One of the initiatives to help aspiring race drivers climb the ladder to potentially one day become an IZOD IndyCar Series competitor is the Mazda Road to Indy development program, which encompasses USF2000, Pro Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights.
Andre Gomes, a 25-year-old computer technician from Nashua, N.H., begins that climb after winning the inaugural Skip Barber Racing School INDYCAR Academy shootout last weekend at Sebring International Raceway. He receives a sponsored ride in either the 2013 summer Skip Barber Regional Race Series presented by Mazda or the 2013 winter series.
IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights team owner Bryan Herta also announced that the winner will be given a hospitality and garage pass for the Indianapolis 500, including a chance to be with the No. 98 Barracuda Racing car on the starting grid.
"It's such an amazing experience,” Gomes said. "I got here and I was obviously very nervous. I'm sure everybody was very nervous. I was very surprised at how quick everybody was. All of us, we have very little or no experience, and I thought everybody was really quick even without, or especially without any experience.
“I'm speechless. It's such a great feeling to be here and win this one-of-a-kind shootout. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for everybody working hard to make this happen. That includes the mechanics, but everybody -- even the guy that made my sandwich today. If I have no food, I can't drive.”
The program included four on-track sessions with drivers receiving a maximum 70 points per session. The points were awarded on the fastest lap of each session (worth 35 points) and the fastest average lap of that session (35 points). Points were then awarded on a descending scale for the rest of the group as they would be given in a Skip Barber Race Series event.
How a driver conducts himself on the race course similar to the Rookie Orientation Program at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway prior to the Indy 500 or a rookie test in the IZOD IndyCar Series also is gauged. An additional 70 points were awarded on the evaluation of the Skip Barber Racing School instructors with points based on based on the driver's attitude, desire, and ability to apply feedback among other factors.
“To be honest, this is an amazing opportunity for people who have never raced,” said Bruce MacInnes, a long-time Skip Barber Racing School instructor. “When I started racing, there was nothing like this and Skip Barber Racing School has become a venue for the best guys in America.
“These are the cream of the crop of all of the kids we taught in three-day racing schools throughout the year. I just did a slaloming exercise with every one of them. Best kids I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing. I’ve been here 37 years and these kids are brilliant.”
Keith Dalton, Skip Barber Racing School director of race series, understood the pressure each of the drivers were experiencing.
“There were a lot of butterflies on pit lane,” Dalton said. “A lot of the drivers didn’t really know what to expect. This is there first time in a major competition for a nice prize at the end of it."
Driver Conor Daly of Noblesville, Ind., was among the judges.
“I think you can’t tell anyone they can’t do it,” Daly said. “No matter what age you are you can definitely get in a race car and go fast. I’ve seen it done before. You see a lot of really competitive guys in sports cars, like Scott Pruett, who have been around for forever. There still doing it as they’re getting into the late stages in their career. But they’re still driving extremely fast. So I have no doubt that anyone at any age can go fast.
“To everyone who doesn’t win, keep fighting because I didn’t win any shootouts like this. I was able to continue racing and come back fighting and show that ‘Hey, I should’ve won that shootout.’ No matter what, the guys who don’t win are going to gain a lot of experience the guys can use in their future careers.”
Advice from the Skip Barber instructors and from drivers such as Daly is immeasurable.
“The people here have a love for the sport and it really shows,” Gomes said. “That's the reason they can help us so much. You can see it in our lap times. We started fast and we got even faster. I think it’s very cool and it’s something special that Skip Barber has.
“There's no way I'd be in racing without the INDYCAR Academy.”
Javier Cantu-Lucero finished third behind Gomes and Connor Clifford.
“My friends and family were actually really supportive of my racing through all of the adversity that I came through as a kid, and racing was a way for me to get around a lot of things that were distracting me,” Cantu-Lucero said. “A lot of kids my age are abusing drugs and alcohol. Racing is a way for me to keep myself away from that and stay focused on what I am passionate about.
“I think it’s a great way for to progress a young driver like myself to the top of INDYCAR.”
To qualify for the Skip Barber Racing School INDYCAR Academy, finalists had to graduate from one Skip Barber Three-Day Formula Car Racing School in 2012 and file an application. Those applicants also should have had no prior professional racing experience and no karting experience.
Interested individuals for the next Skip Barber Racing School INDYCAR Academy should call 800-221-1131 for information.
The final championship point standings:
Andre Gomes, 330.88
Connor Clifford, 321.50
Javier Cantu-Lucero, 312.88
Michai Stephens, 303.00
David Alpert, 302.00
Jose Sabastian Cedeno, 298.13
Todd Soukup, 295.13
Michael Wu, 290.50
Aaron Gravelle, 277.00
Max Hanratty, 275.75
Doug Peterman, 274.25
Matthew Ivanhoe, 267.00
Tyler Clary, 264.75
Andrew Baxter, 254.00
John Howe, 239.63
Adam Diamond, 231.25
Cody King, 231.13
Justin Finkle, 228.75
Aaron Walker, 228.00
Jarrett Oversreet, 218.75
Matthew Wilkes, 211.75
James Allard, 209.25
Brandon Pratt, 202.00
Alan Baker, 193.25
Wolfgang O'Bergin, 192.25
Mac Wolff, 182.25
Reza Kianersi, 180.75
Corey Wright, 172.50
Joshua Lenhard, 167.88
David Matlock, 167.00
Matthew DonMoyer, 137.00
Jaime Colmenares, 102.00