Almost 20 years and Team USA still producing winners
Almost 20 years have elapsed since the Team USA Scholarship was founded with the intention of assisting talented, young American race car drivers in the early stages of their careers.
Jimmy Vasser was selected as the first scholarship recipient in the late summer of 1990. Then a promising youngster who had enjoyed some success in Formula Atlantic but had taken a step backward into F2000 in order to move his career forward, Vasser carried Team USA’s patriotic red, white and blue colors in the prestigious end-of-season Formula Ford Festival & World Cup at Brands Hatch in England. The results were nothing to write home about but Vasser created an excellent impression and, above all, returned to California with a fresh outlook on the sport.
"I couldn’t believe how cut-throat it was over there," he recalls. "I knew it was going to be competitive but it really opened my eyes."
Vasser went on to enjoy a successful career in the CART/Champ Car Series, winning the championship for Target/Chip Ganassi Racing in 1996, and is now part-owner of the KV Racing Technology IZOD IndyCar Series team.
Among the many other accomplished Team USA Scholarship alumni are Bryan Herta (1991), who, in addition to winning a Firestone Indy Lights Championship, is among a select few drivers to have won races in CART Champ Car, the IZOD IndyCar Series and the American Le Mans Series, and is now a race-winning Firestone Indy Lights series team owner; 2004 Indianapolis 500 champion Buddy Rice (1997); 2007 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Phil Giebler (2000); Champ Car race winner-turned-NASCAR Sprint Cup contender A.J. Allmendinger (2001); NASCAR race winner Jerry Nadeau (1993); Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series GT Champions Paul Edwards (1998) and Andy Lally (1999); and 2009 Firestone Indy Lights Champion J.R. Hildebrand (2005).
The accolades have continued to accumulate this year: Allmendinger claimed his first Sprint Cup pole at Phoenix International Raceway; Lally already has earned three Rolex GT wins, plus one in the ALMS’ GT Challenge class last weekend at Lime Rock Park; Conor Daly (2008) currently leads the Star Mazda Championship Presented by Goodyear by a handy margin by virtue of winning four of the first five races of the season; Joey Hand (1999) has emerged as a front-runner in the ultra-competitive ALMS GT category at the wheel of a BMW-Rahal Letterman Racing M3; and Josef Newgarden (2008) recently claimed his first pole in European GP3 competition, a feeder series for the FIA Formula One World Championship.
The alumni have been garnering headlines in other arenas, too. For example, in addition to his racing successes, Lally is regarded as one of the leading protagonists in the extreme sport of street luge after winning a world championship last year in Australia, while Memo Gidley (1995), in addition to being a regular contender for Doran Racing in Rolex Grand-Am Series Daytona Prototype competition, has emerged as a front-runner in the hotly contested DJSA Outlaw personal watercraft racing series after winning Rookie of the Year honors in 2009.
Looking forward, Team USA Scholarship officials expect to announce candidates for the 2010 season within the next month. The intention is to select two gifted youngsters and afford them the opportunity to travel to Europe to contest both the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy Formula Ford event (won by Team USA’s Daly and Connor De Phillippi in each of the last two years) at Silverstone.
The Team USA Scholarship, now in its 21st year, is supported by Doug Mockett & Company, Road Racing Drivers Club, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Robo-Pong, Highcroft Racing, "The Road to Indy," American Honda, Silicon Salvage, McMurry Inc., Dyson Racing, Metalore, The Gorsline Company, Integrated Performance Technology, Robertson Racing, PitFit Training, Sparco USA, Cruden America, iRacing.com, OnCars.com, eFormulaCarNews.com, Speedstar Management and Manifest Group.