The moment was electric. An underdog American racer stood in victory circle celebrating a win in the 500-mile season finale while less than 100 feet away, another underdog American racer proudly held the Stars and Stripes high above his head with the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series Championship trophy by his side. On that final night of IndyCar racing's 96th season, Indiana's Ed Carpenter and California's Ryan Hunter-Reay ended a streak of foreign domination of their homegrown sport that spanned decades. Both men had just earned their victories in the only way that really matters, by beating the best drivers and the best teams in the business on a daunting track in challenging cars to deliver accomplishments truly worthy of respect.
It had been 16 long years since Californian Jimmy Vasser earned America's last meaningful championship in the elite and diverse CART PPG IndyCar World Series in 1996. Unfortunately, this came during the first year of the tragic split in Indy car racing that unraveled the sport's culture and dissipated nine decades of historical momentum. Vasser's worthy accomplishment is arguably similar to Hunter-Reay's but it carries an asterisk since the sport's ultimate challenge, the Indianapolis 500, was not part of the series. The asterisk also stands alongside the accomplishments of those who won American racing's defining event and the Indy Racing League Championship during the split era.
One can only wonder what the Indy car world would have looked like today had wisdom prevailed and only a little of what was squandered during the IRL/CART split been invested in identifying and developing a new generation of hyper-skilled, multi-dimensional world-class American racing drivers who could take on the world and win.
But thankfully, there will be no asterisk alongside the accomplishments of Carpenter and Hunter-Reay on Sept. 15, 2012. In that golden moment at Auto Club Speedway, all finally seemed right again in a sport that was once been defined by authentic heroes named Foyt, Andretti, Unser, Rutherford, Rahal and Mears who bravely took on anyone, anywhere and won.
At long last, American racers are back on top in what can now be viewed as American racing's most diverse and challenging championship. Everything again seems possible for a sport searching for a fresh start in the American consciousness – and that can only come from authentic heroes who represent the spirit of the sport's soul.
This then begs the question of where will the next world-class American racing drivers come from to propel the sport forward and inspire devotion of new fans and old in racing's second century?
One man who knows the answer is British motorsports writer and commentator Jeremy Shaw (RIGHT, with Bryan Herta), who has made California his home. For more than two decades, his Team USA Scholarship program has been on a mission to discover, nurture and promote the next wave of world-class American racers. It is no small irony that it took a Brit to see the potential of America's young drivers but since 1990, Shaw has selflessly devoted himself to developing the future of the sport by accelerating the careers of talented and deserving young American racers.
Jeremy began by sending future IndyCar champion Jimmy Vasser to the 1990 British Formula Ford Festival, an event long viewed as global road racing's finest audition stage and a meaningful yardstick of promising young talent. In 1991 Team USA selected Bryan Herta to follow Vasser and he ultimately went on to enjoy a long and successful career as an Indy car driver and more recently, as a team owner, winning the Centennial Indy 500 with the late Dan Wheldon in 2011. More fresh faces followed including future Indy 500 winner Buddy Rice, Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Phil Giebler and current IZOD IndyCar Series stars J.R. Hildebrand, Charlie Kimball, and Josef Newgarden, the latter winning the ultra-competitive Kent-engined class at the 2008 British FF Festival. American sports car racing has also benefited from the presence of Team USA alumni Bryan Sellers, Andy Lally, Joey Hand, Paul Edwards and Joel Miller who all gained early kudos through Shaw's program. Ditto for Formula 1 aspirant Conor Daly, who now races and wins in GP3. Clearly, the Team USA Scholarship works.
Today, Vasser, Herta, Sellers, Hildebrand and other Team USA alumni pay it forward by investing their time and reputations in helping perpetuate and improve the Team USA program. Others helped along the way, such as Steve Horne, John Hildebrand, Doug Mockett and yours truly and all did so with a singular focus on finding and developing the best possible world-class American racers to compete at the highest levels of global motorsports.
Over the years, Shaw has relentlessly evolved and improved the Team USA program and its selection process to the point it attracted the attention and commitment of the members of the Road Racing Drivers Club and president, Bobby Rahal to further legitimize and enhance an already impressive program by incorporating it into the RRDC's groundbreaking SAFEisFAST initiative.
