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.
"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.
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The rest is exhaust. Irvan went on to win the season championship on pavement at Concord, and that got him entry to the bigtime. In 1991, he won the Daytona 500 and became a household name. But Robertson's North Carolina career never properly restarted, and today he still grapples with the notion that he, too, could have made it on the super speedways.
"For me, the doors didn't open at the right time," he says. "All I can say is that I wish I had the kind of opportunity these kids are getting here tonight. You have to be willing to sacrifice if you want to make it in any sport, but racing can be especially tough on you. Here's Darren: He's been watching me race for so long that he kinda knows what to do even before he goes out there. But he's only seventeen and doesn't even have a driver's license yet. For him, this is a beginning. Who knows where this could lead? It's exciting."
In the end, neither Darren Robertson nor his cousin, Nathan Gasser, managed to finish among the top four, and they were cut from the Red Bull search. Meanwhile, the winners stood on a three-tiered podium and were handed champagne bottles filled not with champagne, but, in deference to their youth, sparkling cider. While Chris Clark looked quizzically at his foil-wrapped bottle, contemplating his unknowable future, Jerry Robertson, a veteran of the car-racing wars, revealed what he'd said to his son and nephew in the aftermath of defeat. "I told them: Get used to it. In racing, you lose a lot more than you win, so get used to it."
Sooner or later, every young hotshoe must learn that lesson.