Start to finish, IndyCar’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is just over 157 miles — if, that is, you begin at the green flag. For Rocky Moran, Jr., the journey’s been a little longer.
Confirmed for his Verizon IndyCar Series debut just hours before first practice commenced Friday, Moran’s phone call from Dale Coyne Racing not only came late in the day, but later in life. At 35, he’s a rookie, over a decade after the time he should’ve been.
That part’s unusual. That he was passed up the first time wasn’t.
Moran is part of a lost era when young, American-born talents did everything right. They had the talent — Moran was a winner in the Atlantic Championship, the top feeder to Champ Car (one of two elements that makes up today’s IndyCar) — and they had the savvy. Moran, Joey Hand, Jon Fogarty, Dane Cameron, John Edwards, and Jonathan Summerton could have had the whole world of IndyCar racing.
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They just didn’t have the sponsors.
So, Moran bounced around, as did his contemporaries. He tried stock cars at what is now the K&N Pro Series level. He ran the Freedom 100 support series race in Indianapolis, hoping to catch someone’s attention. He had three tries in what were then Grand-Am sports cars.
That career path leaves Moran a full decade removed from when he last raced an open-wheel car. Had he won Red Bull’s Driver Search, where he was a contender, it could’ve been more like a decade since he debuted in Formula One.
An opportunity there never came, either.
In fact, few did anywhere in those last 10 years. Moran sat dormant season after season before reappearing as a Jaguar factory driver in the American Le Mans Series. He partnered P. J. Jones, who had won the 24 Hours of Daytona with Moran’s father in 1993, and did all he could in an ill-fated program, wheeling an ill-tempered car.
Even by then, Moran was long an after-thought in the IndyCar community. Racing GT sports cars — unreliable ones, at that — was not going advance his prospects. He disappeared to karting, off-roading, and even entertaining the media with pace car rides on the Long Beach circuit he now faces in an IndyCar.
Point to any American ladder series standout from his era, and something of that nature would be the predictable ending. Moran’s dream, however, did not end thrilling journalists on the sudden twists and narrow turns of Long Beach’s legendary streets — it ended with a much different curve, blinder than any on even racing’s toughest venues.
Out of nowhere, Moran tested for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports last winter. Somehow, years and years after he couldn’t get a look from open-wheel’s top teams, one that had sent both of its cars to the podium in 2014 was throwing him into the top-tier machinery he always coveted.
For most, that would’ve been closure, a type of validation for the development series grind to know that a decade after, the racing community still had some faint memory of who you were. For Moran, though, it was an opening.
It was the start of who he was going to be: an IndyCar driver.
Certainly, success at Long Beach this weekend isn’t expected; teammate Francesco Dracone has struggled all season, as has Carlos Huertas, the driver Moran replaces. The long absence from any type of racing is a challenge that can’t be overstated.
It’d be unbelievable if Moran could earn even a top 10; it’s downright extraordinary that he’s even lining up, a 35-year-old on debut in a last-minute, casually announced driver change that charged up full throttle, on the overtake button, and around the outside with all off-guard.
Still, that gives Moran 157 miles to fulfill all he chased and all that eluded him — and his whole generation.
Improbable as it may be, it wouldn’t be a surprise if those aren’t his final 157. For Moran, the starting line was well over 10 years earlier, after all.
If he sets the finish somewhere further out, it will just be the norm in this shocking reemergence.