Robert (Robbie) Wickens of Guelph, Ont., says James Hinchcliffe will be hard to beat this weekend in the two IndyCar races taking place on Belle Isle in the Detroit River.
Hinchcliffe, of Oakville, missed the cut during qualifying runs for last weekend’s Indianapolis 500 and it was a blow to his team and to him personally. He remains a wonderfully gifted racing driver but when something like not qualifying for Indy happens to you, it’s a blow to your pride and your ego.
Which is why Wickens, in conversation before last weekend’s 500, said: “It’s one of those things that comes at you in waves. You’re OK, but then something happens to remind you. For instance, it will be a real punch in the gut on race day (at Indianapolis) when the guys go to get into their cars and he can’t.
“I wouldn’t bet against him when we get to Detroit.”
Wickens was talking about determination when he made that remark and if you’re looking for determination in auto racing, you don’t have to look much further than 18-year-old Russell Boyle of Toronto, who’s going to be racing twice this weekend in Detroit in Robby Gordon’s Speed Energy Formula Off-Road Trucks Series (formerly the Stadium Super Trucks Series).
For the uninitiated, a stadium super truck weighs 1,300 kg, has a steel-tube frame and fibreglass body and is powered by a 600-horsepower Chevrolet V8 engine. The trucks race on the same road and street circuits as the Indy cars, but two or three times a lap they have to drive over ramps that launch them high into the air. So you have a combination of a race and an exhibition of vehicle control.
They are spectacular. Oh, and they sometimes crash because if you don’t land properly, you could very quickly find yourself upside-down.
Now, you have to wonder why a kart racer — Russell Boyle has won several championships since starting out as an arrive-and-driver when he was 8 and is determined to become in IndyCar driver — would be racing stadium super trucks instead of, say, taking the more traditional Road to Indy route of U.S. F2000, Pro Mazda and Indy Lights car racing?
First, this is not all that unusual. The great Rick Mears, who won four Indianapolis 500s and six Indy poles for Roger Penske, started out as an off-road racer. And Jimmie Johnson, a seven-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup champion, didn’t have much of a stock-car racing resume when he started out either, having won numerous motorcycle and off-road rookie-of-the-year titles.
Matthew Brabham, grandson of the late Sir Jack and an Indy 500 veteran in his own right, is running in the trucks series this season, as is “the Bachelor,” Arie Luyendyk Jr.
When I asked Russell’s father, Phil Boyle, about the stadium trucks instead of, say, Pro Mazda, he let loose:
“Go the Honda Indy when the stadium trucks are racing there. Except for the Indy cars, all anybody talks about is the trucks. Listen to people. They say things like, ‘Wow! Did you see that truck 30 feet in the air? It lands and the driver not only has control but he’s passing another truck!’
“Ask them about the Pro Mazda race, or the Indy Lights. ‘What?’ they say. You look at Indy Lights; what do they have this year, six, seven cars? Who won the Lights race? ‘I don’t know.’ Anything special about Pro Mazda? ‘I don’t know.’”
Phil Boyle has been cultivating a friendship with Gordon since they met at what was then the Molson Indy in 1993. “I’ve known him about as long as I’ve known Paul (Tracy),” he said, adding that both men have made incredible contributions to his son’s racing career.
“I kept in contact with Robby over the years,” he continued, “and in 2013 he came to Toronto with his trucks. He knew Russell was in karts and we talked briefly about maybe getting involved then. We got the money for a start three years ago and then again two years ago — the last time the trucks ran here at the Honda Indy.
“Toronto Motorsports (a model car and hobby shop in Scarborough) and Jingles Hair Salon, which is right next door, sponsored us. We had sponsorship from N.G. Stone, thanks to owner Randy White, for last year but the trucks didn’t run here. We have the same backing from Randy this year and since the trucks aren’t on the Honda Indy program again, and there’s no guarantee they’re coming back, the decision was made to go to Detroit and roll the dice.”
Russell Boyle, who has been working on all aspects of becoming a professional race-car driver — he worked doing odd jobs at Goodwood Kartways since he was 13 and takes every opportunity he can to do public speaking — is confident he’ll do well in Detroit.
“The first year I ran the trucks, in Toronto, everything was big,” Russell Boyle said. “It was an eye-opener. I didn’t do very well. But after two years of racing and the testing, which I just finished up last week, I’ve got the full handle on it so now it’s time to win. It feels like a go-kart — that’s how comfortable I am in that truck.”
He had nothing but praise for Tracy and Gordon. “Paul mentored and coached me when I was starting out in karting. He’s giving me feedback since but it’s been more career planning — what series to look at, where to race, who to talk to, who not to talk to, that sort of thing.
“And Robby has given me a ton of help. He lets me test in his AV Fuels-sponsored truck. I don’t have to bring anything. I don’t know where I’d be in racing if it wasn’t for him. His help has been above and beyond what you’d ever expect.”
Phil Boyle says they have a “major iron in the fire” that could see his son move into cars from trucks next year. “But we’re not counting on anything. Things could work out, or they could blow up. In this business, you never know.”
For his part, Russell Boyle says he’d pretty confident about his car-racing future — but, just in case, he’s going back to school.
“When I graduated Grade 12 from Thornhill Secondary School, I took a year off, but I’ve been accepted into the automotive business marketing program at Georgian College in Barrie and I’ll start back in September. I want to be a professional racing-car driver, but if that doesn’t happen, I have to be prepared.”
Those two stadium trucks races in Detroit this weekend could send a big signal of which way things are likely going to go.
Russell Boyle, 18, of Toronto will be racing twice this weekend in Detroit in Robby Gordon’s Speed Energy Formula Off-Road Trucks Series.
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