will be there all weekend and is going to spot for me. Having him up on the roof gives me confidence with what I’m doing and he’ll give me some pointers on what we can do to pick up that elusive last two-tenths or however much we need to find.”
Indy Lights is a training ground for young drivers seeking the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 as their ultimate goal. Chad certainly acknowledges that fact and is ready to accept the challenge. However, he recognizes that there are certain hurdles from all aspects in order to be successful in this faction sport: namely overcoming the learning curve, funding and being in the right position at the right time.
“A lot of it is just learning the car,” Chad explains. “The nice thing about Indy is you have a full week of practice. It gets you accustomed to the speed. Ultimately, you have to find the right fit for you as a driver and the right fit with the right team and the right manufacturer. There are a lot of factors other than funding. To be successful, you must have all the right pieces. It’s not all about money and it’s not all about having a great engine or one great engineer. To go to the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway, and have a top-10 run or even a top-15, you need to have all those pieces put together and then you have to execute on race day. Right now, the Speedway is on the backburner. We’re focused on Iowa. But, definitely, the Speedway is the goal down the road.”
Chad sees this Sunday’s race at Iowa as an audition. After all, ultimately, this sport is performance-driven. A solid performance up front Sunday could open some eyes and present more opportunities down the road.
“The better we run, the more opportunities and doors that will open up,” Chad said straight-forwardly. “I think a lot of it goes back to winning the Belleville (Midget Nationals) last year. We won a few features and had a good shot at the championship going into the last couple of races. I think that helped bring us toward the Lights deal this year. I think if we can continue to be successful on the dirt and have two solid runs with the Lights car, anything is possible.”
“Obviously, funding is a big part of going to the Speedway,” Chad continues. “That’s no secret to anyone in the racing industry. We definitely have to bring on the right partners. We have the relationships built now that we hope can grow to the point where we can put something together for the Speedway at some point.”
This isn’t the first time Chad has attempted to make the transition to another form of racing. In 2008, Chad was the third driver, and most recent, to be honored as both the USAC National Sprint and National Midget Rookie of the Year in the same season. Additionally, that same year, he became the youngest ever feature winner in the USAC National Sprint Car series with a victory at Maryland’s Hagerstown Speedway at the age of 16 years, 4 months and 8 days, a title he still retains to this day.
That led him to a few part-time deals in ARCA as well as NASCAR’s K & N Pro Series, Camping World Truck Series and the Xfinity Series between 2010 and 2015, but was never able to solidify a permanent foothold in the stock car ranks.
“We went down the stock car path and I still live in Charlotte today, so I’m still kind of down there in the heart of it every day,” Chad said. “The goal has always been for me to make a living driving a racecar. Whether that’s IndyCar or NASCAR, I don’t necessarily care too much either way. I just want to go out there and be competitive every weekend and have the right opportunities. I was fortunate to get to run the Xfinity and Truck stuff, but I never got to do it on a full-time basis. Not being at the track every week is hard. Regardless if it’s a sprint car, a mini sprint, an IndyCar or a stock car, when you get to do it every week, you’re just fine-tuning your craft. That kind of hurt us on that end.”
In recent years, USAC champion Bryan Clauson was a mainstay at Indianapolis and Ed Carpenter has become firmly entrenched in the May Classic as a perennial front-runner, two-time pole winner and a team owner. Outside of those two, the presence of drivers with a dirt track background from the USAC ranks has been minimal to nil. However, that doesn’t hinder Chad’s ambitions one day to carry the torch, so to speak, of becoming the next in a long line to try his hand at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
“If you ask anyone in the pit area, their ultimate goal is to make it to Indy or Daytona,” Chad said. “I don’t think anyone would turn down either of those opportunities. I think there’s been an extra amount of buzz because of the ties my dad had to the Speedway. Obviously, with my dad running seven Indianapolis 500s and basically growing up around the speedway, I have a love for that place. Ultimately, the goal is definitely to run the speedway.”
“There’s a lot of midget and sprint car drivers right now who have the talent to get to Indy and probably deserve a chance to get there,” Chad believes. “It all goes back to the elusive funding part of it. To get the opportunity to run the Lights car, I’m very grateful. I realize there’s a million people who would like to be in my position right now. All I can do is make the most of it and, hopefully, the short track community will support it. I want to go out there and make them proud.”
Chad will be competing at Iowa Speedway with the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires this Sunday afternoon, July 9. The race begins at 2pm Central time.