John Edwards is still three years away from legally being able to drink champagne on the podium. A pity then because he spends so much time there. Race winner and 2009 Atlantic Series champion John Edwards, Newman Wachs Racing. Photo by...
John Edwards is still three years away from legally being able to drink champagne on the podium. A pity then because he spends so much time there.
Edwards is only 18, but has seemingly been around an eternity. For half this decade, the driver who has lived mainly in Cincinnati and Louisville has made headlines, won awards and championships, and primed for a promotion to the big time.
"I've had a lot of opportunities in the right place and time with support," Edwards said in an interview. "All the things add up. I couldn't have done it without the support and coaching from a lot of different people."
On the campaign trail, then Europe
It wasn't a misprint. Edwards first made racing headlines in 2004 when at age 12 (12!) he became not only the youngest ever licensed driver in U.S. open-wheel road racing, but the youngest winner as well while competing in the Skip Barber Formula Dodge Race Series.
That same year he won the Red Bull Driver Search, a program that was designed to help launch young American drivers on the path to Formula One. One of its graduates, Scott Speed, achieved this in 2006. And unlike his namesake who was busy wooing voters on the American presidential campaign trail, this John Edwards was letting his driving do the talking.
Edwards advanced through open qualifying when there were more than 1,500 drivers going for it, to the runoffs of karting, the semifinal of 15 karters, and ultimately two days of testing in an Alan Docking Racing-prepared Formula 3 entry in Portugal.
For 2005, Edwards capitalized on the opportunity by moving to Europe and then racing in international karting and Formula Renault. Along the way he garnered another accolade -- youngest driver ever to hold an FIA license. He was in Europe for two years earning his first win at Anderstorp and additional podiums at Spa-Francorchamps and the Nurburgring.
"In Formula Renault, I was there more to learn," he explained. "I did end up winning a race with a couple podiums, but I was never in contention for the championship. I was always sort of there to learn, but not to be a main player. It was helpful but hard to be there for that reason. I learned a ton and put a lot to use the last two years in the States."
Back across the Atlantic and racing there
Come 2007, Edwards was back in America and making his debut in the then Champ Car-sanctioned Atlantic Championship, driving for Jerry Forsythe with Red Bull backing. Like everything else to date in his career, Edwards set a record as the youngest competitor there, at 16.
It was always going to be difficult with a very competitive field and upwards of 25 cars per race. Edwards had moments of excellence, notably a runner-up finish in the waterlogged race at Toronto and a provisional pole at Road America, en route to ninth in the series standings, a few places back of highly-rated teammate Robert Wickens.
"In 2007, if you fell out, you'd fall out of the top 15," Edwards recalled. "The competition up front was just as tough, so I could be much more ready for this year. I understood so much more about driving and racing for a championship now than I did in '07, I was only 16."
In 2008, Edwards started the season without a ride but after missing the first race, resumed in the Star Mazda Championship. Originally skeptical, Edwards' doubts turned to fist pumps on the strength of five wins, four poles, and eight podium finishes en route to clinching the championship.
"I grew a ton," he said. "I was pessimistic about dropping back, because I had already done Atlantic and I thought it was a step back. But I realized there was the (MAZDASPEED) scholarship and it wouldn't be wasted learning-wise. Important thing was to get the MAZDASPEED scholarship to come back this year. I learned a lot about myself and racing for a championship."
Atlantic return, title, and the next step
On the strength of Mazda backing and the support of one of motorsport's most dedicated manufacturers, Edwards resumed his Atlantic career this season with Newman Wachs Racing.
He crushed the field at Sebring with a pole and win, and completed a dominant double-header weekend sweep at Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Ill. before hitting a rough patch for a couple races. Not to mention the team had also re-signed Jonathan Summerton who was providing a challenge and determined to fight back on his own terms.
"It was really interesting being in a fight with my teammate like that," Edwards said. "Out of the car we helped each other, discussed lines and that. Our advantage over Simona (de Silvestro) was working together and had each other to use. We were both careful of what we said, as you don't want to give too much away."
"We ended up in the last part of the season and took control of road course events," he added. "We had each other to help, for the engineers had two competitive drivers to help develop the cars. It ended up being a big help towards the end of the season."
The end of the season arrived with Edwards nine points in arrears of de Silvestro and Summerton at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Edwards took pole from Summerton and led the two home for a 1-2 finish, securing the title as de Silvestro had been involved in a somewhat controversial first lap accident. It was a stunner to see Edwards vault from third to first in the final race, winning on a tiebreaker thanks to more runner-up finishes.
"To win the championship, I knew I had to get pole, and win the race because I needed five points to tie Jonathan and I knew I would win the tiebreaker," he explained. "I needed her to basically not finish, because she was pretty set. She should have got a top 5 if she finished, and I wouldn't win it that way."
"At that time I was already leading, I knew we still had 48 minutes to go," he summarized. "It was nerve wracking 45 minutes after the first incident and brought it home first. We really needed a lot to happen. On top of that, we had to get pole and win, and got that too. It all came together in the race."
Of all the accolades in his career, Edwards ranks the Atlantic championship as his best.
"On the cool down lap, after I realized, it was one of the most overwhelming feelings I ever had," he said. "I kept pumping my fist, I was just in my own moment. I could barely believe that I had actually done it, that when I started racing, when I was 9 or 10, 11 or 12, I thought I was so cool because I had met some drivers that were winning in Atlantics, and now I have become one of those drivers."
For 2010 Edwards is still unsure of plans as yet -- finding sponsorship the kicker as always. He was scheduled for an IndyCar Series test in November but it was canceled, though he did test an Indy Lights car for a day in Sebring. Like everyone he is exploring his options and figuring things out. His last race was as part of Mazda's "25 for 25" effort in the 25 hour-race at Thunderhill earlier this month.