Future Canadian open-wheel stars benefit from Team Canada Scholarship Program

Written by Stephanie Wallcraft | Photos by Brian Graham on .

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie Wallcraft

Junior formula racing in Canada has seen the best of times and the worst of times over the past two decades. Today, the system’s health is showing signs of recovery thanks in no small part to grassroots initiatives like the Team Canada Scholarship.

It was roughly 20 years ago that Canada was churning out talents such as Jacques Villeneuve, Alex Tagliani, Patrick Carpentier and Greg Moore, among many others, with the entire system bankrolled by multi-million dollar investments from tobacco giants.

When those investments were legislated out of existence in 2003, the devastation to motorsport in this country occurred almost overnight. The battle to secure funding and seat time for our brightest young stars has raged on ever since.

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie Wallcraft PRNMAG 3One of the more tireless supporters of formula racing in Canada is Brian Graham, who has operated teams in various junior series since the late 1990s.

Graham began to notice that a number of the American drivers he was fielding were being selected to compete at the Formula Ford Festival, an event held each autumn at Brands Hatch in the United Kingdom that has long been pivotal for young racers seeking recognition on the international stage.

They were doing so under the banner of the Team USA Scholarship, a program founded by long-time motorsport writer and commentator Jeremy Shaw, and designed to give American racers at the early stages of their open-wheel careers the funding and support they need to make names for themselves at high-profile European motorsport tournaments. In its earliest days the Team USA Scholarship helped to establish the careers of drivers such as Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta and Memo Gidley, and dozens more prodigies have passed through it in the nearly 25 years since its inception.

When Graham saw two of his drivers get the call to cross the Atlantic in 2008 – Josef Newgarden won the Formula Ford Festival that year, and Conor Daly won the Walter Hayes Trophy – Graham witnessed firsthand exactly how great of an opportunity Canada’s racers were missing out on.

He put together a Canadian version of the program modeled very closely on the American one, with plans to find financial support and then announce it with fanfare. When funding proved difficult to secure, the group involved took an enormous leap of faith – they believed so strongly in the importance of what they were doing that they announced the program anyway in January of 2011.

“Then it was up to us to find the money or fund it ourselves,” Graham says. “There was a lot of pressure to make sure we followed through. It was a labour of love.”

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie WallcraftAs one of the few Canadians who managed to claw his way to a top-tier racing series when the chasm between karts and the big time was at its widest, Verizon IndyCar Series driver James Hinchcliffe sees very clearly how the scholarship has changed the landscape for the homegrown rising stars who are following him.

“Something like this is huge,” Hinchcliffe says. “There are two effects that it has. The first is it gives these drivers some international experience and some international exposure – that festival is a very big deal.

“The other part of it – and this is almost bigger – is it gives a young driver this incredible sense of confidence and accomplishment. When I was coming up, if a team thought I was really good then they would give me the privilege of spending several hundred thousand dollars with them. This is genuinely something that recognizes talent, and they’re rewarded for it. To have that at that age is huge for your confidence.”

The first year of the Team Canada Scholarship saw a modest program send Quebec’s Xavier Coupal to Brands Hatch. Those early, scrambling efforts led to a quick payoff as Coupal became the first Canadian ever to win pole for a Formula Ford Festival final.

In 2012, Grimsby, Ontario’s Garett Grist got the nod after posting strong showings in two different Formula 1600 championships. Race-ending contact in the semi-final made his result disappointing on paper, but the experience played a key role in helping to steer him onto a promising career path south of the border. Grist was the USF2000 rookie of the year in 2013 and has continued along the Mazda Road to Indy into Pro Mazda for the coming year. His season got off to a strong start with a win in the Winterfest pre-season tournament at NOLA Motorsports Park in Avondale, Louisiana.

