|Tuesday, March 23, 2010 11:52AM||In The News|
Regular readers of RACER will be familiar with the names Connor De Phillippi and Brett Smrz. The teenagers' exploits in the BFGoodrich/Skip Barber National Presented by Mazda have ensured regular mentions in the "Making Tracks" pages and marked them as youngsters to watch.
Sure enough, Smrz and De Phillippi's prowess both in and out of the car resulted in successful nominations for the Team USA Scholarship, which in 2009 celebrated 20 years of helping the most talented American youngsters gain their initial experience of international competition.
Jimmy Vasser was the first Team USA Scholarship winner, way back in 1990 - before this year's winners were born! Since then, the program has provided a springboard for the careers of a broad selection of top-line drivers, including Bryan Herta, Jerry Nadeau, Memo Gidley, Buddy Rice, Andy Lally, Paul Edwards, AJ Allmendinger and J.R. Hildebrand.
In 2008, a couple more Skip Barber graduates, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly, had flown the patriotic red, white and blue colors with distinction in England. Newgarden became the first American ever to secure victory in the 36-year history of the Formula Ford Festival when he scooped the Kent-class honors in style at Brands Hatch. Two weeks later at Silverstone, Daly placed his name in the record books as the youngest-ever winner of the equally prestigious Walter Hayes Trophy (see RACER February 2009).
Their success, and the credibility that went with it, proved especially inspirational for 18-year-old Smrz (pronounced "Smurrs"), from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, who began the season campaigning three different championships: Skip Barber National, the Playboy MX-5 Cup and the Jim Russell Championship Series.
"My main goal for this season was to get chosen for the Team USA Scholarship." sad Smrz. "I had been watching the scholarship throughout the last few years and it seemed like the most prestigious prize I could win this year."
His prodigious pace in all three disciplines belied the improbable fact he drives with a prosthetic lower left leg, the legacy of a trampoline stunt that went horribly wrong in 2006. Motivation has never been a problem for Smrz, although the season was barely halfway through before his budget ran dry.
Thankfully, he had already established his credentials with victory in a typically fraught Skip Barber race at Virginia International Raceway. Smrz also went on to claim a second successive Jim Russell title.
De Phillippi taken a more measured approach. The 16-year-old from San Clemente, Calif., opted to concentrate on the Skip Barber series, in which he had finished a strong sixth in 2008, notching no fewer than eight podium finished from the final 10 races of his rookie campaign.
"I learned a lot in my first full season in cars," said De Phillippi. "I knew I could apply what I had leared to the 2009 season and have a good chance of bringing home the title."
He did precisely that. De Phillippi racked up seven wins from the first 10 races and comfortable cinched the crown, despite some intense competition from a variety of young chargers.
Just on day after pocketing the spoils at the season-ending banquet at Lime Rock Park, Conn., De Phillippi drove straight to Boston, where he met up with his good friend Smrz and, together, they embarked on the first leg of their Great European Adventure as part of the Team USA Scholarship.
Both were immediately on the pace during testing for the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch. They were a little unlucky on the race weekend, but De Phillippi posted the fastest lap in his semi-final race and Smrz drove a sensational race in the final, climbing from 27th on the grid to fourth (after earlier rising from 17th to third in five-lap Last Chance Race following a spin in his semi-final).
The Americans had made their mark and, at Silverstone, which attracted a quality field of almost 120 cars, they were widely tipped for honors. This time it was De Phillippi's turn to shine as he eclipsed Daly's mark (by 10 days) as the youngest-ever Walter Hayes Trophy winner.
Aside from the races, De Phillippi and Smrz had been immersed in a frentic program that included visits to Le Mans Series LMP1 champion team Aston Martin Racing/Prodrive; British Touring Car Championship winners SR; Chevrolet factory World Touring Car Championship team RML Motorsport; GP2 front-running team iSport International; legendary racecar manufacturer Lola Cars; and even an eye-popping tour of the McLaren-Mercedes headquarters.
"The whole Team USA experience was fantastic," says De Phillippi.
"It was so beneficial to my career," adds Smrz. "I met so many important contacts in England, and it opened my eyes to what career path I want to follow. I loved the racing in Europe, and I didn't want to stop at Silverstone."
Indeed, both youngsters are now conviced their ultimate ambitions lie in Formula 1, although for 2010 they will most likely continue to race in North America - De Phillippi in the Star Mazda Championship as part of the MAZDASPEED Driver Developement ladder and Smrz, once again, in the Jim Russell Series as he chases the prize of a funfed season of Formula 2 in Europe in 2011.
Article Written By: Jeremy Shaw (AutoSport Magazine; February Article)