View from the Topside
A look at the All-American Driver Challenge

   by Rick Benjamin
February 10, 2006

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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 hunt.

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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