Penske Profile - Matt Jonsson

March 18, 2015

It might be tough to believe that the driving force behind Team Penske’s last four INDYCAR championships was a young kid from Sweden who barely spoke a lick of English when he came to the United States to chase his dream.

But those who have come in contact with Matt Jonsson, affectionately known as “Swede” to his friends and co-workers, know that he is driven to succeed and he is doing exactly what he wanted to do from the time he got his first glimpse of INDYCAR racing on TV as a small child growing up in Jonkoping, Sweden.

Jonsson is the chief mechanic on the defending Verizon IndyCar Series champion No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Dallara/Chevrolet driven by Will Power. Widely considered one of the hardest-working, nicest and well-respected chief mechanics in the sport, Jonsson also served the same role on the No. 6 Team Penske car driven by Sam Hornish Jr. in 2006 that won the organization’s last INDYCAR crown before Power’s impressive title run last year.

Jonsson was also a key part of back-to-back CART Series championships with Gil de Ferran behind the wheel in 2000-2001, won the Indianapolis 500 with de Ferran in 2003 and Hornish in 2006 and he led the winning crew in the Indy 500 pit stop competition in both 2006 and 2012. But with all of the success he has contributed to the organization, Jonsson feels he has gained much more personally as he enters his 20th season with Team Penske than he could ever give in return.

“Any day that you get to share words with guys like Roger Penske, Tim Cindric or Rick Mears, you’ve got to look at it as a highlight, you have to view it as a blessing,” said Jonsson. “These guys have so much knowledge and history of the sport, it’s amazing. I’m just honored that Roger Penske knows me by my name.”

Though it never happens with Roger Penske, sometimes people do mispronounce Jonsson’s name. Knowing his nickname and his Swedish background some people say his last name as “YAHN-sun” instead of just the correct and traditional way of saying “JON-sun.” And who could blame them, with Matt’s unique background.

Jonsson was exposed to racing at an early age when his father and his brother built a go kart in Sweden when Matt was just four years old. His brother, Niclas, loved to race but when his Dad was hospitalized for an illness when Matt was about 15, the older boy turned to his younger brother to help keep the kart running. That chance opportunity led to a long and successful history of working on things to make them go faster.

Matt worked as a mechanic on his brother’s car as he rose up the developmental ranks. Niclas claimed the Scandinavian Formula 3 title in 1990 and ’91, but the following year the Jonsson brothers went their separate ways in racing as Niclas went to Asia to compete while Matt stayed home to work with the Formula 3 team part-time after he enrolled in the Swedish Airforce.

 Former Swedish IndyCar driver Stefan Johansson was the one that actually helped eventually open the door for Jonsson to fulfill his racing destiny of working for Team Penske. Johansson became aware of Jonsson’s skills as a mechanic and desire to come to the U.S. and work on IndyCars. In 1993, Johansson contacted Tony Bettenhausen and paved the way for Jonsson to come and work as a mechanic on a visitor’s visa for Bettenhausen Motorsports in the CART Series for two seasons.

“I didn’t know or speak English very well,” said Jonsson who barely has a hint of an accent now. “I was like a kid in a candy store though. Day or night, I spent as much time in the shop as they would allow. I was just so happy to get a chance to work for Tony and his team. I knew they were running Penske chassis at the time and that’s really one of the main reasons why I came over to the team.”

Jonsson developed a great relationship with Bettenhausen and told him his goal was to someday join Team Penske. The generous team owner wasn’t going to get in Jonsson’s way and he even told him to put his name down as a reference when a mechanic’s job opened up with the Penske team.

After working hard on his own to get an entertainment visa to work in the U.S., Jonsson got the call he was hoping for on Jan. 2, 1996 while back home in Sweden.

“Me and some buddies were just getting ready to step on a ferry to Finland when I got a call from (Team Penske General Manager) Clive (Howell),” said Jonsson. “He said they wanted to hire me and I was on cloud nine.”

With all the newest equipment, the most talented mechanics and drivers and Roger Penske calling the shots, Jonsson knew he found a home from the first time he stepped foot in the Penske shop. He remembers his first race with the team at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 1996 working as a mechanic on Paul Tracy’s car.

“I remember just before the race looking up on the starting grid and seeing Rick Mears, Emerson Fittipaldi and Nikki Lauda all standing by the rear wing of the car and here I am standing there with these legends,” said Jonsson. “I had to just pinch myself. It’s almost like I was gasping for air.”

In that first season with Team Penske, Jonsson experienced something that would help mold him as a member of the team and as a man. He was working on Tracy’s pit crew at Nazareth Speedway when the car entered pit lane leading the race. Tracy came in hot and overshot his marks and scooped up Jonsson and he landed in the pit in front of him. Jonsson and another crew member were injured in the incident as Jonsson suffered broken ribs and a torn meniscus and had to sit out the rest of the season. Though it was a tough hurdle to overcome as a rookie with the team, Jonsson viewed the simple racing incident as a valuable lesson.

“It was almost like the accident was a positive experience.” said Jonsson. “Paul felt so bad and we were all just trying to work hard to win the race. Honestly, I would have paid to work for Penske and even with some of those tough moments, it’s been the greatest high I’ve ever experienced in life.”

Another one of those tough moments came in 1999, Jonsson’s first season as a chief mechanic for the team. A difficult year on the track turned tragic for Team Penske when Gonzalo Rodriguez lost his life in a practice accident before the race at Laguna Seca. The team made the decision to withdraw from the race that weekend and Jonsson remembers talking to his crew to tell them the news.

“That was pretty much a moment of truth,” said Jonsson. “We gathered the crew in the truck and told them we were packing up and going home and that was very tough. Gonzalo was a great kid. Just a terrible loss.”

The 2000 season represented a new era for Team Penske when Tim Cindric came aboard for his first season as Team President and Helio Castroneves and de Ferran were hired as drivers. Cindric and Penske turned to Jonsson to help lead the team in a new direction.

“After meeting with Tim and Clive they told me they wanted me to lead the crew on Gil’s car and that was just an incredible feeling,” said Jonsson. “To get that trust from this team and this organization – that was the car that Roger called strategy on – so that really meant a lot to me.”

And the Swede has been winning ever since.

As he returns to lead the No. 1 crew this season with Power looking to defend his crown, the 44-year-old Jonsson knows it won’t be easy.

“With four great teams and four great drivers, it’s going to be a fun and challenging year,” said Jonsson, who lives in Statesville, NC with his wife Melanie and their daughters Sofie and Sady. “I’ve been really lucky to be in a great position with this organization. It’s the people around you that make it happen and fortunately we have great people at Team Penske.”