There are few topics of more importance in racing
these days than the issue of driver development. Teams from NASCAR
to Champ Car to sports cars to the NHRA work long and hard to
identify and teach young drivers what they need to know about racing
at the sport’s highest levels.
It wasn’t too long ago that most young drivers
started in karts, then worked their way into full-sized cars of some
sort as soon as possible, hoping to win enough to attract the
attention of major league race teams. But that’s changed. Over the
last dozen or so years we’ve seen the incredible growth of the 600
Racing family of cars, the amazing spurt in interest in karting, and
the start of some fine driver’s schools like the one pioneered by my
broadcast colleague Derek Daly.
There can be several pathways to the big time these
days, but nearly all of them are paved with money. A lack of backing
has kept some capable young talent on the sidelines. And that’s why
the new All American Driver Challenge is such a worthwhile project.
The AADC is the brainchild of Calico Coatings’
President Tracy Trotter and former driver Brian Moates. The
Challenge held its semifinal round last weekend in Atlanta, picking
ten finalists who’ll take part in a runoff at Hickory Motor Speedway
in North Carolina next month, in the National Championship-winning
Focus Midget. The winner gets to keep that ride for a full season,
with full funding. I was privileged to be a judge.
The concept of the All American Driver Challenge is simple. Offer
young go-karters a chance to qualify for the Atlanta round at one of
a dozen indoor kart facilities around the country. Take the top 100
qualifiers and stage a two-day runoff at Andretti Indoor Karting in
the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. Give each of the hopefuls a full
day on the AIK’s road course, including a two-lap qualifying pass.
Then subject each driver to a 5-minute media and marketing interview
before the judging panel. Wrap up Saturday’s action by taking the
full field onto the tight oval at the Kart facility for a series of
40-lap heat races.
Saturday was an endurance test. Drivers (and their hopeful parents,
friends, and handlers) had to hang tough over the course of nearly
18 hours of racing, waiting, interviewing, and fidgeting. After a
few hours’ sleep everyone returned on Super Bowl Sunday morning for
another round of oval-track heats to cut the field to 24
semi-finalists. The judging panel had a very tough task to eliminate
three-quarters of the original field. Some drivers just weren’t up
to the pace and were told to go home and acquire more experience.
Some drivers were quick but too prone to rough-riding to get a shot.
And some were media-unfriendly enough to take themselves out of the
After determining the 24 remaining contenders, they battled again on
the oval in a series of 3 heat races. Then the hard work began. It
was up to the judges to name the 10 finalists who’ll have a shot at
the ride in the Calico Coatings car in the USAC Carolina Focus
Midget Series this summer. That driver will also have a real shot at
winning the National Focus Championship, since the car took the 2005
title at the hand of Iowan Robbie Ray.
After more than an hour of soul-searching, note-comparing and
arguing, the list of ten contenders in the All American Driver
Challenge emerged. The finalists include unknowns and drivers with
famous surnames. Some are drivers with nothing but go-karting on
their resumes, and in some cases they can’t even drive on the street
as yet. Others have raced sports cars, sprint cars, and stock
cars. All, in our eyes, have a chance to become one of America’s
next great racers.
We’ll find out who the 2006 All American Driver Challenge winner is
in March after the Hickory tests. Whoever it is can be secure in the
knowledge that they’re prepared to take at least one big step toward
stardom in racing. I can’t wait to see how this one plays out.
The 2006 All American Driver Challenge finalists:
Josh Kinser, Bloomington, IN
Michael Umscheid, Cedar Lake, TX
Jessie Morrison, Silver Spring, MD
Justin Larson, Safety Harbor, FL
Tyler Church, Hickory, NC
Jon Laski, Torrance, CA
Viktor Sinzig, Cupertino, CA
Michael Sboro, Watertown, NY
Bradley Riethmeyer, Hutto, TX
Preston Peebles, Lubbock, TX.
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