INDIANAPOLIS – Kevin Coleman was a racing fan before he was a racing pilot. It is almost beyond imagination that he is racing over Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“Every time you drive through the tunnel, I have to pinch myself,” he said. “Because it’s surreal that I get to compete in a place where all these guys I’ve looked up to competed at — A.J. Foyt, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson. For me, it’s huge.”
Coleman is the lone American among 10 pilots in the Challenger Class of this weekend’s Red Bull Air Race. The division is what Indy Lights is to IndyCar. He finished fifth in qualifying Saturday.
Challenger Cup races start at noon Sunday and Master Class at 1 p.m. Gates open at 10 a.m. This is the last stop on the series, so world champions will be decided.
Coleman is a self-described motor sports fan who has watched the Indianapolis 500 since he was a child. He has befriended IndyCar driver Conor Daly and been introduced to Alexander Rossi. He has given James Hinchcliffe a ride in his airplane and ridden in a two-seater with Gabby Chaves.
Coleman has found commonalities between air and land in preparation and tactics.
“We’ve actually implemented some of that for our weekend,” he said.
Yet the racing is as different as, well, land and air. Cars cover 400 to 500 miles in about three hours. Planes complete runs in little more than 60 seconds.
“IndyCar, a lot of the time you get an opportunity to make a mistake and make up for it,” Coleman said. “If you make a mistake here, then you’re last. There’s no time to make up for it. It’s over.”
Coleman, 27, knew he wanted to do something like this series before there was one.
Since he was 3 and playing with toy planes, all he wanted to do was fly. His father, Wyche, was a pilot in air shows. When Coleman was 5 — and could not see over the dashboard — he steered a plane his father flew. He began taking lessons when he was 10. By 17, he said, he was the world’s youngest air show pilot.
When he was 13, the air race series was introduced. That became the goal. He was a member of the U.S. aerobatics team, and the series began recruiting him. While performing, he completed a Louisiana Tech degree in aviation and business management.
He finished third in the Challenger Class in 2016 and was rookie of the year. It helped that Kirby Chambliss, 57, the top American pilot, was a family friend who mentored him.
“This is what I grew up in, and this is just what I always wanted to do,” Coleman said. “I’ve never known anything different. I haven’t had another plan. This was the plan.”
He won at Porto, Portugal, a month ago before a crowd of 600,000 on the banks of the Douro River. He is fourth in the standings.
Although this series has taken him to the Middle East, Europe and Asia, he remains a country boy from Coushatta, La. (pop. 1,964). He played high school football there and spends part of his offseason hunting and fishing. Coushatta is the home of a National Guard unit dating back to the Confederate Army that was nicknamed the “Wildbunch.”
“There’s nothing like this on the planet,” Coleman said.
Female pilot makes history
Melanie Astles of France was top qualifier in Challenger Class, becoming the first female pilot to lead qualifying in either division. Astles, 35, became the second woman to be a top qualifier in the 108-year history of IMS.
Pippa Mann of Great Britain won the Indy Lights pole for the Freedom 100 in 2010. Danica Patrick’s best qualifying position in seven Indianapolis 500s was fourth in 2005.
Martin Sonka, a fighter pilot in the Czech Air Force, put himself in position to secure the Master Class world championship. Sonka has 63 total points, Yoshi Muroya 59, Pete McLeod 56 and Chambliss 52. Scoring is 15-12-9-7-6-4-3-2-1.
Sonka was No. 4 qualifier, pitting himself against No. 11 Muroya in the round of 14. Chambliss, who was 12th, and Muroya had such poor runs that they could be eliminated early Sunday. Top qualifier was Matt Hall, a former Royal Australian Air Force fighter combat instructor. McLeod, a Canadian, was fifth.
Call IndyStar reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
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