READY FOR THE WORLD
When the concept of A1GP World Cup of Motorsport first emerged on the racing scene four years ago, rumors swirled about who would take the helm of Team USA. Names of American open-wheel racing legends like Penske, Ganassi, and Andretti were all considered likely candidates for the role. However, when the announcement came, many were surprised to hear it was new man on the scene, Rick Weidinger, who was slated as team owner and principle of the United States entry.
While American racing fans were trying to figure out who Weidinger was, questions were arising about the fledgling A1GP series. Coined the 'World Cup of Motorsport' by series founder Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai, A1GP promised an entirely new concept for the international racing scene. With a philosophy of international competition, pitting nation versus nation, the series was onto something different. Additionally, great lengths were being taken to ensure a level playing field for all competitors involved, giving non-traditional motorsport nations a fighting chance against well established motorsport nations. However, what might look good on paper has a habit of being shredded to pieces in the world of motorsport, and racing fans around the world wondered if the A1GP concept would flourish.
When Weidinger was first approached about A1GP and the opportunity to own Team USA, his motorsport career spanned only five years, a blink when compared to many who have spent their lifetime dedicated to the pursuit of speed. Part of those five years were spent as co-owner of Kelley Racing in the Indy Racing League. Although not a lifelong racer, it was the time he spent in the innovative world of the technology sector that prepared him for the task of leading the United States team in A1GP.
Weidinger will tell you his business success is founded on "luck and timing," but anyone with the slightest sense knows his level of accomplishment did not happen on the role of the dice. It was, in fact, anticipation, recognition, and response to the quickly evolving technological environment during the 1990s that propelled him forward into the business arena and prepared him for the challenges of leading A1 Team USA.
When approached by Sheikh Maktoum about forming Team USA, it was this ability to valuate developing opportunities that made him recognize the potential of the A1GP concept and run with it. Weidinger was especially keen on the idea of a level playing field where drivers race against drivers, not budgets. Weidinger was already well versed in this lesson from his days in the Indy Racing League where free testing, wind tunnels, and off-track development meant competing teams could buy speed by literally spending their way to the front. To be able to race head to head on an international stage and represent the United States was simply too good to pass up.
Weidinger did, however, insist that two stipulations be accepted by Sheikh Maktoum before taking the reigns. The first was the guarantee of a United States race. The second, stemming from Weidinger's technology days, was that the A1GP races would be broadcast using broadband, perhaps unusual stipulations from a competitor. However, Weidinger recognized the significance of a home race as well as availability to race broadcasts for online viewers around the world.
When the A1GP championship launched its inaugural season, Sheikh Maktoum made good on his promises to Weidinger, bringing not only a field of 23 entries to the United States A1GP race held at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, but also online coverage of the races. Furthermore, by simply launching the cars off the starting line for the first time, A1GP doubters and critics were silenced around the world, at least for the moment. In all, 23 nations participated in the world cup of motorsport and the first season could be considered short of success.
The dream, however, was far from reality for Team USA. They were experiencing America's traditional unsympathetic welcoming to the world of international motorsport. With veteran racing drivers like Indy Racing League's Bryan Herta, Red Bull F1 development driver Scott Speed, and F3000 front runner Phil Giebler, expectations were high but top results were not materializing. On the outside it appeared Team USA was grappling at the pieces to find results; however, Weidinger was strategically moving forward and evaluating lessons learned on what would be a building year for the team as they came to grips with the principles which govern A1GP. At the end of the season Team USA registered a disappointing 16th in the championship; however, Weidinger and his team were making changes and quietly looking forward to season two.
Not only had season one been a building year for Team USA but the entire A1GP series was also making strides by completing the entire proposed schedule, silencing critics and catching glances from major motorsport players around the world. The sophomore season appeared to be a stand out, make or break year for A1GP.
Inside the Team USA tent, expectations were set and improvement was the name of the game. Team USA supporters did not have long to wait, as those changes quickly paid dividends when Phil Giebler piloted the Team USA car to a second place Feature result in the opener at Zandvoort, The Netherlands. With a new lease on competition, top-10s were becoming the expectation rather than the exception. Additionally, Weidinger was putting a program into place to take maximum advantage of series regulations which allowed rookie drivers, those new to the series, two on track sessions at each event.
Weidinger initiated unknown American pilot Jonathan Summerton to the team, who started accruing seat time in the Team USA car by logging laps on the circuits of the A1GP calendar. Eventually, Summerton, then only 18 years old, was promoted by Weidinger to be the team's primary driver for the final four rounds of the season. His promise was proven as he finished second in the Feature at Mexico City. By the end of season two, Team USA had clawed up the championship standing, finishing ninth overall.
The series was also experiencing its own unprecedented success as the A1GP concept gained momentum and fans began to recognize the 'World Cup of Motorsports.' Television broadcasters were also busy snatching up the rights to air the series in markets around the world. In New Zealand, South Africa, Czech Republic and The Netherlands, A1GP was becoming the primary motorsport event, and A1GP's first sold out race events were taking place.
The 2007-08 championship, A1GP's third season, has been one of firsts for both the A1GP and Team USA. After Indy 500 champion Buddy Rice drove in the initial two rounds, Summerton returned for the final eight. After a slow start, Team USA closed strongly with Summerton's victory in the Shanghai Feature taking the team to new heights. Furthermore, Team USA was third in the Feature at Mexico City and second in the Sprint at Brands Hatch for three podium finishes in the final three rounds of the championship.
The third season proved that A1GP was for real and here to stay. Record crowds turned out around the calendar to watch full grids and support their nation's entry. The final round at Brands Hatch provided the standing room- only crowd with dramatic action as Team Great Britain battled with Team USA for the Sprint race win.
A1GP is welcoming an entirely new era for the 2008-2009 championship. With a solid foundation to stand on, a new player has entered the fray and is adding more motorsport street credibility than A1GP has ever experienced before. World famous marquee Ferrari has taken an interest in the series and has announced plans to unveil a new Ferrari powered A1GP machine for the 2008-2009 season. The early designs slate the car's V8 power plant at around 600 horsepower and will be constructed based on the ultra-successful Ferrari 2004 Formula 1 machine along with special design changes being made to promote close racing and overtaking.
Nobody is more excited about the new season than Weidinger. While the start was rough, the third season showed progress, and he is now very happy with the core team. "Continuity is our biggest strength. We will be returning the crew, engineer, and racing driver for next season. Everyone knows their roles and what to expect and has grown into a strong unit," he says Furthermore, Weidinger expects a return of A1GP to home soil. "We aren't sure about next season but there are serious talks about a United States race during season five," stated Weidinger.
From the onset the A1GP series and Team USA have both been met with speculation and doubt. After three full seasons, the upcoming introduction of a new A1GP car powered by Ferrari, and continually improving results the A1GP championship and Team USA have proven they are for real. The future holds exciting things in what has the makings to be one of the most significant motorsport championships in the world.