Seated on a cool cement garage floor against a backdrop of 10- and 14-inch racing tires, Jacob Abel rests his arms on bent knees, looking as deep in thought as any human could. It’s a rare moment of stillness for a young man who is used to juggling a full-time college schedule with a full-time auto racing career, one that’s taking him quickly toward the ultimate motorsports prize: joining the NTT IndyCar Series and perhaps even winning the Indianapolis 500.
This Butler Bulldog has been at full throttle since the year began. He jumped from eighth to third in the INDY NXT by Firestone Championship (formerly IndyLights) standings after the first race of 2023 thanks to his best finish ever, third place in the season opener after leading a race-high 27 laps. It was an excellent beginning to the second half of his planned two years in INDY NXT before joining IndyCar, and he can taste the future.
He’s also into the second half of his college career. Butler University has made combining racing and learning easier than other colleges might have, Abel said, but the moment of reckoning may be coming.
“With this success I’m having, it’s tempting to chase a racing career full-time,” he said.
Family, college, and racing rolled into one
Abel Motorsports is a quick walk from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a 16-minute drive to Butler’s campus. The proximity of the family-owned businesses (Abel Construction hosts the office near IMS) has allowed the Louisville native to attend classes while driving full-time in the Indy Pro 2000 Presented by Cooper Tires series, part-time in GT World Challenge America and occasionally in Stadium Super Trucks over the past few years.
Abel Motorsports is very much a family affair. Jacob Abel’s dad, Bill, was an award-winning motocross racer who grew up with a racing father, as well.
“I got my first dirt bike at 3 years old. We have some funny home videos of that,” the younger Abel laughed. “I’ve always just had a knack for driving, a mechanical inclination and a little bit of a need for speed.”
He started out racing go-karts at local indoor tracks with his father and was hooked. His father became his mentor and manager as Abel started toward IndyCars.
“Having a dad who knows racing inside and out has been invaluable to my professional and personal development, he said. “At the beginning, it was really interesting, though. I was this 17-year-old kid, so of course I felt like I knew much more about the [racing] industry than my dad did. More about everything,” he admitted. “We were trying to tell each other what to do. The relationship was something we were growing into together.”
Now 22 and racing under John Brunner, Abel said their relationship “is very strong. With the level I’m at now, my dad and I don’t have a lot of conversations about the business side of racing. I report to John, which allows me to just be a race car driver on the team.”
Abel has moved efficiently through what until this year was officially called the Road to Indy, tiers of open-wheel competitive races that develop drivers for the demanding IndyCar Series. He broke into INDY NXT as a rookie last year with five top-five finishes; as of May 13, Abel is eighth in championship points standings.
To some extent, college is a family affair, too. His older siblings persuaded him to enroll in the first place, Abel said. And his father had gotten his degree after a 35-year hiatus.
“I wanted to get that college experience, you know?” he said. “My brother and sister both said college is the best four years of your life—living in dorms, making all these relationships with a ton of different people. That’s the coolest thing about college in the first place, learning to balance the workload and making lifetime relationships.”
College life has helped with racing, too.
“Beyond just the learning that took place in the classroom, Butler really prepared me for the dual-role situation I’m in now. I was a professional student and a professional racecar driver, so I had to learn how to manage both of those things: stay on top of schoolwork, the racing, and everything else I was doing. I don’t think I would’ve been able to sustain the type of career I’ve had without that experience.”
Abel said his professors do everything they can to make his availability work.
“Butler offers a very personalized education, and that fact is very helpful. I have a career mentor I can lean on and a counselor for academics. And honestly, I haven’t gotten any special treatment [because I’m a racecar driver], and I think that speaks to how well Butler treats all its students,” he said.
Though he couldn’t manage classes for the spring 2023 semester, “I’m going to get a degree at some point,” he said. “It’ll probably be in Marketing. That’s what I’m good at. In racing, you do a lot of marketing: talking to sponsors, teams, a lot of people a lot of the time. I’ve already gotten better from what I’ve learned at Butler.”