The Champ Car legend, Indy 500 and Daytona 24 Hours winner – and F1 occasional – tells us why North American drivers need more support and why he loves historic racing
In the last five years we’ve increasingly seen the benefits of international-level karting in the US – it’s produced good drivers like James Hinchcliffe (although he’s Canadian), Alan Sciuto and my own son, Graham. They’re all in this year’s Champ Car Atlantic Championship, and the $2million prize for winning that series is a great initiative. It gets you halfway there.
But the ladder system for nurturing our young talent has some rungs missing. There is no equivalent, for example, of the McLaren/Autosport BRDC Young Driver of the Year Award. The talent exists here, but there isn’t the opportunity for it to shine, because there isn’t enough support in this NASCAR-dominated country.
As a result, I think an American has to go to Europe and seek categories where the talent level is deep. Then he’ll measure where he’s really at. Which of course takes financial support… It’s also a worthwhile move because F1 team-owners have more respect for F3 drivers than for Atlantic stars. That’s despite the fact that there are F3 stars in Atlantics who can’t get a look-in for wins.
Graham’s ambition is to go to Europe. F1 is his goal and I’d say he should probably do two years in GP2. He’ll learn the circuits and, if he makes it into F1, then good. If he doesn’t, he can come back and have a career in the US and he’ll be a far better driver, and still only 20 years old.
For now, though, I’m impressed with the way in which he’s gaining maturity. The more he drives, the more confidence he’s gaining and that culminated in him dominating May’s Atlantic race in Monterrey, Mexico.
I’d like to say I’m at the opposite end of my career, but actually I’m beyond even that. I have to get my kicks from historic racing. I’ll admit we have to be pretty stupid to step back into these cars where their crash protection and safety levels are more a state of mind than an actuality, and that notion hits you hard, especially at Goodwood where the circuit is so fast. But you get caught up in the fun aspect, going fast and sideways, and suddenly your better judgement goes out the window.
Mentally, you have to be so far ahead of your car, so dealing with its behaviour now becomes second nature, while your brain focuses way down the track anticipating the car’s reactions.
Of course the other thing you have to anticipate is the behaviour of other drivers. As a rule of thumb, you can’t trust anyone in such a varied group. For some, the only qualification to be out there is the ability to buy a car. It upsets me if people with valuable machinery get too aggressive. What doesn’t bother me is that the class structures can create a huge disparity in pace; I can deal with that. I’ve raced Porsche 935s and 962s at Sebring and Daytona sharing the track with Chevy Camaros. So nothing puts me off.
It will be my pleasure to compete at Goodwood, of course. Just to race those old cars on that circuit in that ambience is awesome. Nothing comes close.