That Way It Is/ Team USA's Smrz and De Phillippi excel

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 1:50AM In The News

No doubt about it, Jeremy Shaw's Team USA has seriously hit its stride in the past two years. Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly did a great job for Team USA in last year's UK Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy race while Connor De Phillippi and Brett Smrz followed up this year with some equally impressive performances. Smrz came through from the back of the field to finish fourth at last month's Brands Hatch FF Festival while De Phillippi won the Walter Hayes race at Silverstone two weeks later. De Phillippi beat Daly's record from last year to become the youngest man to win the Walter Hayes spectacular at 16 years, 10 months and six days old.

De Phillippi and Smrz were selected from a group of seven Team USA 2009 finalists. De Phillippi took this year's Skip Barber national championship, winning seven of the fourteen races. Smrz, 18, won the Jim Russell championship for the second year in a row and also competed in the Barber National series, winning one race. Smrz also raced successfully in this year's Mazda MX5 Cup series.

The other five Team USA contenders were VW Jetta TDI Cup champion Tim Megenbier, 18; fellow VW Jetta graduate Liam Kenney, 17; F2000 champion Chris Miller, 20; F2000 rookie of the year Ben Searcy, 18; and Skip Barber National series race winner Court Vernon, 18.

Like Newgarden and Daly in 2008, De Phillippi and Smrz's Team USA prize was to race a pair of Ray Formula Fords run by Peter Dempsey Racing in the UK's Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and in the Walter Hayes Trophy race at Silverstone. Dempsey's team is one of the best in the business and De Phillipi and Smrz were on the pace right away at Brands Hatch, qualifying second for each of their heat races.

"From the first day of testing we were right on the pace, only two or two and a half tenths off," De Phillippi said. "The track wasn't really too difficult to learn. I got the hang of it relatively quick. Everyone said the driving style was going to be completely different but we really couldn't experience that until we started racing. But practice went well. There was plenty of track time and we were able to run a lot of laps."

Smrz finished second in his qualifying heat and De Phillippi was third in his heat. Smrz started the first semi-final from the front row beside poleman Rory Butcher and De Phillippi started the same semi from the inside of row two, directly behind Smrz. De Phillippi made a good start and was running second, challenging leader Butcher when he had trouble getting a gear at Paddock Bend, ran wide into the gravel and fell back to eighth. That's where he finished although he did turn the race's fastest lap.

"When the races started," De Phillippi remarked. "I found out that Brands Hatch is really fun to drive on. But it wasn't fun to race on. It's so easy to block at that track and it's a frustrating track to race on because it's so hard to pass. Pretty much the only way you can get around people at Brands Hatch is to take them out and I've never done anything like that.

"I was kinda timid about hitting somebody and knocking them off the track. It held me back a little bit. But I learned a lot about the racing over there during that first weekend at Brands. That was a learning weekend for me."

Meanwhile, Smrz made a bad start then spun at Druid's hairpin. He recovered and got back up to ninth before tangling with another car, ending his race. So Smrz had to go to the 'Last Chance' race to try and make the final.

In the 'Last Chance' race Smrz put on a great show, shooting from twenty-seventh on the grid to seventh by the end of the first lap! Eventually, Smrz made it up to third, taking the place with an aggressive last corner move. He also set the race's fastest lap.

In the final, De Phillippi was running a strong fifth, but had an incident with Noel Robinson, dropping back to twelfth. He made it back to tenth at the finish while Smrz put in another great drive through the field from second-last on the grid. Smrz made it up to fourth with two laps to go and that's where he finished close behind Rory Butcher, Scott Malvern and Neville Smyth.

"It was one of the best drives of my career and it was the right race to do it," Smrz remarked. "I didn't get what I wanted. I didn't get a win, but I did come from last and work my up to fourth and actually almost won the race. So I was pretty happy with that."

Smrz says the European drivers are no faster than Americans. The big difference is the quantity of competitive drivers and their unabashedly aggressive driving tactics.

"I wouldn't say that the drivers over there are any quicker than they are in America," Smrz observed. "But there's definitely more of them that are fast. There were probably ten guys within a tenth of a second at the Festival. So that made it very difficult to stay in the front.

