It’s safe to say that few people in America had heard of Keith Donegan before his stunning victory at December's Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires USF2000 $200K Scholarship Shootout.
The young Irishman had been working his way up through the ranks, seemingly poised for a move to the States or to Europe, when he made one of the most difficult decisions any young race car driver has had to make: he gave up racing to pursue college.
Returning to the open-wheel ranks in 2017 at age 20, Donegan impressed Shootout organizers with a solid performance at the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy in England last October and earned his ticket. Here, Donegan talks about growing up in a racing family, how the “heartbreaking” decision benefits him now, and what it meant to beat some of the best young racers in the world and take the scholarship that earns him a seat in the 2018 Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda.
MRTI: Tell us about growing up outside Dublin.
DONEGAN: I grew up in Navan, Ireland, about an hour north of Dublin and definitely more of the countryside than the city. I was mad about all sports when I was younger but I had a bug for motorsports. My whole family was into racing: my dad and his brothers raced Formula Fords and Supercars years ago. I’ve been going to racetracks since I was about 3 years old with my dad (Brendan), mom (Evelyn) and sister (Eimear).
MRTI: What first got you interested in racing?
Racing was always kind of inevitable for me, even though dad tried to steer me away from it and my mum didn’t really want me involved. But there really wasn’t any stopping me! All I wanted to do was get to the racetrack with dad. I never missed a day.
MRTI: Take us through your racing career to date, including the decision to leave racing to concentrate on school.
DONEGAN: I had quads when I was really young, then started racing karts when I was 9 years old. I did four years of karting, two in Ireland and two in the UK, then got a spin in a Ginetta, so I did two years in the Ginetta Junior Championship. I finished second in the championship, so that was really the beginning of my career on a bigger scale, until it was time for me to head to college.
We had gotten together as a family and decided for me to focus on college. It was heartbreaking at the time, because I won four of the last six races in the Ginetta Junior Championship, and I wanted to keep progressing, but it was time to focus on school. At the time I didn’t like it, but the older I get I realize it will benefit me in the long run. I will have something to fall back on (studying business at Trinity College in Dublin). That helps me in racing, in interacting with team members and engineers. For so many drivers, it’s all or nothing so your results can make or break your life. I’m glad I have something behind me.
I had an agreement with mum that if I got a certain grade, I could get a Formula Ford – and with that kind of motivation, I had my head in the books! My dad and I ran it ourselves (in the Britcover National Formula Ford 1600 Championship with Avon Tires) and we joined in the third round.
April of last year was the first time I’d sat in a car in almost four years. If I was ever going to make it as a racing driver, I felt that I needed to fully understand everything on the car and how it works, so dad and I did the engines. I ran the team with dad and our friend Pat Duffy helped. We had four podiums but it was a difficult year trying to learn the car while there were all these big teams who had been doing it for years.
But the last few rounds, and then into the Formula Ford Festival and Walter Hayes Trophy, we really understood how the car worked and what we needed to go fast. The competition was so fierce with the Mazda Road to Indy ticket on the line.
MRTI: What did you know about the Mazda Road to Indy before the MRTI Shootout?
DONEGAN: I had followed Oliver Askew’s progress last year even before I started racing again, and that influenced me going into Formula Fords. It’s really the only hope a young driver has to take their career to the next level. I knew there was a chance to get a ticket to the Shootout at the Festival and the Walter Hayes, and I knew that if I did win, I’d be in good shape coming off the back of a competitive year.
MRTI: What stands out most to you about winning the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout?
DONEGAN: If you want to win, you have to be meticulous and you have to think of everything. It’s not good enough just to be quick or to be able to talk to people: you have to have the full package.
It was hard not to be a bit starstruck, especially meeting the judges. I’d heard so much about them. I knew who Scott Goodyear was from Indy car. You have to figure out how to make yourself known with everyone who’s in the room. There were 17 other drivers there, champions from all over the world, and if you don’t have the belief that you can beat them, you don’t have a chance. I was most nervous getting into the final, because once I got in then I had to just focus on the one thing and I knew that what I was doing was good.
The overall experience was… I can’t even put a word on it. It was so challenging but rewarding.
MRTI: What are your expectations for 2018 and what are you most looking forward to?
DONEGAN: I have been on quite a few holidays in the States. I have family in Florida and Connecticut, and I really like the country and I’m really excited to live there.
I’m looking at different teams right now. I need to find a team that is as motivated and as hard working as I am, who wants to win as much as I do, to have that kind of level of determination to succeed. Every driver is there to win, but if I can get a good team sorted and get the right people around me, I don’t think that’s unrealistic.
The Mazda Road to Indy is so rewarding if you can stay on top of your game. I’ve said this to a lot of people, that’s why it’s the best scholarship in the world. There’s a clear, defined path to the top level of motorsport. To not take it seriously and try to win would be mad so that’s what I’m aiming for. And to have the exposure to the IndyCar teams is nearly as valuable, to be recognized and kind of set apart from other series.
I’m looking forward to the first round at St. Petersburg, and really getting into the championship – and to my first win, so hopefully that will come early on in the season.
MRTI: What is your favorite racetrack?
DONEGAN: I really like Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I’ve never driven it myself, but it’s the one I get the most enjoyment out of on the simulator. Other than that, I like Oulton Park, which really rewards consistency. I’m looking forward to racing on a street course, so I’m sure my favorite track will be one I race on this year!
MRTI: If I wasn’t driving a race car, I'd be ___________________________.
DONEGAN: I’ve always wanted to run my own business. But the more I’ve gotten back into racing, the more I think I want to run a race team. My passion is preparing cars and getting the most out of the car and driver. There’s something about that challenge that is really exciting.
MRTI: Do you have a “hidden” talent?
DONEGAN: I can build engines, which not many people at 20 can do! I love how things work and you have to be so precise when you’re building an engine, and I love that. The team that I run with, I want to be able to do some work in the shop during the week, helping to prepare my car.
MRTI: What do you do to relax and get away from racing?
DONEGAN: Racing IS my relaxation, if that makes sense. When I get to a racetrack I am so excited to be there, to get into the car. When you’re working on your own car, it’s all pressure and deadlines during the week, and when you get to the track, you remember why you do it. Whenever I am hard at it in the gym during the week, or on the simulator, that’s work. And when you get to the track, you know the hard work is done!