The Brabham name carries plenty of expectation, but Matthew Brabham had looked more than worthy of the legacy.
A grandson of Sir Jack, Matthew showed that racing is in the blood, winning 13 of 16 races on his way to claiming the single-seater 2013 Pro Mazda Championship.
A season later, having invested his $645,000 prize fund into an Indy Lights drive with Andretti Autosport, he maintained the momentum, scoring one win en route to fourth in that season’s championship.
But even for a Brabham with budding talent, funding doesn’t come easy and in 2015, the money ran out after the first three Indy Lights races.
And that appeared to be that for the son of US sports car champion and Le Mans winner Geoff Brabham, save for a 2016 Indy 500 entry.
Last month, however, saw Brabham back in his first Indy Lights race since 2015, tantalisingly close to a fairytale comeback as he ran behind race leader Christian Rasmussen on the streets of St Petersburg.
Sitting about three seconds behind his Andretti Autosport team-mate and with his mind on the championship, Brabham had settled for second place after starting sixth.
Then with a lap and a half to go, Rasmussen’s No28 Dallara faltered and Brabham closed in. The Dane coasted to a halt, out of fuel, and Brabham had to swiftly swerve round, brushing the left front wing on the right rear of Rasmussen’s car, and taking the lead.
It was 2,851 days after his last Indy Lights win in 2014 and 28-year-old Brabham led with just one lap remaining, desperately hoping that his car would survive despite the contact.
A final 1.8 miles later and the third-generation racer picked up 51 points to start off his 2022 Indy Lights campaign.
“I think it was just a very good gratifying experience for everyone,” said Brabham. “It’s not often that someone like me comes back and does those kind of things, so for it to all turn out great and come away with a win, it was just, I think gratification was a good way to describe everyone’s feelings.”
Astounded could have been another apt description. Between 2015 and this year, most of Brabham’s racing had been in the pantomime-esque Stadium Super Trucks Series.
Any single-seater racers on the grid are usually at the opposite end of their careers before choosing to compete in a championship that features ramps for jumping, two-wheeled cornering — thanks to mattress-like suspension — and the crunch of metal against metal that’s commonly referred to as thrills ‘n’ spills.
But it takes skill to land one of these 1.3-tonne trucks after launching off a ramp at 80mph and Brabham dominated the series. Runner-up in his first two seasons, Brabham has now won the championship for the past three years that it has been held.
Even so, it’s far from a traditional feeder series, and funding continued to be an obstacle. As well as racing trucks, he worked as a driver coach for Cape Motorsports and drove the two-seater for IndyCar, but his earnings were nowhere near enough to fund a seat in America’s highest step on the single-seater ladder system.
Until Bitcoin stepped in, or more precisely the cryptocurrency mining firm Mastermine, which agreed to sponsor an Andretti Indy Lights car for 2022.
With funding in place, the team put in a call to the “natural talent” that had impressed eight years previously. Brabham said yes but warned Andretti that he couldn’t help to fund the ride.
“I’m a 28-year-old kid, I don’t have enough money to put in,” Brabham said. “I’m trying to save up for a down payment on a house and I can’t even do that, you know?
“I’ll sacrifice all the money in the world to make it to IndyCar. And if I have to sacrifice a year of making a living and racing to do Indy Lights, then I’ll do it.”
The partnership revives an Andretti-Brabham link that dates back to the late 1960s when Mario and Jack raced in Formula 1. As Mario’s career continued into the 1980s, Sir Jack’s oldest son Geoff and Mario’s son Michael, at the start of his career, were team-mates together at Kraco Racing.
Matthew, the 2012 USF2000 champion, has said that he’s planning the odd Stadium Super Trucks race this year to earn some money as he races for free, but is dedicated to achieving the Indycar dream.
St. Petersburg was Brabham’s first start in an open-wheel car since 2019 in an Australian Formula 5000 exhibition weekend. Brabham was seventh-fastest in both practice sessions and qualified sixth, behind all three of his Andretti Autosport teammates.
The nerves were building up heading into Sunday morning’s race. “This to me counts more than anything else I’ve done recently,” Brabham said. “So because it just means more to me and it counts more, you start thinking like, ‘I’ve got to do this and I’ve got to do that,’ and you just get those feelings of nervousness.”
Brabham got to fourth place almost immediately after Sting Ray Robb locked up his tyres and ran wide, forcing Linus Lundqvist to take a wider line around the outside of the corner. He stayed on the rubber that had been laid down near the apex of Turn 1 during the weekend and was inside Benjamin Pedersen in third place exiting Turn 1.
Having a better line for Turn 2, Brabham got by the No24 HMD Motorsports machine and behind Hunter McElrea and Rasmussen.
When McElrea hit the wall, bringing a full-course yellow, Brabham was up to second. Rasmussen fended off his advances after the restart, then lap after lap Brabham tried to catch Rasmussen until slightly brushing the wall a couple of times started to make him rethink his approach.
Settling for second and banking a significant points haul was Brabham’s plan until Rasmussen hit trouble.
He arrived on pit road where dad Geoff was waiting, giving his son all the validation he needed as the series heads to Barber Motorsports Park on May 1.