The Team USA selection process of today is exhaustive, stretching over many weeks and consisting of three stages. The first involves the arduous task of vetting and selecting the nominees – 14 this year – from the large and diverse universe of candidates and is handled by Shaw himself (although Jeremy notes that he draws from a wide variety of sources). Some say Jeremy is American road racing's top talent scout, so being among the nominated is high praise and carries great weight regardless.
The second stage features face-to-face interviews of the candidates by an impressive panel of racing's movers and shakers. This took place during the IndyCar/ALMS/World Challenge weekend at Mid-Ohio in early August.
From there, Shaw culled the list down to eight finalists who were evaluated for their technical, physical and emotional performance during a series of competitive trials. This year, they occurred in Southern California on Aug. 27-28. Hopefuls were subjected to rigorous testing at Chas Lawrence's Seat Time, LLC motorsports simulation facility in Santa Monica, using Chris Considine's state-of-the-art full-motion CXC Simulations. The finalists were also treated to a three-hour seminar on mental preparation hosted by noted performance expert and founder of Performance Prime, Dr. Jacques Dallaire.
The most challenging test came during an on-track shootout utilizing Allen Berg's excellent formula car racing school based at the road course at Auto Club Speedway. The track was kindly made available by the speedway's management in support of Team USA. The shootout was greatly enhanced by the data analysis skills of engineer Stefan Dwornik using Berg's MoTeC data loggers overseen by Chris Brown.
Others notables who supported the final evaluations this year included IZOD IndyCar Series and ALMS veteran Townsend Bell, Porsche icon Patrick Long, Trans-Am legend and current ALMS GT2 Viper racer Tommy Kendall along with Team USA Alumni Connor De Phillippi and Joel Miller. Media horsepower was provided by Automobile's Preston Lerner, Edmunds.com's Michael Jordan, legendary RACER and AUTOSPORT photographer Michael C. Brown (whose photos of the shootout you see here) and a talented video production team led by RACER's ace photographer Tony Di Zinno, with supported by experienced shooters Russel Sasaki and Mark April. Let's just say this was very serious business and not unlike what young racers will experience should they be fortunate enough to progress to racing's top echelons.
I was fortunate enough to be present to witness the on-track shootout and can attest to the commitment to excellence both inside and outside the cockpits. Berg's carbon fiber Formula Renault cars (ABOVE) are modern, fast and safe. They were ideal tools for finding greatness and each and every candidate impressed me with their ability and desire. Shaw and his collaborators left nothing to chance in making the right choices as to who will represent their country on the global stage.
These eight young racers are vying for three fully funded rides in England later this year. Two will be entered under the Team USA Scholarship/Cliff Dempsey Racing banner in the British Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch on Oct. 27-28 and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone on Nov. 3-4, while one slightly more experienced driver will be invited to contest the final two rounds of the Formula Renault BARC Championship at Silverstone on Oct. 6-7.
Within the next few days, Jeremy will announce who the final three will be but take a moment to appreciate the 2012 Team USA Scholarship finalists for experience shows us that they represent a peek at the future history of the sport:
Neil Alberico, 19, from Redlands, Calif.
– Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
Matthew Brabham, 18, from Manalapan, Fla.
– Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
Jake Eidson, 17, from Littleton, Colo.
– Skip Barber Race Series
Conner Ford, 16, from Carson City, Nev.
– Pacific Formula F Super Series/World Challenge B-Spec
Sean Johnston, 21, from Mt. Shasta, Calif.
– IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge
Jack Mitchell Jr., 16, from Clarendon Hills, Ill.
– Skip Barber Race Series
Brandon Newey, 20, from Carmel, Ind.
– F1600 Championship Series
Tristan Nunez, 16, from Boca Raton, Fla.
– Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Powered by Mazda
Remember their names – each of these young men possess the talent to live their dreams but once Jeremy's announcement is made, three will see their chances of becoming the next great American racer improve exponentially. This really is the “big break” young drivers dream of.
Also remember that the entire sport owes Jeremy Shaw a debt of gratitude and, more importantly the financial and moral support to move Team USA forward. If you feel you or your company can contribute, please visit http://www.teamusascholarship.org/ and click the contact link to connect with Jeremy and help create the future of American racing. From first-hand experience, I can promise you that you will be rewarded in ways you can't yet imagine.
• Paul Pfanner is the founder, CEO and executive publisher of RACER magazine