"They also have a different racing tactic over there where they like to defend their line a lot, so it makes it very difficult to pass. Here in America, you're only allowed one move. So it's a very different racing style that we had to get used to. You've got to be a little bit more aggressive on the track.

"We definitely had confidence going over there," Smrz added. "With Josef and Conor going there last year and both winning races we knew we would be up front because we had run with Josef and Conor over here and been very competitive with them. So we had a great mindset going over there and once we saw our lap times were within tenths of the leaders we had our confidence up."

Two weeks later at the Walter Hayes Trophy race at Silverstone the Team USA pair were again in the thick of the battle. Smrz won his qualifying heat and De Phillippi finished a close second to Roy Butcher in his heat race. De Phillippi avoided a first lap melee involving race favorite Butcher to take the lead and win his semi-final convincingly while Smrz finished a strong third in his semi-final. De Phillippi's race was the fastest of the two semi-finals so he started the 15-lap final from pole.

"I was really looking forward to the Walter Hayes race because I knew it was going to be more like we're used to back here," De Phillippi said. "The track was bigger in size with longer straightaways and more room for drafting. It's just more of a racing track."

While Brands Hatch was dry all weekend Silverstone saw a fair amount of rain. But neither De Phillippi nor Smrz had any problems running quickly in the wet.

"It rained a lot at Silverstone and before that I didn't have a lot of rain experience," De Phillippi commented. "So I didn't quite know what to expect. I knew that they race in the rain a lot over there so I wasn't quite sure that we would have the pace that they were going to have right out of the gate because they knew the track in the wet, or dry, like the back of their hands.

"The first session in the wet was qualifying and both Brett and I sat on pole for our heats. So you couldn't have asked for a better result. Both of us adapted really quickly. I thought it would have taken us a little bit more time to get up to speed in the wet, but it didn't really matter."

De Phillippi took the lead at the start of the final and began to edge away from the field before making a mistake and hitting the curb too hard at Brooklands. He got very sideways, almost lost it, but carried on, now down to fourth place behind Irishmen Robert Barrable and Neville Smyth and Brit Felix Fisher.

"I was frustrated when I made the mistake, but I knew I couldn't let that get to my head. So I just regrouped, saw who was behind me and I knew I could fend that guy off and get a little bit of a gap, which I did right away. Once I did that I was able to not look backwards in the mirrors and keep driving forward and try to get around these guys.

"I watched for a couple of laps to see where I could pass each of those guys. I knew my strong points and I knew where their strong points were, too. Robert Barrable is one of those drivers who doesn't care and will just put you off into the grass. So I knew I had to make a move into the braking zone at the end of the back straightaway.

"I made my move to the inside and he blocked. So I went to the outside and just went for it. I outbraked him on the outside line and held him wide all the way through the Complex, and was able to get around him."

De Phillippi was flying and he immediately attacked his next victim.

"The very next lap I got a great run down the frontstretch behind Fisher. He made a bit of a wobble coming out of turn one. There's a huge area of artifical grass on the outside and a lot of guys were using that, but I thought they were using too much track. So I held it tighter and kept it on the track. I got a really good run out of turn one and made my move to the outside and he blocked me and put me into the grass. But I kept my foot in it and was able to get back to the lead.

"As soon as I got to the lead both those guys knew I had the speed to pull away and they battled among themselves for a couple of corners which allowed me to break their draft. Then I put my head down and started doing consistent laps and pulled away from the field. I was able to shine at Silverstone. I was glad I was able to use the knowledge I had learned at Brands and apply it at Silverstone.\

"When the race was over it felt totally like a Fomula One race," De Phillippi added. "When I came down to take the checkered flag my mechanic had the board out and he was going crazy and I was going crazy as I crossed the line. It was a really good feeling, that's for sure. I couldn't have asked for a better result. I'm really happy about it. It was a great way to finish the season and move on into next season."

Smrz says the Team USA experience was invaluable.

"I guess Connor and me both turned some heads while we were there," Smrz grinned. "I had a good run from last to fourth in the Festival and he won the Walter Hayes race. Running over there was a great experience for us. I think both Connor and I learned a lot while we were over there."

