Derek Daly, a former Formula One driver, attended Austin’s inaugural United States Grand Prix in November and recalled, “I walked around to see how many American flags there were. Hardly any. We were at Turn 19 and to the left of that was the British crowd and they had Union Jacks and all this stuff for (Lewis) Hamilton and (Jenson) Button.”
Daly, who was also at the Circuit of the Americas this month, said, “We’ve got an anchor on the ground in Austin. This is a world-class facility. But it’s like having an NFL stadium without a home team.”
The United States has had one driver on the F1 grid in 20 years and Scott Speed’s short stint in the sport didn’t exactly prompt a whole lot of flag-waving. The U.S. now has a small group of young guns aiming for F1, including Daly’s son Conor, Alexander Rossi, Jonathan Summerton and Michael Lewis. All were in Austin for the November race and all dream of being on F1’s starting grid. But even though Austin’s new circuit has helped raised their profiles in the racing world, their progress is still precarious even as the flag is about to drop on the 2013 season.
“It’s seat time,” said Summerton. “Drivers are just trying to find a ride in anything they can.”
Derek Daly added, “You have to stay racing. You cannot afford to sit out or become invisible. Everything about the sport moves so fast, that if you fall off the merry-go-round, it’s gone. It’s not going to slow down for you; in fact it will probably even get faster. So to catch up and get back on again, it’s almost impossible. If you fall off the bandwagon at this stage you need an awful lot of money to buy your way back in.”
Lewis said having a Formula One track in this country raises the interest in the young American F1 hopefuls. But Conor Daly cautioned, “What gets us going further in racing is money. It’s 80 percent money and 20 percent driving. You’ve got to have the right people around you at the right time and deliver results.”
In this economic climate, lining up sponsors can be every bit as important as piling up podium finishes for a driver.
Right now, the U.S. driver closest to grabbing the brass ring of an F1 ride is Alexander Rossi, a 21-year-old Californian.
Rossi and China’s Ma Qing Hua will be Caterham’s Formula One reserve drivers this season, behind lead drivers Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde.
In a press release, Caterham’s team principal Cyril Abiteboul said Rossi would be driving in some Friday practice sessions for Formula One and that he’ll also attend every F1 race with the team.
Rossi said in the release that the move put him closer to his goal of racing in Formula One and that he would be ready for his next opportunity.
Rossi first drove for Caterham at the 2011 Abu Dhabi young driver test and competed in the Formula Renault 3.5 series last year.
In 2012 Conor Daly, a 21-year-old Indiana native, finished sixth in GP3, a support series for Formula One. Along the way he picked up a thrilling win in Barcelona and walked away from a horrifying crash in Monaco.
At the moment the Monaco crash happened, his father was doing a live broadcast of a drivers parade at Indianapolis. Derek’s phone started going crazy. Texters asked, “Is Conor okay?”
Daly said, “I started getting this sinking feeling in my heart.” Only after the broadcast was finished could he learn the details.
Conor had emerged from a tunnel and then tried to pass Russian driver Dmitry Suranovic, who had been swerving to block him. Daly clipped Suranovic’s car and flew into the air, hanging almost upright, before ripping into a fence and disintegrating.
Somehow, Conor was fine, and quickly alerted his dad, but even Conor was taken aback when he saw the video of the crash.
“I had no idea that I’d hit the fence,” Conor said.
Although the accident was not his fault, the Dalys’ finances took a big hit.
“We were on the hook for accident damage last year, $137,000,” Derek Daly said.
“That was a major happening for an athlete to go through. He’s never taken more than a corner off a car and then he has this monster crash. But I looked at it and thought, at Monaco you have to have discipline at such a high level. I think Conor stepped over the line and just pushed it too much trying to force his way. After it all unfolded and the bill got paid, we thought that might have been the greatest lesson he ever learned and will carry for the rest of his career. At a place like that, discipline rules and it doesn’t matter how right you are or how fast you might be.”
Derek Daly said the GP3 cars are changing significantly this year, moving from a 275-horsepower engine “that sounds like a bad lawnmower with a misfire” to 400-horsepower engine. Plans are for Conor to stay in that series and learn to handle the more powerful cars that Derek said are about four seconds a lap faster.
At the beginning of March all those pieces were not in place for the GP3 ride and Conor was in Barcelona testing a GP2 car for German-based Hilmer Motorsport.
Derek remained confident a ride would be found for Conor.
“It’s highly possible we’ll sign a commitment and worry about putting the rest of the pieces together as we go. I mean that’s high risk, but you have to do it,” he said.
Lewis, a 22-year-old Californian, said he hopes to be in the Formula 3 Euro Series again.
“Formula 3 has done a lot for me,” Lewis said. “It was a really great year. I got a win (in Valencia). I’m positive I can build on that.”
Lewis said that when he came to Austin for the F1 race some of the fans recognized him.
“I ran into Mario Andretti, who was in a golf cart, and he knew who I was,” a pleased Lewis said.
Summerton said he was in Austin the week of the race and spent some time chatting with world champion Sebastian Vettel. Summerton said he has raced against Vettel and more than a half-dozen other drivers who are currently in F1.
“It’s nice to know I could be there. I just didn’t get the break,” Summerton said. “I was in the unlucky circumstances of getting to the market at the wrong time.”
Summerton, whose parents both hail from the United Kingdom, once seemed destined to be on the F1 grid. He suffered a big setback, however, when a project to put an American team in F1, USF1, collapsed in 2010 without racing.
“I’ve been knocking on F1’s doorstep for multiple years,” said the 24-year-old Floridian. “I was talking with the Lotus F1 team about being their third driver this year, but that didn’t work out.”
Summerton is scrambling for a seat this season after not finding a full-time ride last year. He is currently exploring several options including Global Rallycross, which is featured in the X Games. He said, “The long-term goal is to win whatever I get in. If you can make a career out of racing, you’ve done well. The main goal is to make a living.”
Derek Daly said now that the U.S. has one of the world’s best circuits, American drivers can aim for the top, Formula One.
“I’m not sure anyone believed someone would build a circuit like this in America,” he said. “Before this existed I’m not sure many American drivers believed they could maybe make it. But the unheard of happened. And the next unheard of (an American on the F1 grid) is starting to have momentum.”