Rookie season in the books.
Matheus “Matt” Leist returns to AJ Foyt Racing for the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series season to pilot the No. 4 ABC Supply Chevrolet having completed a rookie year that saw him finish 18th in the championship. After a full season of learning all things Indy car – with guidance from fellow Brazilian teammate, mentor and 2013 Indy 500 champ Tony Kanaan, and of course the Foyts, the 20-year-old is ready to get back behind the wheel of the fastest and closest racing in motorsports.
“I knew that everything last year was going to be challenging for me,” said Leist. “There was so much to learn not only about the car itself, but strategy as well. From understanding the way an Indy car handles on different types of tracks and communicating that feedback to the team, to saving fuel and tires and just learning how strategy plays a role, it was a huge learning year for me. Plus the races are so much longer, so that was also an adjustment.”
Ironically, the two longest races of the season – the Indianapolis 500 and the ABC Supply 500 - saw Leist post two of his best results of the season, finishing 11th at Pocono and 13th in his first Indy 500. He also earned Fastest Rookie honors at Indy where he qualified 11th with a four-lap average speed of 227.517mph, placing the No. 4 in the middle of the fourth row alongside his teammate Kanaan.
“Indy was very special. It was the longest race I had ever competed in at that point so it was also a challenge, but to finish 13th in my first Indy 500 – and first 500 mile race – felt pretty good! Everyone was really happy with that result.”
Despite impressive results in the 500 mile events, Leist feels most comfortable on the street courses. It showed when he hit the ground running in his IndyCar debut in the 2018 season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida where Leist started third in the field of 24.
In fact, qualifying is one of the most exciting aspects of the race weekend for Leist. He loves the “adrenalin rush” he feels from hanging everything on the line to put together that one perfect lap.
“The adrenaline of qualifying is one of the things I love most about racing. It is something that takes everything – the pressure to put that one lap together is insane – that is one of the most exciting things about racing. In a race you have like 70 to 80 laps on a road course and 200 laps on an oval so you have space to make a few little mistakes – not that many of course – but on a qualifying lap, it’s just all about that lap. Sometimes you only have one lap so to put everything together it takes everything out of you. I think that is the most challenging thing in a race car, but of course winning races and winning in great places – this is the most gratifying thing.”
Of course, winning is the ultimate goal for Leist, who, just like his legendary team owner, is not one to rest on his laurels. Despite the struggles that the No. 4 team faced in the latter half of the season following Indianapolis, they have spent the off-season working even harder to come back faster and more focused in 2019.
“In this series the level of competition is so high that everyone has to give 100 percent, 100 percent of the time. If one small thing is off, it can potentially affect everything. We’ve all been working extremely hard to make significant improvements for this season, so we’re really excited to get back to the track to see how much we’ve gained and what we still need to work on to keep getting better.
“My teammate has also been a huge help to me throughout the season both in and out of the cockpit. Tony knows so much about the cars, what he is feeling and how to talk to the engineers to give them feedback on what the car is doing. He’s also really great with the media and just leads by example in how he speaks and carries himself.”
Though he may be 21 seasons shy of Kanaan’s IndyCar experience, Leist is wise beyond his years and fully understands that at this level of competition success doesn’t happen overnight.
In fact, Leist has spent the majority of his life behind the wheel, getting his start in karts at age six when his father – an avid racing fan - signed him up for driving school. It was a family affair for him (Leist’s younger brother, Arthur, also races). His father would leave work early during the week and fly to the race for the entire event. Even when business no longer allowed him to miss weekdays, he would jet off on the weekend to make sure he didn’t miss his son’s race.
“He couldn’t go anymore on Wednesday, but he still used to go on Friday nights just to watch the races. He didn’t need to go but he loves it and likes to be with us at the track,” Matheus said.
What started more as a hobby for Leist soon turned into a career pursuit after joining the “juniors” karting division in Brazil. After getting a taste for a higher level of competition he knew that racing professionally was his dream. As he set goals to achieve that dream, he began hitting his marks at an impressive rate.