De Phillippi lives in San Clemente, California where his dad manages the assembly shop at Swift Engineering. He started racing go-karts when he was five years old.

"I kept bugging my dad to buy me a go-kart," De Phillippi said. "We finally went and checked them out and I got my first go-kart for my fifth birthday. As soon as I started racing it was just something I really liked. Once I got to be eight or nine and got into the kadet and junior categories I knew this was what I wanted to do."

De Phillippi was selected to compete in the Skip Barber School karting shoot-out at Sebring in 2006. He ran the west coast Skip Barber series the following year, 2007, and won the championship. Connor was invited back to the Barber scholarship shoot-out and this time he won it. Thanks to the scholarship program De Philippi ran the Skip Barber National Series in 2008 and finished sixth. He ran the series again this year and was a convincing champion.

De Phillippi will race in the Star-Mazda series next year, aided by the $350,000 prize for winning the Barner National championship. Over the next month he will test with two or three Star-Mazda teams before deciding which team he will race with in 2010.

"I'll be getting a lot of seat time in the new few weeks," he grins.

De Phillippi enjoys the full support of his mom and dad.

"It's a complete family effort," Connor says. "My mom and I are the sponsorship team. We're working on sponsorship constantly and dad's totally been behind me. If I wanted to do something else he always told me to go ahead and do it. He never told me I had to race. I played a lot of different sports and slowly eliminated them one-by-one until it came down to the sport I really loved to do, and that was racing."

For Smrz who hails from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, the racing bug didn't strike until he was twelve years old.

"My dad bought me a go-kart for Christmas and I kinda got into it from there, very slowly actually," Smrz says. "It took about a year before I started getting really into it. Eventually, I threw myself in with the wolves and started racing the national go-kart scene. I did that for about four years, won some national championships and after that I decided to move into cars."

Smrz was a busy boy this year, winning the Jim Russell Championship for the second year in a row and also racing in the Barber National series and the Mazda MX5 Cup. Smrz is remarkable because he lost his lower left leg in a trampoline accident a few years ago.

"I did a flip off a balconey onto a trampoline," Smrz explains. "I was a gymnast in high school but I had never tried anything like that. I stopped doing gymnastics around when I started racing. So it had been maybe four years since I had done any gymnastics, although I used to get on a trampoline from time to time. I had this thought in my head that I could do it, but I landed a little bit wrong and it broke my leg and cut the artery.

"It honestly didn't bother me at all," Smrz goes on. "When I knew I was going to lose my leg, the first thing I thought about was, 'What am I going to have to do to get back in the car?' I knew they can fix almost anything today and there were people like Alex Zanardi who showed he could get back in the race car without any legs. Stuff like that helped me through all that. I never had a negative mindset and I was back in the car within three or four months after the accident. I actually ended-up setting the lap record at Mazda Raceway in a Formula Ford right after the accident."

Smrz's prosthetic leg doesn't require any special setup in open-wheel cars.

"They have to move the clutch a little bit forward so I can reach it because I can't move my ankle at all," he says. "But in sports cars like the Mazda MX5 Cup they had to put a bracket around the clutch because in the middle of the corner my foot would slip off and I would be searching for the clutch pedal. They put a bracket around the clutch pedal and that stopped it."

Smrz hopes to run both the F2000 and Star-Mazda championships next year.

"We have a couple of leads for sponsorship," he says. "Hopefully, we can find some money to run both the F2000 series and Star-Mazda. I'm trying to find something that's in my budget range. Winning the Jim Russell championship gives me a free season with them again next year and also gives me a shot at their Formula 2 prize for next year."

It's all about finding sponsorship and pushing forward and De Phillippi and Smrz are working hard at the job. A long time has passed since any American driver made any kind of mark in European single-seater racing, let alone F1, and it's exciting for American race fans to see these kids out there racing fast and well.

That's thanks largely to Team USA developed by journalist Shaw over the last twenty years into a key element in America's open-wheel ladder system. These days Team USA enjoys wide support from across the American motor sport community. Shaw has attracted twenty-one individual sponsors and patrons for Team USA. It's great to see so much enthusiasm for the program and some fine results to boast about, too.

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