Photo by Matt OttoThe banners hung at the Dromo One kart track in Orange last week asked, "Are you the one?" But it was more a cry for help than a question. It was the Red Bull Driver Search, the search "for the future America F1 Champion."
America's last F1 champ was Mario Andretti, back in 1978. Our last F1 driver was Andretti's son Michael in 1993—and he didn't even finish the season. Everywhere else in the world, Formula One racing is thepremier automobile event. F1 superstar Michael Schumacher is the highest-paid athlete in the world. F1 cars are the industry's technological equivalent of the space shuttle—without that pesky gas-tank-insulation problem.
Here, we have a full calendar of NASCAR races with only one F1 race all year, in Indianapolis—and absolutely no way for guys like 14-year-old Austin Williams of Yorba Linda to break into racing's most prestigious fraternity without moving to Europe. Which is why the Red Bull Driver Search—and guys like Williams—are here in Orange. Actually, he comes here "at least once a week" anyway, Williams says—but racing F1 would be a great way to carry on a family tradition.
His dad's an ex-racer, Williams says, and his older brother started racing midget cars last weekend. Austin is starting in karts—just like F1 stars Helio Castroneves of Brazil and Juan Pablo Montoya of Colombia, three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, and two-time Indy Racing League champ Sam Hornish Jr.
If he wins, in a few months, Williams could be flying to Europe to begin Red Bull-sponsored training—and racing—in one of F1's feeder series. So, just like a real driver, he pops on a helmet, a foam neck brace and gloves and straps into a Dromo One kart lined up with half-a-dozen other hopefuls.
The flag guy waves and swings away an orange cone, sweeping them out of the pit into a twisty concrete modified oval, punctuated with stacks of tires shrink-wrapped in yellow plastic. It's two straightaways connected by a series of curves—including, of course, narrow hairpins that are a bitch to get through without hitting the wall. On the back straightaway, drivers reach 40 mph on teeny 10.5-inch tires. Williams' best lap time here was 25.9 seconds several weeks ago, meaning he needs to go faster to win.
"You want it to be smooth and fast," Williams explains of his driving style. That's how Red Bull wants it, too; this has to be one of the tougher extreme sports it has sponsored.
Red Bull got into the Formula One business four years ago when ex-F1 driver Danny Sullivan pitched it on combing the country for drivers: holding kart races at more than 60 tracks around the U.S. to find four regional winners—then having them race one another and making the winner a junior F1 driver.
It's a tortuous process, winnowing an initial field of hundreds of hopefuls down to one driver—and so far none of Red Bull's three past search winners has broken into F1. Californian Scott Speed is closest; the Manteca native is driving junior-league Formula Renault-series cars this season—but even that, Sullivan says, is better than the alternative: watching Dale Jr. turn left all day and waiting for an American karter with a rich family to send him to Europe on his own.
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"If you want to get into F1, like if you want to get into NASCAR, you've got to train. And you can't train here," Sullivan says. Actually, you can—but the F1 feeder series, the minor leagues like Formula Renault, are all overseas.
Williams wants to be there, too, and so he's here, working on the racing equivalent of a repetitive stress injury as he finds the right line to take to the straightaway. Again and again, he slides in sideways just about a foot from the barrier, wheels cranked all the way over, then powers out. He qualifies first after several laps. And he keeps the No. 1 spot through the entire race, running a split-second in front of the No. 2 car (which loses a vicious battle for second to the No. 3 car). But when it's all over, his lap time is 28.035 seconds.
"I need to get a better car," he says, peeling off his face mask and waiting for another session in another—he hopes, better—Dromo kart.
This is something any Formula One driver—any race car driver—would say. Red Bull is looking for a great driver—and he's looking for a great car.