IndyCar Meet-and-Greet: Mikhail Aleshin

After becoming the first Russian to race in the Indianapolis 500, in 2014, a hard stretch of personal injury and international turmoil kept the driver out of IndyCar. Now he’s back—and ready to rock.
Mikhail Aleshin
Just two days into the practice sessions before the Indianapolis 500, the weather is gloomy. A light rain sets in, and Mikhail Aleshin takes refuge in the garage with his crew. They’re looking to improve after a rough session the day before, when Aleshin had the 26th-fastest car.

In the long history of the Indy 500, only one Russian-born driver has ever started. That driver was Mikhail Aleshin, who qualified 15th as a rookie in 2014. Aleshin made history that day, not only as the first Russian to qualify for the race, but also—when he got out in front on lap 32—as the first Russian to lead a lap in the 500. He finished 21st.

“This track is incomparable to anywhere,” he says. “I never had any session experience before in my life, and it was amazing having my first oval race on this track two years ago.”

Now, things are drastically different for Aleshin. He’s still with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, but the road to this year’s 100th Running has not been an easy one. A serious crash at Fontana before the final IndyCar race of 2014 ended his season, and in 2015 Aleshin missed all but one race due to the overseas crisis between Russian and Ukraine, which prevented him from returning to the United States.

Despite everything he went through, Aleshin is back in IndyCar for the full 2016 season, and back at Indy, running in the slick number seven Doom-themed Honda for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports.

“I think this is a great team, and it is a team very hungry for victories,” Aleshin says. “We had a great season in 2014, and we are progressing with this team race to race. It feels good to be back, and these guys mean a lot to me.”

Aleshin began his racing career in Europe with the Russian Formula Three series. He then went on to win championships in the Formula Renault 2.0 Winter Series (2004) and the Formula Renault 3.5 Series (2010). A promotion to Formula One seemed likely in 2010 after Aleshin tested for the series, but he didn’t get the call. So in 2014, he came to America and made the switch to IndyCar, becoming the first Russian to compete in the series.

“IndyCar by itself is such a unique series, because you have so many different tracks here,” Aleshin says. “You have oval tracks, road courses, and street courses. You’re never going to have this many choices of courses anywhere else in the world.”

Despite the difficult stretch in 2014 and 2015, Aleshin pushed on and continued racing in Europe. He drove for SMP in the FIA World Endurance Championship, finishing fifth in the final standings, and completed the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

During the time away from IndyCar, Aleshin also pursued his second passion: music. Ten years ago, Aleshin started learning to play the guitar and soon formed a rock band with some of his friends.

“The last three years, I haven’t been able to play a lot, but in 2015 I was able to perform my first gig in three years,” Aleshin says. “We used to play cover songs for all the famous bands, like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Jimi Hendrix, and many others.”

Due to the number of groups they covered, Aleshin’s band went by many names. It just depended on whose songs they were playing on a given night.

Aleshin signed a deal with SMP for the rest of 2016 and will presumably get a new contract that would keep him on the team for years to come. He looks forward to what he hopes will be a bright future in IndyCar.

On Saturday, Aleshin finished 13th in the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis. He hopes to improve on that result and make history yet again in the upcoming weeks, as he and his team prepare for the 100th Running on May 29.

“To win this race—it doesn’t matter if it’s the 100th running or not,” he says. “I don’t even have the words to describe what it would mean to me.”