The resolve of a champion is strengthened by his or her ability to bounce back from adversity. For 21-year-old Floridian Jonathan Summerton, it's the story of his racing career.
In each case, it's been a matter of taking the next challenge head on without personal sponsorship. Summerton has advanced thanks to skills behind the wheel and not his checkbook, and is one of few American drivers who currently have a legitimate chance at making a successful single-seater career in Europe.
"The past three years, I did A1GP, VW development work, two years in Atlantics, some Indy Lights, and all that has been covered for me," he said in an interview about his last three seasons. "I haven't had to shed out any of my own money. I couldn't have."
Summerton continued to say it was sometimes even a struggle to pay for flights.
"I don't want my parents to risk their lives and home," he related. "So my goal and determination was to do and make it to F1, without any sort of funding from family, and make it work somehow, some way."
He's done a lot of that to this point and is aiming for F2 in 2010 with an eye on ultimately making it to Formula One soon thereafter.
F3 and A1GP success
He is the only driver to have given the United States a race win in the four full seasons of the "World Cup of Motorsport," A1GP. That series' future is very much in doubt with the first three events of the 2009-10 campaign all being canceled.
He also spent several years in Europe racing against future Formula One pilots such as Sebastian Vettel, Sebastien Buemi, Kamui Kobayashi, Kazuki Nakajima and Romain Grosjean, beating them more than his fair share of times while competing in Formula 3.
"It was a lot of fun, because that's one thing that I could look back on and say it was one of the best things that happened to my career," Summerton said. "To see them doing well in F1 is good to know because I have competed against them. It just shows the talent level of that year, as seven are either test drivers or in F1, with three in DTM and one winning the title. It proves it was quite a talented field."
Having already been in Europe once, Summerton related the challenges for an American driver hoping to make a successful career there.
"The hardest thing is the whole lifestyle, of being everywhere, doing sponsor things, being at track for different events," he said. "But it wouldn't be anything that would affect me either way. I would always keep that thinking that I had to struggle and fight to get there."
Mixed season back in America
Halfway through 2009, Summerton had nothing. He competed on race-by-race contracts in both the Firestone Indy Lights Series and Cooper Tires Atlantic Championship, contending for titles in each but racing without the promise of security for the rest of the year.
"To start out swapping teams was pretty hard, and also not knowing if I'm racing the next weekend, it was quite stressful," he admitted. You can't focus 100% on what you want to do until things came together."
He was able to focus just on Atlantic for the remainder of 2009 after rejoining Newman Wachs Racing for a second stint with the team. Some early setbacks halted progress but three wins in four races from Mid-Ohio through Road Atlanta put him in prime position to snatch the title from Simona de Silvestro going into the season finale at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
"The setups totally change year to year," Summerton admitted as he replaced defending series champion Markus Niemela at NWR. "They learned a bit over the off season in testing. Even the team agreed if I was there in testing, in my opinion, we would have had the title wrapped up sooner than what happened because there would have been continuity."
While Summerton beat de Silvestro, who was eliminated in a somewhat controversial first lap accident, he wasn't able to beat his teammate John Edwards, who with a dominant weekend stunned the establishment by leaping over both of them for the Atlantic title.
Once Edwards got the jump on the start, passing was always going to be a challenge and the final outcome determined -- Edwards snatching the title on a tiebreaker of more second-place finishes.
"I can't deny it was a disappointment, but basically, for how much I jumped back and forth and leading both series, to tie for points was a good run," Summerton said. "It was definitely good to have the 1-2 for the team."
"But it was really surprising how it did finish off," he added. "Last year Markus came into the last race third with nothing to lose and that was all he could do. It was the same for John this year, kind of funny how things work. It just proves that when you have to do something, most drivers can do it."
European excursion on tap?
A likely proposition for Summerton's 2010 is Formula Two. He tested this month in a two-day test at the Algarve Circuit in Portimao, Portugal. His best lap was only nine-tenths off the quickest driver, Kazim Vasiliauskas, 14th out of 21 drivers that tested.
For most of 2009, Summerton has been tipped as a favorite to race for the new USF1 operation, a brand new F1 team based both in the U.S. and Europe that plans to make its series debut in 2010.
The team's primary investor is billionaire CEO and founder of YouTube, Chad Hurley. It is owned by longtime Formula One veterans Peter Windsor and Ken Anderson, and its U.S. base is present in Charlotte, N.C., where a lot of NASCAR teams take up residence.
"It's been a hard battle for them, as they have to develop a car, find sponsors, and do everything with a first year racing team," he said of the team's ambitions. "They've done a great job with it. I'd love to be part of the team, as one of the drivers, or a test driver, or a junior for the team to be prepped for 2011 or '12. Just to represent America again like I did in A1GP would be an honor."
There's been a lack of news out of the team until last week when the team's Web site revealed a video of progress and the car design, not using a wind tunnel but rather Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) technology.
There was also the rumor that Jose Maria Lopez, an Argentine who's been out of single-seater racing since 2006 with pedestrian results during three years of GP2 and Formula 3000, has signed to one of the seats thanks to a potential $8 million sponsorship package.
In today's economy currency still takes precedence and nowhere is that more true than the cutthroat world of F1. Regardless, Summerton has his celebration plans on standby if he was to get "the call."
"I think you would see fireworks in the town of Kissimmee," he said. "This is everything I've set my eyes on doing. The past 2-3 years have been nothing but struggle. To be given that opportunity, and thank everyone supporting me, as an American in USF1, I'm kind of speechless as to what it would be like."