Carl Skerlong – Chasing The Dream It would be fair to say that Mukilteo, Washington, population 19,648, doesn’t yet boast a reputation for churning out world-class professional racing drivers. The ‘yet’ is something 18-year-old Carl Skerlong plans to rectify with an open-wheel pedigree that to this stage in his career at least, just so happens to mirror that of a certain 2006 Indy Racing League ‘Rookie of the Year’, one with no-less a surname than Andretti.
As background, both Skerlong and the aforementioned Andretti, in this case Marco – son of 1991 Indy Car Champion and Andretti Green Racing co-owner, Michael, and grandson of the legendary Mario, 1978 Formula One World Champion and four-time Indy Car Champion, made their race car debuts in the west-coast based Formula TR Pro Series, running 1.6 and 2.0-liter Formula Renault cars imported from Europe.
Andretti triumphed in the Formula TR 1600 class in 2004 while Skerlong emulated that feat in his own rookie season in 2005, with 14 wins, before going on to be equally dominant in the 2000 class last year, 16 wins from 19 starts landing him his second straight title.
Not to take anything away from the talents of last year’s Indy 500 runner-up, there can be no denying that the Andretti name, coupled with the fact he graduated directly from the Star Mazda Championship, skipping full-time campaigns in the likes of Champ Car Atlantic or the Indy Pro Series, into one of the IRL’s most coveted race seats co-owned by his father, helped put Marco firmly into the pro-ranks of American open-wheel racing.
Skerlong, without the famous surname or manufacturer dollars to expedite a move into the league of drivers fortunate enough to earn a living from the sport in North America, is doing it the old fashioned way with hard graft and sheer determination as he prepares for the next step on his path to the Pro’s, the 2007 Cooper Tires Presents The Champ Car Atlantic Championship Powered by Mazda, starting with this weekend’s opening round on the streets of Las Vegas, Nevada, Friday 6th – Sunday 8th April.
Shunning the more populist, and potentially lucrative, junior stock car ranks Skerlong explains his reason for wanting to become a professional open-wheel racer.
“For me at least, this form of racing is purer. Although we don’t race door-to-door, month-to-month like NASCAR I don’t think you can challenge the demands of road course racing and the competitiveness and skills required to succeed in this discipline.”
“I began racing in the Formula TR Pro Series as I was new to motorsport and felt it offered me a great platform to really learn how to drive a race car without really showing myself off in front of a bunch of people. I obviously got my bearings pretty quickly and with the move to the Atlantic series this season I know I’m competing at the highest level of junior open-wheel racing.
“In pre-season testing alone we’ve had fields of 25 cars with the top twenty guys covered by less than a second, this is where you have to be to prove that you can make it and that you’re worthy of becoming a professional racing driver. We get great coverage and team bosses at the next level know that if you standout here you’ve got the goods to be successful with them.”
In making the next step Carl, a former member of the US Junior Olympic Ski Team, is all too aware of the costs involved. A driver’s bank balance, or more normally that of their parent’s, too often dictates who progresses up the ladder in the current climate found on both sides of the Atlantic, a fact evidenced even at the highest levels of open-wheel in Formula One, the Champ Car World Series and the Indy Racing League.
As an example, a season in the 2000 Class of the Formula TR Pro Series, as raced in last year by Skerlong, with a good team and some additional testing could cost in the region of $150,000 U.S. while a competitive seat in the Champ Car Atlantic Championship, where he’ll ply his trade this season, ballpark, ranges from $500,000 - $800,000 U.S. Such figures astronomical to Joe Public to spend on a year of racing, or just 12 races in total based on the 2007 Atlantic schedule, but mentioned in motorsport circles without even the blink of an eye or gasp of breath.
While chasing the dream of becoming a professional, and paying for it in the process, Carl realizes that just as the on-track results matter in terms of credibility, the work done off-track can be just as, if not more important than the ability to be faster than your rivals when the green flag drops.
“I’ve definitely realized that how you market yourself is as important as how good you are behind the wheel,” stated Skerlong. “I think it’s vital that as a driver you show to potential sponsors and team owners that you have an awareness of marketing and PR as they’re key functions in ensuring that we all get to keep doing what we do, without finances and exposure motorsport programs have a short life span.”
He continues, “I’ve already got myself set-up with a website and a press service but on top of that I’m not afraid to knock on doors and introduce myself to potential sponsors. I make an effort to meet new people who might be able to help me with my career as well as those who’ll help to build my fan-base as that’s another area that shouldn’t be underestimated in my opinion. Word of mouth can go a long way in this business!”
Carl’s efforts off-track have begun to produce results with the high school senior successfully landing backing for his rookie Atlantic campaign from King Taco – the Los Angeles-based Mexican fast food restaurant chain. Luis Martinez, owner of two King Taco locations, liked what he saw in Skerlong’s potential and decided to lend his support in a deal that is mutually beneficial to both parties.
“My relationship with King Taco is much more than just a sponsorship,” Carl explained. “Luis’ son, Luis Martinez Jr., is racing also so I’ve been doing some driver coaching with him which has been great and on top of that, through the association with Luis and King Taco, we’re now being introduced to other parties and my name’s being put forward to other companies with a view to securing additional backing in the future.
“I’m trying to make a career out of my racing and it’s really a fine balance at of concentrating on each race while keeping your eye on the bigger picture. I’d love to stay in open-wheel racing for as long as I can although I appreciate it’s extremely difficult right now to earn a living from it. The bottom line is that whatever I do I want to remain a road racer, that’s where my passion lies and that’s what I’ll keep working towards.”
While there’s no getting away from the fact that the path to the Pro ranks in North America is significantly smoothed if your surname happens to be Andretti, Rahal, Earnhardt or Wallace, it’s a fact that doesn’t bother Skerlong as he sets his sights on the same goal.
“I definitely think Marco had the name to get him where he is today but without question I also think he’s a phenomenal driver. For most people he graduated a little too early but he proved himself at the Indy 500 and at the end of the day people’s opinions are just that, opinions! Motorsport is a tough place to be successful; you have to make the most of the opportunities presented and work hard in and out of the car to get yourself into the right place at the right time.”
With the 2007 Champ Car World Series boasting just two American’s in its driver line up, Graham Rahal (Newman/Haas/Lanigan Racing), son of 1986 Indy 500 Champion Bobby Rahal, and Alex Figge (Pacific Coast Motorsports), Skerlong’s progress racing the #24 King Taco / US RaceTronics entry in its feeder category will be keenly followed with perhaps the right opportunity, rather than the right budget, allowing him to chase the dream and graduate as a professional driver.