Written by Archie O’Reilly, Edited by Sean McKean
The first question isn’t even completed before Sting Ray Robb’s face is emblazoned with a grin. He knows what’s coming: a question on the origins of his name, of course.
“So the story goes, and I usually cover up my Honda logo while I’m saying this, but my parents are big Corvette fans, so they decided to name me out of the Stingray Corvette,” Robb tells the DIVEBOMB IndyCar Podcast, speaking following the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix, evidencing a vested interest in cars and motorsport within his family ranks.
“But there’s also a longer side of the story, which is kind of the heritage side,” he continues, speaking in fascinating depth about the origins of his name, which many have doubted is anything but a nickname.
“My dad’s side of the family is from Sterlingshire, Scotland, or at least his heritage is. And so Sting is actually short for Sterling, and then both of my grandfathers had Ray in their name. And so it’s kind of a combination deal and they got Sting Ray out of it.”
Robb is in his rookie season in IndyCar, driving the No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing with Rick Ware Racing Honda and one of the series’ youngest drivers at 21 years old. He finished second in Indy Lights, which is IndyCar’s main feeder series and has since been rebranded to become Indy NXT, last year.
The Idaho-born driver has, however, had a mixed start to his career in the big league.
“I think so,” he says when asked about whether he has learned a lot in the opening seven races of the season. He is 27th in the championship, set back by a crash in Texas, mechanical failure in Barber, and further two incidents on the road course and oval in Indianapolis.
“I think coming into the season, I had higher expectations than what we’ve succeeded at so far,” he admits. “Rolling off at St. Pete with 16th-place, even with all the craziness that was going on there with cars flying through the air and everything else, I thought we did a good enough job to survive and finish the race well.
“And then from there, I think that our next best shot at something was at Barber, and I felt really, really good going to the Barber race. In the morning warm up, we were running top 10 for most of the session, top 15 by the end, and that was on race pace - red tyres and black tyres, the alternates and the primaries.
“And so for myself, that was the first time I said that I actually felt like an IndyCar driver. I felt like I was doing my job and felt like I could go race with the best of them there. But that race obviously got cut short with a mechanical failure, and so for myself, I think that kind of took the wind out of our sails a little bit and the next few races just didn’t go our way.”
One of the biggest challenges for a rookie driver is the Indy 500, with a massive fanfare around the event as well as the task of performing on track at speeds that can reach upwards of 240 miles per hour. For Robb, there was the added challenge of Last Chance Qualifying, as he failed to notch one of the top 30 four-lap average speeds on Saturday.
“It’s definitely not a position that you want to be in as a driver,” he says. “But, looking back, I think I got to appreciate the 500 a little bit more, just because it made you kind of see the whole picture of what Indy is about.”
Robb managed to secure his spot in the race on Bump Day with a faster four-lap average than both Jack Harvey and Graham Rahal, with the latter bumped from the race. “We did a good job to put two cars behind us instead of just one,” he says, looking at the positives. “Had we been on that bubble, I think I would have been a bit more nervous.”
Still, it isn’t a position any driver wants to be in. “You’re fighting for the top 33 spots in the world to be an IndyCar driver, and so it’s very dramatic and stressful going into that Sunday,” Robb tells DIVEBOMB with regards to the Bump Day experience. “You don’t want to be the guy that gets bumped.
“For myself, I thought that we were going to be in a better position with my teammate. He figured it out in the last part of the day [on Saturday] - we were both almost in that last chance qualifier together, which is frustrating as a team.”
Robb can now see the light side of the experience, though. “I think it was really cool to kind of see the press that you get from being a last row qualifier,” he jokes. “You know, they did the last row party, which is essentially just a roast, and they go on a stage and make fun of you, which is kind of fun, make light of it all.”
Regardless of the more excruciating experience of Bump Day, Robb is keen to convey the feeling of competing in his first Indy 500. “The whole event, the Month of May, was pretty incredible,” he expresses.
“There’s nothing that can prepare you for the 500. There’s so much that goes on around it, just the intro of the drivers and the flyover and the playing the Taps and everything ahead of time, the national anthem.
“It’s one of those things where it’s an emotional experience just as much as it is like a performance. And so it’s cool to see both sides of that because I was a fan before I was a driver.”
