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Where should an aspiring young driver race to be recognized?
A few decades ago, the answer was resoundingly, “Canada!”
In the 1970s, future superstars like Gilles Villeneuve, Keke Rosberg, James Hunt and Bobby Rahal burst onto the international motorsport scene through the Canadian Formula Atlantic Series. They raced coast to coast, from Westwood in B.C. to St. John’s, with stops in Edmonton, Gimli, Man., Mosport, Mont Tremblant, Sanair, Trois-Rivières and Halifax.
The next generation — think Jacques Villeneuve, Ron Fellows, Paul Tracy, Patrick Carpentier — also launched their careers on home turf.
They excelled through a Canadian development ladder of open-wheel and showroom-stock series, honing their skills on road courses, ovals and street circuits. In supporting Formula One in Montreal and IndyCar in Toronto and Vancouver, they were introduced to a worldwide audience.
Today’s teens still make an annual appearance at the Montreal F1 and Toronto IndyCar events. But the dearth of development series has forced them to cross borders the rest of the season, adding time to schedules already crammed with school and racing.
But distance hasn’t reduced their ranks or their results. Canada is still producing winners, like James Hinchcliffe in IndyCar and Robert Wickens in Formula Renault F3.5 in Europe. And then there are the pilots on the way up.
For instance, the 31-car entry for the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship (part of the U.S. Mazda Road to Indy development program) includes eight Canadians. Early in the 2013 season, they’re already taking a disproportionate share of wins and podiums.
Vancouver’s Scott Hargrove leads the series standings after the first four races, with three wins from four pole positions. Jesse Lazare of Montreal is third, Stefan Rzadzinski of Edmonton fifth and Garrett Grist of Grimsby sixth, all with podium finishes.
Their compatriots Daniel Burkett (Winnipeg), James Dayson (Vancouver), Dalton Kellett (Toronto) and Ryan Verra (Calgary) are also in the hunt.
With the heyday of Canadian series long past before they were born, these racers say travelling outside their native land is just part of their race routine.
“Nowadays, most racing is international. So it’s a good skill to have to be able to ease through the travel and be able to integrate into a team that isn’t Canadian,” Kellett, 19, explained. “If you want to be a professional racecar driver, you will be travelling all over the world, so you have to get used to it.”
After commuting from Alberta to Ontario to race in entry level Formula Fords, Rzadzinski, 20, is already a veteran traveller. Like Kellett, he values the international experience.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the facilities, the tracks, the events and the weather most of the year to be able to support something like (the Road to Indy program). That’s why being with IndyCar is important. In moving up the ladder, you’ve got to get to these events. You’re with the top series and that’s what you’re trying to achieve. It’s the key to success for young drivers. You put 31 of us, the most talented drivers around the world, all on one grid and you’re going to learn a lot.”
At 15, Lazare is also in learning mode, on and off track. He has his sights set on the upper ranks of open-wheel racing, but he’s open to other possibilities. And he’ll have an education as backup.
“I’m going to go wherever the best opportunities are to make a living and support myself. If I don’t make it to Indy and I go a NASCAR route or if I go to Europe, it doesn’t bug me. I love all the types of racing,” he said.
“I still go to school, so it is difficult. But when I get back, I work hard to make sure I keep up. I still think it’s really important to get an education.”
Unlike his compatriots, who started racing in grade school, Hargrove, 18, has been racing for only five years. But he’s making up for lost time with the 2012 champions, Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing.
The team is truly an international effort, guided by South African Taylor, with drivers from Canada, England, the Netherlands and the United States.
“There’s a lot of opportunity outside the country, especially in this Mazda Road to Indy ladder program. It’s really the benchmark anywhere in the world. You wish you could race in Canada all the time, but you have to venture out sometimes,” Hargrove said.
When he does, he’s all Canadian.
“I love to show that I’m Canadian. I have (the Maple Leaf) on my helmet and my suit’s red. I’m really proud to be a Canadian and hopefully, one day I can represent Canada on the top step at IndyCar.”