Leist entered the Brazilian National Karting Series in 2013 and placed second overall in the Petrobras Karting Championship. The following year, he graduated to single-seaters in the Brazilian F3 Light Series, racing Class B and earning two wins, nine podiums and second in the championship.
In 2015, Leist teamed up with Double R Racing and joined the MSA Formula Series where he raced throughout England and Scotland. His two victories that season came in England at Donington Park in Leicestershire and Silverstone Circuit, home of the British Grand Prix in Northamptonshire. He snared five more podium finishes and placed fifth in the standings.
In 2016, Leist and the Double R Racing team took on the BRDC British Formula 3 Championship. The open wheel series traveled across England with one stop in Belgium comprised of eight triple header events for a total of 24 races. It was a hard-fought season between Leist and British native Ricky Collard, as Leist edged out Collard for the series’ title with four victories and seven more podium finishes under his belt. Of the 23 races run (one was cancelled due to rain), Leist placed in the top-five 19 times.
In 2017, Leist made his debut in the Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires Series as one of four drivers for Carlin. As a rookie fresh off the circuit in Europe, he faced considerable challenges against the field of foreign drivers, in a new country with new cars and tracks.
“2017 was supposed to be a very difficult year for me,” recalls Leist. “It was everything new – track, team, ovals, drivers – I didn’t know anyone. When I started the contract, I didn’t know any driver of Indy Lights, I didn’t know anyone.”
Embracing those challenges, Leist caught people’s attention mid-season with a trio of victories, two of which were back-to-back sweeps - starting on the pole and winning - at two of this country’s most historic tracks. The first came at the Freedom 100 at the celebrated Indianapolis Motor Speedway, which was also Leist’s first time competing on an oval. He followed up capturing Race 1 of the doubleheader at Road America. His third triumph came at Iowa Speedway. The three tracks epitomize the diversity of the open wheel series: superspeedway, road course, short oval. His eagerness to learn and ability to execute earned him fourth place in the series by the end of the Indy Lights season. Of the 16 races, Leist posted 12 top-10 finishes (nine of which were top-five) and four podiums.
And while his rookie year in IndyCar was not quite as spectacular, he impressed his bosses nonetheless.
“Matheus did a great job in his rookie year with nearly a vertical learning curve,” said Eric Cowdin, the team’s technical director. “He stepped into the most competitive racing series in the world and showed how talented he is. Even when things didn’t go right for him, he continued to learn and adapt himself so he would be better next time.”
Team owner A.J. Foyt likes Leist’s attitude, but warned him he didn’t have to be so brave.
“When I signed with A.J. everyone was telling me ‘he’s so tough, he’s going to be a hard boss’ and stuff like that,” recalls Leist, “I’m usually very easy-going but obviously I felt like I needed to give it my all, especially with him there, so I remember our first test in Phoenix when I came really close to the wall a few times. A.J. basically took the weight off my shoulders and said not to overdrive it, just take your time to learn the car and get comfortable, which was a huge relief for me.”
When Foyt was asked to assess his young rookie’s first year, he said, “He started off real good and it seemed like he got in kind of a rut, but the car wasn’t working that good either so you can’t blame him. We just didn’t have the combination for him to finish the season like he started. But to have a young driver like Matheus kind of following in Tony’s footsteps, I’m very proud of that because we’ll have a good driver for when Tony does decide to retire.”
Although A.J. was understanding with the young rookie, that doesn’t mean Matheus is “taking it easy.” If anything, he and his team are more determined than ever to bring the No. 4 to the forefront of competition, especially for A.J.
“It’s so great having A.J. at the races with us. His energy and passion is really inspiring and everyone always wants to perform better when he’s there. We really want to get back to victory circle for him as much as for ourselves.”
As Leist’s race day strategist, A.J. Foyt Enterprises President Larry Foyt also saw great promise in the rookie throughout his IndyCar season.