The race didn’t end the way Robb would have liked, with a crash just short of the halfway point bringing out the first caution. “The actual race was pretty chaotic,” he recalls. “There’s just a lot going on out there. When you’re doing 240 miles an hour, things happen pretty quick. And the day didn’t end as we wanted, but we were fighting hard.”
There are all sorts of challenges to overcome - mostly new for rookies - and Robb takes a lot from that. “We had some issues in the first two stints of our race, courting some left front tyres which was unusual,” he says. “And so we were trying to deal with that, but it was just, overall, I think a great learning experience.
“For a rookie driver, there’s not often you could spend that much seat time in the car. They were under the wrong conditions, I’ll say - to be a last chance qualifier and have to do the extra runs like that. But I did get some valuable seat time.”
The whole experience of the Month of May is “unique,” in Robb’s words. “Day one rolls around for the Month of May, and you sign more autographs in that one day than you do in the previous three races combined,” he says. “So it is really cool to see how excited everyone is and the build up is all part of the fun.”
This level of attention can be distracting and the whole experience difficult for drivers, however, and Robb is looking forward to visiting tracks more familiar to him. “I’m glad that the Month of May is over, because that was not the experience that I wanted,” he acknowledges. “I have learned a lot through it all, and I think that we’re kind of in a spot now where we can kind of focus on tracks that we know.”
“I think I like permanent road courses the best, especially ones with a lot of elevation change,” Robb says when asked about his favourite type of track. “And I’m going to give the typical racer answer: I like tracks that I win at. So, my most recent win was at Laguna Seca last year in the Indy NXT championship.
“And obviously, that’s a kind of legendary track, with the Corkscrew and many, many different levels of elevation change there. And, I just love the sort of feedback you get from a car on a track like that.”
It comes as no surprise that Robb says he is looking forward to the Sonsio Grand Prix at Road America, where he would go on to have a somewhat more competitive weekend. “Even with a new pavement, it allows us to have a baseline,” he says. “As a rookie driver, it’s hard to have a baseline and understand, ‘Okay, these are the things that we’re looking for, the nuances here, there or whatever else.’
“And so for myself, I’m looking forward to the tracks where I can settle in. I know what the expectation is, I know what to be looking for, and I can get a car that I know can be competitive around there. So I’m excited for that. I think it’ll be fun.”
Robb is speaking off the back of IndyCar’s return to the streets of Detroit having moved away from Belle Isle. Not only was it a challenging race weekend for rookie drivers, but also to the entire field given it was an entirely new experience, bringing out plenty of errors and making clean laps hard to come by with fine margins to the walls.
“Oh man, it was first year issues,” Robb suggests. “I think [they] were a big, big storyline of the weekend. But the actual layout was actually quite fun. You have the long straightaway leading down to a hairpin, which is a good passing zone.”
One issue earmarked by many was the bumpiness of the track, as well as some problems with maintaining tyre temperature under the inevitable cautions.
“It just was unfortunate that it was so bumpy off-line there,” Robb says. “There was only really one lane that you could drive on without having to worry about breaking a damper or shock or whatever else. But the actual race itself: I was expecting more attrition, you know, I thought that we’d see a lot more full course cautions.
“But it was really, really tough. For some reason, I don’t think everyone had this issue, but there were a few cars that weren’t able to kind of switch the tyres on, and we saw Graham Rahal go into the wall under the caution flag. And, quite honestly, it was crazy because I had a very similar experience - I didn't hit the wall, but when the tyres cooled down just a small amount, it took so long to get them back up to temperature.
“And even if you were a way behind the lead pack, you couldn’t catch them under the caution flag, just because the tyres would not turn on, they wouldn’t get that heat back. So, it’s kind of a crazy phenomenon I haven’t seen before, and obviously in the lower series, the tyres are more consistent with just a single compound, shorter race distance.”
Regardless of some issues to iron out, the new track was enjoyable. “It was just like a wide range of different aggregates that led to the corners being very diverse, and the bumps at apexes at turns and on the exit of turns, it added some craziness to it all,” Robb assesses.
Amidst the toughness of his rookie season so far, Robb has been aided by teammate David Malukas, who was in his rookie season only last year. David’s been awesome as a teammate,” he says. “It’s kind of funny too because, last year, he had similar experiences to what I’m having now.
