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Russian IndyCar rookie Mikhail Aleshin proves to be quick study

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NEWTON, Iowa - The only thing most people seem to know about rookie Mikhail Aleshin is that he's the first Russian driver in IndyCar history.

Aleshin could soon be known more for where he's headed than where he's from.

Aleshin, a native of Moscow, has adapted to North American open-wheel racing faster than many had anticipated. He's coming off back-to-back seventh-place finishes for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and is now 15th in the points chase heading into the Grand Prix of Houston later this month.

But what's most remarkable about Aleshin's early performance is that he's just seven months removed from his first trip to the U.S. and is a newcomer to every track on the schedule.

"It's good that I can fight with many of the other drivers that have raced here for years and years. Sometimes be on the same level with them. Sometimes even faster. All that makes you a bit more optimistic," Aleshin said Friday between test sessions at the Iowa Speedway, which is hosting an IndyCar race next month.

Aleshin is still a mystery to many of the more experienced IndyCar drivers, who commonly referred to him as "The Russian" on the radio during races.

But after failing to land a full-time ride in Formula 1, Aleshin is determined a build a successful career in IndyCar.

In 2007, Aleshin became the first Russian to win a major race at the sub-F1 level with a victory in the Formula Renault 3.5 Series at just 20 years old.

Two years later, he was the first Russian to earn a Formula 1 superlicense. But it was also around that time that Aleshin began contemplating a move to IndyCar.

"Unfortunately, it's not easy to jump to Formula 1 even if you're a good driver. You need to have something more than talent, unfortunately," Aleshin said.

IndyCar, he added, "is a completely new page, a completely new story in my life."

Aleshin first came to the U.S in November to test at Sebring International Raceway and began his rookie season just four months later.

Aleshin started with impressive 12th- and 6th-place finishes at St. Petersburg and Long Beach, but he followed with crashes at consecutive races. Though Aleshin ran well at the Indianapolis 500, he was done in by mechanical issues.

But Aleshin responded to a non-descript opening race at Belle Isle with a 7th-place effort in the finale of that doubleheader. Last weekend, he qualified a season-best 11th at Texas — the first high-banked oval of his career — and also came in seventh.

I've been "unlucky in some races. A little bit maybe inexperienced in some things here because it's a different culture here," Aleshin said. "It's just different rules. I just need to get used to it."

Though Aleshin keeps inching toward his first podium finish, he also knows that the experience he's gaining in 2014 should lead to much better results in 2015.

For now, Aleshin is content to learn as he goes.

"It's definitely one of the toughest, if not the toughest, series that I have raced in," Aleshin said. "Every driver here has a history. Every driver has a background. Every driver has won something. I can tell you that it's very hard to race against them, that's for sure."

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