You Gotta Have Cart

Young American hopefuls are driven to become Formula 1 race heroes.

It's a very long road from the tricky little S-curve at Denver Indoor Kart Racing to the famous Tobacconist's Corner at the Grand Prix of Monaco. But if passion were the only fuel you needed to make the trip, young Chris Clark would already be there -- shrieking through the streets of glamorous Monte Carlo in a sleek Formula 1 race car, perhaps drawing alongside Rubens Barrichello's blood-red Ferrari on the final lap, shooting past his idol in the long seaside tunnel, then bursting into the sunshine a winner.

"For me, it's always been racing," the eighteen-year-old Machebeuf High School senior says, his voice full of dreams. "Racing is what I was put on this earth to do. I love it. It's just who I am: I'm a racer."

For the moment, Formula 1 will have to wait. One night last week, Clark and nine other Denver-area teenagers -- skinny kids wearing big helmets and harboring big hopes -- found themselves scooting around the fifteen sharp turns at Denver Indoor Kart in pursuit of the future. Their mounts bore little resemblance to Barrichello's multimillion-dollar, 200-mile-an-hour Ferrari. The boys were driving 6.5-horsepower go-carts powered by tiny lawnmower engines (top speed: 35 mph) around a course you could practically fit inside a shoebox, before a crowd made up of the track stewards, some interested parents and a few bewildered younger siblings.

Still, this was the most important night in their fledgling racing lives. In the end, four young drivers, and only four, would move up to the next round of something called the Red Bull Driver Search -- a determined nationwide talent contest that resembles American Idol on wheels, amply furnished with vain hopes and crushing rejections.

Last year, Red Bull, the Austria-based energy-drink company, launched its bold, possibly quixotic program to find the next American Formula 1 race-car driver -- to unearth, somewhere, somehow, the rare combination of skill, courage and character it takes to compete in the world's most elegant, expensive and demanding motor races. Under the direction of 1985 Indy 500 winner Danny Sullivan (who drove F1, unsuccessfully, in 1983), undercover racing scouts looked at hundreds of young U.S. drivers in 2002; they cut down the field in a nerve- racking triage of eliminations and chose four worthies to compete this season, all expenses paid, in a variety of European races that serve as conduits to the major league of Formula 1.

The chances that anyone in that first crop of Red Bull winners will make the bigtime are remote, but they are far better than those of, say, the odd kid in a go-cart. In the 54-year history of the sport, only two Americans have ever won the world driving championship. In 1961, Phil Hill did it in a Ferrari; in 1978, Mario Andretti won for Lotus Ford. In the last quarter-century, only three American racers have even gotten a sniff of F1: Eddie Cheever Jr. and Sullivan never came close to winning a race (for one thing, their cars were slow), and the last Yank to compete, Mario Andretti's son, Michael, quit in the middle of the 1993 season after an embarrassing string of spins, crashes and mechanical failures. Today, many aficionados see a distinct anti-American bias in the Eurocentric and notably snobbish world of F1, and those sentiments may be even more pronounced now in major venues like Germany, France and Italy because of political opposition to the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, on this side of the Atlantic, millions of motorheads devour the cleverly marketed, all-American spectacle of Winston Cup stock-car racing ("Go Little E!") while big-time open-wheel racing continues to lose customers. The once-beloved Indianapolis 500, to be run this Sunday, now takes a back seat to NASCAR's marquee Daytona 500 and some lesser races. As for Formula 1, many U.S. racing fans have never heard of it, and most of the others don't give a damn about a bunch of snail-eating Frenchmen and stone-faced Germans with impenetrable accents shooting around far-off race circuits with unpronounceable names.

Ah, but Danny Sullivan and the Red Bull people may still be on to something. Most Americans ignored the Tour de France until a gritty Texan named Lance Armstrong pedaled into the frame, and even soccer moms tuned the World Cup out before the U.S. teams -- women's and men's -- started kicking butt on the international pitch. With some luck, F1 could pull off a similar turnaround. Sullivan predicts it could take "five or six years" for some Red Bull-sponsored American hotshoe to make his mark in Formula 1's glamour circus, but if it happens, the country is bound to take notice. After all, we love all of our homegrown winners -- even the ones who learn to order their dinners in French.

The first thing America may need for F1 success, though, is a bigger training ground. Bram Bourgeois, the Belgian-born former rally driver who owns and operates Denver Indoor Kart, points out that while the United States has only 58 indoor go-cart tracks where young racers can get their first whiffs of burning fuel and competitive fire, there are 1,500 such places in Europe. Formula 1's famous racing brothers -- Michael and Ralf Schumacher -- first revved it up as preteens in German cart racing, just as kids here who dream of being the next Barry Bonds or John Elway get their starts in Little League or peewee football.

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