Motor sports, like potatoes and gravy or corn on the cob, are part of the American tapestry and a vital segment of our national sporting consciousness. We race everything be it motorcycle, stockcar, snowmobile or ATV. Children learn the dynamics of weight and aerodynamics with the classic pine wood derby, building and racing tiny cars on miniature tracks. We practically groom race car designers.
But mention Formula One racing and you're likely to get a questionable look from lay people and racers alike.
The term Formula One refers to a set of technical specs and regulations outlined by the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) for single-seater racing cars. Rules cover dimensions, engine capacity and safety measures.
Formula One cars reach speeds of around 200 mph on race courses that often take place in city streets. The frames of the cars are slight and constructed for speed. The racing is more dynamic and finesse-oriented and much less physical, meaning that there isn't as much bumping and pushing as there is in NASCAR. The Formula One title is fought annually during 18 prestigious Grand Prix events staged on five continents.
"If you even touch tires (in Formula One cars), someone is going upside down," says Justin Washam, 14, during a recent tryout session at Fast Lane Indoor Karting. The tryout was part of the Red Bull Driver Search, a program started by former Indianapolis 500 winner and Formula One driver Danny Sullivan, to find and groom the next American Formula One Champion. There is no American presence in Formula One--no American drivers, no American teams. The last time the Formula One championship was won by an American driver was Mario Andretti in 1978. To remedy this, Sullivan initiated the Red Bull Driver Search in 2002 with the help of Red Bull founder Dietrich Mateschitz. An Austrian, Mateschitz is a huge fan of Formula One racing and he's brought his quirky philosophy to the sport. The same philosophy that has seen Red Bull sponsor promotions like the Divide and Conquer Race in Colorado, an adventure race that includes hangliding or the Flutag, an event that asks competitors to construct a flying machine that is pushed off a launching pad, and determines the winner by whichever team's contraption flies the farthest.
"Red Bull is all about the athlete," says Jane Prior of Maxim Sports. Maxim is another sponsor of the Driver Search.
Oftentimes, Red Bull's sponsoring choices can seem somewhat random but the Red Bull Driver Search has a philanthropic feel to it. The search is for young people between the ages of 13 and 17. Tryouts took place March 15 through June 13 at 58 go-kart facilities across the country. Go-karts aren't you're everyday fun machines. They can reach speeds up to 100 mph (I actually jumped in one of the karts at Fast Lane and got completely embarrassed by the young drivers, a track owner, two moms and a local sportscaster who was covering the story). The karts take mad skills to drive well but they are fantastic test vehicles for a driver search. And bumping doesn't cause hellacious wrecks.
There are three locations in Idaho that participated in the search including Fast Lanes on Franklin, Super Kart on Orchard and Nazz Kart in Twin Falls. Four drivers from each location qualified for the Western championship event in California this July. That means that 12 drivers from Idaho will be at the race this summer. All they have to pay for is their ride down to California. Red Bull picks up race fees, food and lodging.
And herein lies the beauty of the competition: The Red Bull Driver Search isn't just for privileged kids who grew up around cars and engines. Sullivan and Red Bull are actually making a valiant effort to search out the next Yank Formula One Champion from the most random places in American society.
Formula One racing, like motor sports in general, is expensive. Drivers looking to get into the sport who aren't well-connected don't really have a chance. Plus there is only one Formula One Grand Prix event in the United States. To develop as a driver, young hopefuls have to live in Europe.
"There could be a kid cutting down a tree in Alabama who could be the next great Formula One driver and he doesn't even know he has those types of skills," Maxim Sports' Maria Jannace said in an interview about the program.
Those selected to move on from the Western Championships will go to a national event in Indianapolis and then up to eight racers will be selected for a final to be held in Europe this fall.
So why would Red Bull and Formula One be so interested in finding an American driver capable of being a champion? The answer is simple. Look at what Tiger Woods did for golf. He created huge national and international interest in the sport. The same can be said for Michael Jordan with basketball. America is still the most important player in international economics. According to Maxim and Red Bull, Formula One is televised in 150 countries to more than 350 million viewers. This creates some $2 billion in TV rights and advertising time. Formula One racing team budgets can reach $200 million per season. Think if the American public got into Formula One, which currently ranks right up there with curling as far as viewing popularity goes.
"This is good for racing and great for motor sports in general," says Larry Kurpiewski, owner and operator of Super Kart. Kurpiewski has hosted the contest at his Go-Kart facility the last two years. He says that random kids get into racing who never would otherwise and the sport teaches them to be disciplined and patient, unlike other forms of American motor sports that are super-physical.
Time is the only way to tell whether Red Bull's ambitious talent search pans out as the young drivers selected for the program enter the European Racing Scene (fully funded by Red Bull). But as Austin Hager, 14, a Boise area racer put it, just being around the track creates opportunity. "I want the chance to race professionally. This could lead to bigger things but it will also help my racing skills."