“There’s no doubt we knew he had talent. We just knew he was really young and had only been in cars for a few years, so it was a lot for him to learn. Then in the middle (of the season), as a team we kind of lost our way setup-wise and I think it hurt all of us,” explains Foyt. “I think it hurt his confidence and the team was struggling to find our direction at that point.”
Foyt continued, “I want to see him doing a little bit more in the cockpit with his tools, and just understanding how he can help us through feedback and help the race car, itself, by making adjustments within the cockpit, and that just takes a little time. He’s got the right attitude, we know he’s got the ability, so I’m just really looking forward to working with him again this year.”
Now, with his rookie season in the books, Leist is ready for the next chapter of his IndyCar career.
2018: Qualified third in IndyCar debut in St. Petersburg; qualified as the Fastest Rookie (11th) for the Indianapolis 500 and finished 13th, second highest rookie; posted his best finish (11th) in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway.
2017: Finished fourth in the Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires series with three victories (Indianapolis, Iowa, Road America) two poles (Indianapolis, Iowa) and four podiums. Earned 12 top-10 finishes (nine of which were top-five) in 16 races.
2016: Won the BRDC British Formula 3 championship with four wins and 11 podiums. Finished 19 of the 23 races run in the top-five.
2015: Raced in the MSA Formula Series; fifth overall taking two wins and a total of seven podiums.
2014: Competed in the Brazilian F3 Light Series; earned second place in championship with two wins and nine podiums. Finished third in the Petrobras Kart Selection (on average 110 entries between ages of 15-18).
2013: Participated in Brazilian National Karting; finished second in the Petrobras Karting Championship.
UP CLOSE & PERSONAL
Favorite hobbies: Go karts and gym
Favorite music: “Lose Yourself” - Eminem
Favorite book: The Little Prince
Heroes: Ayrton Senna
Favorite color: Dark grey
Favorite vacation spot: At the beach in Brazil with family and friends
Favorite food: Pasta Carbonara
Favorite drink: Guarana (Brazilian soda)
Favorite dessert: Tiramisu
Favorite movies: The Bucket List, Fast and Furious
Favorite actor/actress: Will Smith
Favorite sport (other than racing) to watch on TV: Soccer
Favorite race tracks (& Why): Donington Park (very special place where I won the British F3 Championship; Brands Hatch (favorite track); Indianapolis (special place and first oval win); Road America (favorite track in the USA).
Favorite restaurant: Fogo de Chao (Brazilian Steakhouse)
Favorite holiday: Christmas and New Years
Favorite present received (ever): My little brother
Favorite season: Summer
Your answering machine message: I don’t have (haha)
Oldest thing in your refrigerator: Vegetables
Something you do before every race: Pray
Most interesting fact about your career: Crashed for the first time ever a racing car in 2017. Won my first oval race.
Something most people don't know about you: I play tennis, I cook for myself everyday and I am addicted to sports
Who would you like to have dinner with (a person dead or alive): Ayrton Senna
Quality you value most in others: Dedication and loyalty
What you'd be if you weren't a race driver: Businessman
How you got started in racing: When I was 7 my father took me to a racing school in Brazil, and from that day I have never stopped.
How you relax at the race track: Listening to music
How you spend your spare time: Riding bike, going to the gym, testing go karts
Greatest fear: I would say something happening with a family member
Secret wish: Buy a supercar
Awards: Golden Helmet award in Brazil twice, National champion in Go Karts, F3 Brazil vice-champion in 2014, British F3 champion in 2016 and Freedom 100 winner in 2017
Most proud accomplishment: When I won the British F3 championship and Freedom 100
Best advice your mother ever gave you: “Believe in yourself, you can do anything you set your mind to.''
Greatest influence on/in your life: My parents and grandparents
What you like most about yourself: Very dedicated, focused and easy going
Most thrilling experience in a race car: Ovals
Most thrilling experience outside of a racecar: Wakeboard and jet-ski
Toughest part of your job: Being away from people I love
Your highest goal in racing: IndyCar champion and Indy 500 champion
What would a successful life look like to you? Love what I do, be successful on it and have a happy family