Sebastian Saavedra and his AFS Racing team celebrate after winning the pole for Saturday's GP of Indy. (Photo: Getty Images)

and his AFS Racing team celebrate after winning the pole for Saturday’s . (Photo: Getty Images)

When Sebastian Saavedra was a young teenage driver trying to make it in the Indy Lights Series team owner Gary Peterson saw something in the kid from Bogota, Colombia that made him a believer. Peterson became more than a car owner for Saavedra; he was a benefactor.

Peterson was a team owner and former driver in the Indy Lights Series – a ladder series that was designed to prepare young drivers for a potential career in .

Drivers such as Peterson, G.J. Mennen, Arie Luyendyk, Jr., Rocky Moran, Jr., Thiago Medeiros, Phil Giebler and Tyce Carlson all drove Peterson’s cars. Those names are all but forgotten with the exception of Luyendyk, and he is more famous as a reality TV star.

Another driver, Alex Lloyd, drove in Indy Lights and would later become a series champion for team owner Sam Schmidt and earn a ride in the IndyCar Series.

In 2007, Peterson formed a partnership with team owner Michael Andretti in Indy Lights and in 2008, Peterson hit it big with Raphael Matos of Brazil, the 2007 Formula Atlantic champion. Matos won the Indy Lights title in 2008 and advanced to IndyCar. J.R. Hildebrand and a young Colombian name Saavedra were the drivers of Peterson’s two-car team in 2009 with Hildebrand winning the Indy Lights championship that season.

Saavedra was just a kid but Peterson saw star quality. Career opportunities, however, led each in different directions. Peterson would step up to IndyCar in 2009 partnering with Andretti Autosport. Such drivers as Adam Carroll, Franck Montagny, Hidecki Mutoh, Wade Cunningham and Matos drove for the team before Peterson split with Andretti in 2011.

Meantime, Saavedra had a less than stellar IndyCar career with Bryan Herta Autosport in 2010, Conquest Racing in 2011, Andretti Autosport in 2012 and Dragon Racing last season.

The biggest highlight for Saavedra during that time was bumping his way into the Indy 500 lineup from Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis in 2010. He was on the bubble but in jeopardy of being bumped he ran practice laps in case he had to requalify and crashed. Off to Methodist he went to be checked out. Tony Kanaan knocked Saavedra out of the field but that was before both Paul Tracy and Jay Howard both did the unthinkable. They withdrew their times that already had them in the field and attempted to requalify at a faster speed.

Both Tracy and Howard were unable to go faster than Saavedra, who was reinstated to the 33rd and final starting position.

Saavedra would return to full-time Indy Lights duty in 2012 with Peterson’s AFS Racing and compete in just three IndyCar races that season.

A full-season IndyCar ride with Dragon Racing in 2013 produced a 21st-place points finish for Saavedra before a tremendous opportunity developed at KV Racing. Kanaan left that team to join team owner Chip Ganassi’s operation and Simona di Silvestro shifted her focus to a potential Formula One career. Peterson merged his team with KV Racing and Saavedra led 14 laps at the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 27.

Fast forward to Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Peterson’s faith in his Colombian prodigy paid off as Saavedra won the pole for Saturday’s Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis – the first-ever Verizon IndyCar Series road course race held at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

While Saavedra was still in the cockpit of his Dallara/Chevrolet after winning the pole, the first person to lean into the cockpit and give him a congratulatory hug was the Peterson – the man who never lost faith in the 23-year-old driver.

“I’ve been with Sebastian so long and supporting him with his father and we had to keep trying but we have a great little team,” Peterson said. “We have Al Unser, Jr. coming in to help him this weekend as a driver coach and that really helps. I don’t think people really know how good Sebastian is. It seems like we get a lot of negative press for some reason. We had good equipment when we were at Andretti Autosport but we just didn’t click. Jimmy Vasser wanted a two-car team and now I think we have the equipment and the team.

“We have a good shot at the Indy 500, too. The only thing is we are lacking sponsors but hopefully we can get that together. We are trying to do the entire season.”

The qualities that have endeared Saavedra to Peterson are his positive nature. He listens to suggestions and has a great attitude but it’s his aggressiveness that makes a potential winner in the IndyCar Series.

And while few Verizon IndyCar Series fans know much about Saavedra, his Verizon P1 pole award for Saturday’s Inaugural Grand Prix of Indianapolis will likely change that.

It was the first pole for Saavedra in the Verizon IndyCar Series. His previous best start was sixth last year at Milwaukee.

“It’s huge,” Saavedra said. “It’s a great way to start the month of May. I think we’ve been pushing ourselves, looking to get this opportunity. When we saw that there was a great opportunity, we took it.

“I think everybody on the team has been non-stop. It’s a good strike. Better here in Indianapolis. Hopefully we’ll keep it up. It’s a long month ahead. I think in my professional career, it’s the top level, the top spot for sure. We’ve been getting closer to a couple things. We’ve been leading laps and stuff like that. Strategies or things like that haven’t worked out.

“But definitely this is a point that makes you get addicted to more. You just want more. I think this is a great start for that to happen. I think we have something. We’re building something from scratch. The long relationship that we’re building, it’s hopefully soon to be shown.”

For Saavedra, the pole is a great accomplishment in his career and Saturday’s first-ever IndyCar Series road race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be historic in many respects but beginning Sunday it’s practice on the oval for the 98th Indianapolis 500 – the biggest race on the planet.

Saavedra is aligned with the team that won last year’s Indianapolis 500 with Kanaan behind the wheel of the No. 11 – a car that is now piloted by four-time Champ Car Series champion Sebastien Bourdais. So that gives the 23-year-old Saavedra of something even bigger ahead of him at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“Everybody wants to keep it the same way this year, of course,” Saavedra said. “With Sebastien Bourdais, we’re trying to keep the same mentality, trying not to push ourselves too much. We need to try to keep doing the same work that T.K. and Simona de Silvestro did last year.

“So far everything has been smooth, a great merge with AFS Racing. Everything seems to be going in the right direction. We just need to keep it up.”

He got off to a good start on Friday and will lead the field to the start of Saturday’s Grand Prix of Indianapolis. And that was a big reward for his biggest supporter of his racing career – co-owner, supporter and friend, Gary Peterson.

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