Gabriel “Gabby” Chaves has driven the DeltaWing coupe in all four Tequila Patrón North American Endurance Cup races this season, but is a relative newcomer to sports car fans. The recently-crowned Indy Lights champion takes us through his history, his first impressions of the DeltaWing – and the interesting story behind his first race “behind the wheel.”
Born in Bogotá, Colombia, Chaves has an extensive racing background. As a teenager, he won championships in Skip Barber and Formula BMW Americas, earned the 2010 Rookie of the year title in Formula 3 Italy and won the prestigious FIA Young Drivers Academy shootout. Returning to the US, Chaves finished second in Star Mazda in 2012, second in Indy Lights in 2013 and took the Indy Lights title in August in Sonoma, California.
Technically, you were in your first auto race before you were born?
My mom used to race in a spec series in Colombia. Tracks would buy 30 or 40 spec racers and rent the cars out for the championship circuit. My mom actually ran a few races before she discovered she was pregnant with me!
Your family moved from Colombia to Florida when you were eight years old – how did that affect your early years?
It was huge. You go from one place where you have your whole family to a place that’s not only completely different, but you don’t have friends, you don’t have family, and you have to get used to a new school. The first two years were very, very hard. When you’re in that situation, you’re forced to make new friends and meet new people. It may have shaped a little bit of who I am now.
Your first competitive sport was tennis. How old were you when you started competing and what made you stop?
I started playing tennis when I was four years old. In the beginning, I was just practicing and doing tournaments here and there for fun. Around seven or eight, I started playing in more competitive tournaments against kids my age. But after I moved to the States, I thought I had a chance to help with college money or even turn pro. So I started doing more competitive tournaments in Florida.
But for my 11th birthday, we went to a go kart track – and really, that was it. My dad told me that if I beat him in a race, he’d buy me a go kart. And guess what happened? After that, practicing tennis became a bit of a grind, a chore. I really didn’t want to go practice when I got home from school. But with the kart, I couldn’t wait to get home and go to the track. One day, Juan Pablo Montoya’s dad was at the go kart track – he knew my mom from when my mom used to race. He saw me drive and told my mom “you can say goodbye to tennis.”
You drove the DeltaWing coupe for the first time at the ‘Roar Before the 24’ back in January. What were your first impressions? Is it very different from other cars you’ve driven?
My very first time in the DeltaWing, what blew me away was how fast it was in a straight line, especially when you compare its horsepower to the cars I was just blowing by on the straightaway. That’s what really blew my mind and that’s when I knew this project really had something going for it. The DeltaWing coupe handles pretty close to an open wheel car so that was very easy to get used to. It’s almost like a hybrid between an open wheel car and a go kart. In a go kart, you have a very small front wheelbase, so when you move to an open wheel car, it takes a lot more movement in the steering wheel to do the same amount of steering. The DeltaWing has a small front wheelbase so it’s similar in that respect to a go kart – a small amount of steering goes a long way in the DeltaWing, which I thought was very cool.
Don Panoz gave me the opportunity to get into the DeltaWing at Daytona and I was able to show my skills and my potential. I might have done five laps total, in a ton of traffic. But I felt very comfortable with the car right away. I think that helped me get into the race itself. It was the opportunity to show the team that I could be a great asset so they gave me the call to do the endurance races.
I thought it would be a little challenging to go back and forth between series this season, but when I got out of the DeltaWing and into the Indy Lights car, within a couple of laps I was either one of the quickest or the quickest guy on the track. I tried to separate one from the other – when I was at a sports car weekend, I would forget about Indy Lights and vice versa.
Question from Mark Hudson via Facebook: I know the DeltaWing car already incorporates many innovations and that the designers/engineers are always refining and developing -- but from your perspective in the driver’s seat, what do you feel the car needs most to get those couple of seconds per lap to push it over the top?
Right now, we seem to be very good in acceleration, straight line speed and braking. If we can keep progressing, with some different tests on downforce and handling, I think we will be very close to consistently competitive, time-wise.
Question from Yeison Gustavo Cardona Castro via Facebook: Are you going to race all the 2015 TUDOR season or try the IndyCar series?
I’m open minded at the moment. I have a scholarship that insures me the Indy 500, so I’ll definitely be doing that. Anything else is up for grabs.
Favorite race track:
Road Atlanta. It’s one of those racetracks that I feel greatly in tune with. It just flows – it’s like a constant rhythm and you’re just dancing with the car.
Favorite spectator sport:
(Pause) Soccer. I wanted to go through my list in my head and make sure I didn’t leave out anything! I played soccer as a kid, every day really. Soccer is different – as opposed to other sports, it’s not just fans of one team against fans of another team. With the national teams, it’s a country united together. You saw it in the World Cup – when the USA won a couple of games and they showed US soldiers all over the world, celebrating together, it shows how sport can bring everyone together.
What do you do to chill out?
I like to watch Netflix, especially TV series like House and Lost.
Hmmm. I like Mexican food best. I’m not a great cook, but I’m a creative cook. I’ll just start throwing things in, mixing every spice together and ending up with something weird - something that tastes good to me. I just don’t know if it tastes good to other people!