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie WallcraftThe following year was one of expansion for the scholarship thanks to the help of supporters K-Line Insulators USA, The Race Drivers Guild of Canada, Toronto-based race team AIM Autosport and a host of secondary sponsors. The additional backing allowed the program to send a pair of drivers to Brands Hatch in 2013 for the first time.
One was Scott Hargrove of Vancouver, (pictured right, facing page) who secured the USF2000 championship last year just three weeks before suiting up for Team Canada.

Like Grist, he has also graduated to Pro Mazda this year and claimed a race win for himself at Winterfest.

The other beneficiary was Ottawa’s Zacharie Robichon (pictured left, facing page), who finished second in the A Class in the 2013 Toyo Tires F1600 Championship behind American racer Jack Mitchell, Jr. Robichon has not yet finalized his plans for the 2014 racing season, though they are very likely to include the new Canadian Formula 2000 series being launched this summer.

Hargrove finished fourth in the final at Brands Hatch, and Robichon dropped out of the semi-final after breaking a pushrod end going over a curb. The statistics, though, barely scratch the surface of the story. Robichon retained many impressions from the experience that demonstrate how deep an impact competing in the Formula Ford Festival can have on an aspiring racer.

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie Wallcraft“I was nervous because I didn’t know what to expect,” he recalls. “The whole team, they did a fantastic job of just saying take your time, build up to it. “We were fast from the word go. It was just wonderful.”
One of Robichon’s most memorable learning experiences came thanks to the stereotypical British weather, which saw him take on his first standing start and first rain race in one shot.

“I totally screwed up my start,” he remembers. “I did exactly what everybody told me not to do, so I felt like a little bit of an idiot: I spun the wheels. Everyone said, ‘Just drive away, drive it like a road car, don’t spin the wheels.’
I was like, ‘It’s all under control.’

“I spun the wheels and four cars went by me. Now I know why they were saying that.”
The Team Canada and Team USA groups work collaboratively with a single, established British Formula Ford team, Cliff Dempsey Racing, and share the same awning all weekend long, which gives all four drivers a vast amount of feedback to compare in an immersive learning environment.

“(Team USA 2013 drivers Jake Eidson and Joey Bickers) were the first people to welcome us,” Robichon says. “All four of us were working together. I think in almost every session it was a different one of us that was faster, so we were talking to each other, looking at the video. We went out to dinner with them. It was just
a fantastic experience.”

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie WallcraftRobichon says that the greatest skills he gained involved adding some European flair to his competition toolbox.
“Everyone says the racing in Europe is so much more aggressive than at home, and they’re right,” he says. “Over there, it’s pass or be passed.

“Going forward now, whenever I go racing I’m going to have that extra little thing. I’m just going to go. Everyone else might hesitate, but now I know you can do it.
“And being able to learn the track as quickly as we did and the changing conditions over there – it rains, it doesn’t rain, then it’s foggy and it’s damp – I think I learned a huge amount about constantly changing what I had to do to adapt to the track.

“It’s just so amazing that I got the opportunity to learn all of that because I know that going forward that’s going to help.” Of all the many lessons the scholarship offers, perhaps the most important of all is the revelation it gives these racers of how closely their results will be tied to their home and native land when they begin to compete at an international level.

Maple Leaf Power Stephanie Wallcraft“It made the whole event so much better to be walking around with a Team Canada jacket,” Robichon says. “Wearing the maple leaf made everything that I did well even more gratifying because I was representing Canada.
“But at the same time, when things go bad then you feel like you let everybody down. But that’s the weight you carry on your shoulders when you carry the maple leaf.

“Everybody is following me back home. Hopefully, I’m making everybody proud.”

Once again this year, the selection committee will collect a group of finalists from stand-out Canadians racing at the F1600 and F2000 levels in North America, and two will be chosen to bear the red and white flag in England next October. The short list has yet to be finalized, but this much is certain: Team Canada’s drivers will be given the career opportunity of their lives; and, as a result the future of formula racing in this country looks increasingly bright.

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