Dale Coyne Racing replaced Carlos Huertas on the opening day of the Long Beach Grand Prix with a driver who will be making his IndyCar Series debut.
No reason was given for the change to Rocky Moran Jr., a 35-year-old driver who last raced in 2011 in the American Le Mans Series. His last open wheel race was the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2005.
Despite the lack of experience in an Indy car, Moran was nearly 1.5 seconds faster in Friday’s practice than Coyne teammate Francesco Dracone.
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Moran, a multiple race winner in Toyota Atlantic, is the son of Rocky Moran, who made 24 starts in Indy cars from 1981 through 1994 and raced in three Indianapolis 500s.
The Orange County resident said the opportunity to make his IndyCar Series debut in Sunday’s race is a longtime dream.
"My dream has been to be an IndyCar driver and I literally found out late Thursday afternoon that this was going to happen," Moran said. "Driving up here was beyond surreal. It’s a total blessing. The people in my inner circle, they know how much this means to me and for it to happen here.
"I just want to do laps and keep my nose clean. The more laps I’ll do, the quicker I’ll get."
There was scrutiny, though, on the Coyne team for its choice of drivers.
Dracone, who has been the slowest driver in the first two races of the season, was fined $10,000 for hitting a crew member on pit road last weekend at New Orleans. Crew member Todd Phillips flipped when he was struck by the left rear corner of the car. The contact caused a cut on his right leg and a bruised right foot.
Coyne told The Indianapolis Star that a stream of water from the morning’s heavy rain was to blame for the spin, and not Dracone’s talent or experience level. The Italian has four career IndyCar starts — two this season, and two in 2010. He has 246 laps of race experience, but has finished second-to-last in both races this year.
"He saw Todd," Coyne told The Star about Dracone. "But when he hit the (brakes) the rear tires were on the water. That’s when he spun. You can see it on the video."
Coyne also told The Star that Dracone is "closer (to competitive speed) than we thought he’d be."
Huertas, who drove for Coyne last season and won at Houston, is likely a victim of a lack of funding. The IndyCar Series has several drivers required to bring their own money to buy the ride, and those drivers often get seats over far more talented drivers.
It’s a system in play at Coyne, where Justin Wilson was left without a ride this season when no sponsorship was found to fund a car. Wilson was picked up for two races, including the Indianapolis 500, by defending Indy winner Andretti Autosport.
Huertas finished last in the season-opener at St. Petersburg because of a mechanical issue, and he was 16th last week at New Orleans.
Coyne told The Star Huertas could possibly return to the car for the Indy 500. The team announced earlier this week it will field three cars in the 500, but it only announced Pippa Mann as a confirmed driver.