“But we also finished second in the Indy NXT championship in consecutive years. And we also grew up go-karting together. And so it’s kind of cool to see how our paths just keep lining up the further up the ladder we get. He’s a great driver and I think someone that is underrated in the series, but also he gets a lot of press attention, which is kind of cool to see.
“And I think that that comes from the podium that he got last year at Gateway. It’s cool to see those brilliant moments where he had success. And he also had some tough races, and so it’s been kind of cool to see him encouraging me through it all. He understands the rookie aspect of it.
“And so it’s been nice to be able to have someone that has that recent experience and it’s applicable, and things that they’ve learned so recently, they’ve moved on from and said, ‘Okay, this is the expectation now, this is what I did differently and this is what you can do differently.’
“It’s pretty nice to have and obviously David’s a good character, someone that is funny and easy to get along with, and so it’s nice to have him in the engineering room kind of cheering us on.”
The pair did come to blows on the Indianapolis Road Course, when Robb collected Malukas inadvertently when battling Romain Grosjean in the early stages. But there is no bad blood between the pair, who by all accounts work well together.
Robb is living a childhood dream by racing in IndyCar having started karting at only five years old. “When I was four years old, I watched Travis Pastrana, who is a multi-motorsport athlete; he’s done supercross, motocross, rally racing, NASCAR, and he’s good at everything he does,” Robb professes. “But I watched him on a Nitro Circus video jump a go-kart into a foam pit.
“Four-year-old me saw that and went, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do.’ And so I asked my parents for a go-kart and a foam pit. But for my fifth birthday, I did not get the foam pit, but I still got the go-kart. So we ended up going racing from there.
“Most kids, I think, want to be a baseball player, and then they change up and they want to be a veterinarian, and then they change it up and they want to be a police officer, and then they want to be a fireman. There’s just stages that you move through as a kid, I think. Some things stick, some things don’t.
“But for myself, from day one, I mean, even when I was three years old, I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a race car driver. And I think my parents initially thought that was just a stage I was moving through because I’d grown up around the Corvette Club meetings, the drag races, autocross events, that they were going to. So that’s what I knew.
“But once we started karting, I didn’t leave that stage. That five-year-old kid is still the same person I am today, I’m still stuck in that stage of wanting to be a race car driver. And so it is kind of cool to see how the passion has grown over the years instead of kind of twinkling out. So yeah, it’s been very good.”
Robb’s passion for racing is clear, and his desire for more people to gain an interest in IndyCar is evident. “First off, I think that IndyCar is underrated just because we race on multiple different kinds of tracks,” he says. “We do ovals, we do street courses, we do road courses.
“You look at other open wheel series and they’re usually just doing road and like partial street courses, where they’re specifically designed to be super smooth, super flat, very much inside the FIA rule standards. In IndyCar, I mean, we saw this last weekend in Detroit, it’s kind of like, ‘I think it’ll work, let’s go do it, let’s go race.’
“And so, for anyone that’s a racing fan, I think IndyCar is a true racing series. You can have multiple teams win, you can have multiple drivers going for a championship, and it leads to great battles on the track. And I think that that’s not too often seen.
“With the different tyre compounds and different strategies that go into a race, and when caution flags come out with the car count that we have, you have to be more than just good. You can be the best driver on the grid that day and still not win the race. You can have the best car and still not win. You’ve got to have everything come together, come into alignment, and it’s still going to be a hard time.
“So I think that, for anyone that’s looking at getting into a racing series: watch IndyCar. Because you never know what’s going to happen. The racing is so great and so competitive, and there’s some great characters. With the new 100 Days to Indy series coming out, it’s kind of cool to see the product that IndyCar puts out.
“It doesn’t need the extra dramatisation, it is just a great product to show as it is. And so for myself, that’s kind of fun because I’m a race fan as well. And so I enjoy watching all the products and the media around the series that I’m now driving in, even though I’m a driver.”
Note: Robb is a personality that embodies the characters within IndyCar as a series - engaging and massively insightful. We would like to thank Sting Ray for his time, becoming our first driver guest on the podcast. The full interview can be found on the DIVEBOMB YouTube channel, and DIVEBOMB IndyCar on Spotify!