By Alan Prendergast
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"Unfortunately, there's little history of F1 interest in the U.S.," Bourgeois says. "It has to start at the grassroots level, but that can happen. In two or three years, I think you'll see 200 to 300 indoor cart tracks in the U.S." Maybe so. For the time being, America once again has its own Formula 1 Grand Prix. After nine years' absence, the race was revived in 2000 on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's brand-new road course.
As for the possibility of an American winning the F1 championship in an American car -- Red Bull's ultimate goal -- consider this: The greatest name in F1, Ferrari, hasn't won the title with an Italian at the wheel since 1953, when the legendary Alberto Ascari pulled it off.
For a willing teenager like Denver's Chris Clark, who has yet to race anything but carts, the dream of driving F1 some day is real enough, but the odds are astronomical. "I know it sounds daunting," he says, "but I have to try for it." By finishing second-fastest in last week's Red Bull trials, he earned a trip to California and one of four regional race-offs to be held next month. But so did 103 other teen go-carters who prevailed in 25 similar events around the country. Just twelve of them will make the Red Bull semi-finals this summer in Sebring, Florida, where they will go at it in two-liter race cars against twelve more racers, older ones, plucked by scouts from the traditional U.S. racing formulas. The top ten at Sebring will then be jetted off to the Paul Ricard Circuit in France, where a panel of coldhearted judges, including Danny Sullivan and a Ferrari test driver, will pick three or four of them to compete next year in F1's European feeder series. The lucky winners will do it with phrase books in hand, bereft of family, hometown friends and Big Macs.
Dressed in a red Ferrari polo shirt and a white Ferrari visor, his handsome Ferrari wristwatch ticking away the precious seconds until his career gets in gear, Chris Clark showed a typical teenager's faith in the future and even welcomed the strange prospect of life abroad. "I'm willing to give up everything, all that I know, for racing," he says. "If I had to, I'd live in my car and drive back and forth across the country just to get into races. I would leave everything behind just to get that chance. I'm interested in all kinds of racing -- IRL, CART, F3000. Whatever I can get my hands on, I'm all over it. But Formula 1 is my ultimate goal."
Like an altar boy who wants to be pope, Clark is susceptible to religious experience. At last Labor Day's inaugural Shell Grand Prix of Denver, he found himself awestruck and speechless when CART star Max Papis accidentally stepped on his foot, and in the impassioned bio he wrote for his Red Bull Search application, the young driver reported that when Alex Tagliani's Ford Reynard first roared by him, he broke down and "started crying like a baby, I was so happy."
But don't mistake young Clark's adolescent romanticism for softness. When track owner Bourgeois threw the finalists a testing curveball last week by making them drive around the Denver Indoor course in the "wrong" direction, Clark was unfazed. "Maybe we can qualify blindfolded," he cracked with cool assurance. Working after-school and weekend jobs, he's saved $3,000 for a week of intense instruction next month at Montreal's famous Autosport Basi Racing School, and he's socking more away so he can go to his first Formula 1 event this September: the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Such is the dedication of a young man who doesn't want to be the next Michael Jordan but the next Michael Schumacher.
Whatever happens in his racing career, Clark says he will have his family's support, although his parents (Dad Edward is a United Airlines pilot) were concerned about the dangers of racing when their son started driving carts at age ten. "But now they see what I have, and they know I am dead serious about this. They understand. They know that I look into the eyes of the other drivers to see if they have the soul of a racer, and that this is the only thing I want from life. This is a great opportunity for me, and I'm going to make the most of it."
When watching his seventeen-year-old son, Darren, compete in last week's trials, Jerry Robertson probably understood that better than anyone else in the building. A regional NASCAR champion who has won three of the first four Late Model main events this spring at Erie's Colorado National Speedway, Robertson recalled his own early days in the sport. After four years on dirt tracks here, Robertson explained, he left Colorado in 1985 for Charlotte, North Carolina, the capital of big-time stock-car racing. He worked in race shops. He built stock cars. While learning everything he could, he drove short-track dirt events at nearby Concord Speedway, where he consistently outran his roommate, a young driver named Ernie Irvan. But when the management at Concord decided to change the track surface from dirt to pavement, Robertson's career took one of those turns that alter a life. While Irvan's team owner went with the flow and switched over to pavement cars, Robertson's owner stood pat and kept him on dirt, racing at other local tracks.