NEWS FEATURE

Young Americans

Whenever you think of sporting glory you think of the United States and, unless you come from the United States, you get depressed. Athletics, golf, sailing, tennis, winter sportsÉ the tally of titles, medals and honors just goes on and on. For the parochially minded members of the global village then there's some solace to be found at American ineptitude at soccer - but then again with baseball, football and basketball to be getting on with that's no great loss on the USA's part. Then there's motor racing, of course, and despite the very best efforts of Motown we have another kettle of fish entirely.

NASCAR is undoubtedly very excitingÉ but 43 men called Billy-Bob driving cars built on anvils lack that certain je ne sais quoi to translate into a global sport. Then there's Champ Cars, an American championship for British cars in which the homegrown talent is regularly thrashed by drivers from every other corner of the globe. Ditto IRL, only nobody seems to care so much, with or without the Indy 500.

Of course the moguls of Detroit continue to focus on Le Mans, but so do the Germans and Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen are tough nuts to crack. Now though we have the return of the United States Grand Prix - and at Indianapolis of all places. The venue and the event are second to none but this most cherished date on the F1 calendar will be at risk until there's somebody for the star-spangled masses to get behind.

So it is that the search for America's first truly international motor sport star since Mario Andretti is gaining speed. Five young Americans gathered in Britain to take part in the Winter Championships of two of its leading junior categories - Formula Ford Zetec and Formula Palmer Audi - which act as a major form guide for the coming season.

All five impressed mightily, with Patrick Long's Inside F1-backed Van Diemen narrowly missing out on the Formula Ford Zetec Winter Championship and Danica Patrick coming second in the prestigious Formula Ford Festival shootout. Meanwhile in Formula Palmer Audi, Inside F1's Josh Rehm went up against some promising European talent and the pair of entries from Team USA for French Formula 3 star Phil Giebler and Formula Mazda champion Joey Hand.

Inside F1 took the chance to sit down with all these potential stars of tomorrow and find out just where their hopes lay as America's racing fraternity hopes to find an heir to the legacy of Jimmy Murphy, Phil Hill, Ritchie Ginther and Andretti.

Why have you focused on coming to England in the bleak midwinter to join the rough and tumble of the European racing community?

Phil Giebler: I came to Europe because I wanted to compete with the best. Junior racing is the training ground for the next step, whatever that isÉ sports cars, Champ Cars, Formula 1. You've got to prove yourself if you're going to make a good career.

Joey Hand: Europe is supposed to be where the best racing is, it's where everyone says the competition is the best. I got the opportunity to come here and prove that it's not just Europeans or Brazilians who make good racecar drivers and we three are here to show how well we can match up.

Josh Rehm: I've always been focused on CART and making it in Champ Cars, but coming to Europe first means that if you do well it makes your reputation stronger at home as well as over here. It's far easier to get a good ride anywhere in the world if you've performed well in Europe and Britain particularly.

So does that therefore devalue the junior racing system in the States or do you have something to teach the rest of the world, should we all come and race in America?

Phil Giebler: Drivers in the US are every bit as good as those over here but it's a completely different environment. Here it's just so intense, there's no room for error and there's a determination and professionalism that we lack in junior racing back home. Coming here and taking a few knocks, leaving friends and family to make a career, it all adds up to the best test of how much you really want it.

Josh Rehm: It's every bit as serious back home but guys back there are more willing to give you that extra inch you need. Here people are happy to take you and possibly themselves out to keep a corner and that's an attitude, a mental toughness that can be an advantage.

Joey Hand: This is by far the most aggressive racing I've ever been a part of. It's like every race is a war, everyone's so determined to win.

That aggression is environmental - is it as much of a truism that you're only as good as your last race in the US, or do people more readily appreciate the bigger picture?

Josh Rehm: In the US you tend to look at the whole season, right from the first race you're looking at the championship, figuring out the points averages and working for the title whereas here the only concern is the next race and how you're going to win it.

Phil Giebler: Everyone has a point to prove here.

Joey Hand: I think that people have quite a short memory on both sides of the Atlantic, it's not a European-specific thing that you're only as good as your last race. The thing is that here people are going to race you to death because it's a pool of drivers from all over the world. Look around the paddock and you see Australians, Italians, British, Brazilians, Japanese, SwedesÉ and all of those guys got here because they're the best in their own nations.

So it's like a world championship already here? Do you feel under extra pressure that you're representing your country or is it too early for that yet?

Phil Giebler: That's the whole point of Team USA, they hold tryouts and the guys who have set the scheme up and kept it going through thick and thin means that it means probably more to them than anyone, and to get their approval is big news.

Josh Rehm: I'm lucky in that Inside F1 is an American-based company dedicated to Formula 1 and Grand Prix racing, which is pretty unique. I'm getting to learn about the business of Formula 1 and to meet major players like Sir Frank Williams and Eddie Jordan - who've passed on some useful tips for progressing my career - so it's more like education.

Joey Hand: By the time you're in Britain, like us, you've been creamed off the top of all the thousands of race drivers in your country. That means that in Formula Ford, Formula Palmer, Formula 3 and so on, the top 10 guys are all great, everybody has titles to their name and it makes things really tough.

What's the most valuable thing you're going to be taking into next season from your time in Europe?

Joey Hand: Race craft. I had a big injury at the end of the '99 season which meant that I've spent some time getting back up to speed but now I'm stronger than ever. I know I'm racing better now than at any time before and what's more other people are taking notice and that can intimidate them. If you've raced well in Europe people look out for you - especially in their mirrors! I'm building my reputation and I'm building my race craft to back it up, I love that!

Phil Giebler: For me it's really important to learn the tracks because I'm aiming for British Formula 3 next season. Also, having raced Formula 3 this year, I'm gaining a little diversity. The F3 is a very light, direct, sensitive car to drive and the Palmer is a really fun car to throw around by contrast. If you drove something as nimble as an F3 the same way as we're driving these things you'd be going backwards, over driving it. It's hard, fun racing in Palmer and winning the Winter Series title is huge. I've won in Europe and that's a nice achievement.

Josh Rehm: Adapting to the whole smorgasbord of elements - the cars, the circuits, the weather, the competitionÉ even things like standing starts are all new to me, and so that's a lot of learning in a short time and I'm happy to take that home. There's been no time to think it over, and that's the most obvious thing about racing here - nobody has the luxury of time. You earn every tenth of a second and, having done a lot of winning back home, it gives you a real appreciation of how and why. You respect everything you achieve in the racecar.

The enthusiasm you've displayed purely for racing in whatever form is infectious and, as we said, is somewhat different to the norm. How is it you maintain your dedication and enjoyment at the same time?

Phil Giebler: We're not businessmen! I still feel 16 years old, I just moved out of my family home two years ago and a large part of that time's been spent in Europe learning all I can about driving a racecar.

Joey Hand: These guys will tell you I'm sort of a throwback to the old school. I can't list all the kinds of racing I've done, there's everything in there from karting up through Sprint cars, Formula Mazda and on through FPA and whatever else. Next year I'm doing two series, I'm driving for BMW in sports cars and I'll be doing Toyota Atlantic but that's what I want to do. Come rain or shine, with a roof over my head or in a Formula car I want to race, and as long as I'm racing I'm happy.

Josh Rehm: It's just not so concentrated at home, it's a smaller circle of people and it doesn't pay to get uptight with the other guys you're racing against. If on a rare occasion somebody tries to put you in the wall then you go right back and settle things up and after that there's no problem. Here everybody's fighting each other all the time, in the car and out of it so I guess I'll be taking the focus I've had to gain very, very quickly.

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