(TORONTO, Ont.) July 11, 2001 -It was a sultry hot day in May 2000 in the rolling hills of Southern Virginia when a rosy faced Dan Di Leo from Markham, Ontario sat on the pit wall looking at the shiny new Formula Dodge R/T 2000 racecar before him.
(TORONTO, Ont.) July 11, 2001 -It was a sultry hot day in May 2000 in the rolling hills of Southern Virginia when a rosy faced Dan Di Leo from Markham, Ontario sat on the pit wall looking at the shiny new Formula Dodge R/T 2000 racecar before him. Di Leo had never been in an auto race. The moment when the Canadian would make his first race start loomed just ahead, and the thought left him rather nonplussed.
A little over a year later, Di Leo, 19, will endeavor to make his first pro race start in round seven of the 2001 Barber Dodge Pro Series supporting the Molson Indy Toronto on July 13-15. Is he equally as relaxed?
"I feel confident going into this weekend. If I felt out of place, I wouldn't be doing it," said Di Leo who will pilot the No. 91 Dr. Ho's Muscle Massage Dodge Reynard. "Of course racing in front of so many people from my hometown my give me a few butterflies."
That weekend in Virginia at the historic and demanding Virginia International Raceway, the Skip Barber Eastern Regional Race Series was kicking off its 2000 season. The affable Di Leo had plenty of racing experience to back him up. As a seven time Canadian National Karting Champion and four time U.S. Grand National Karting Champion with three North American Karting Championships thrown in for good measure, there was plenty of racing hardware in the trophy case back in Markham to fill him with confidence. He was in attendance to get at least a couple of car race starts under his belt before the inaugural Skip Barber Formula Dodge National Championship kicked off a couple of weeks later. The National Championship Series is a by invitation only 13-round championship that pits the best amateur racecar drivers and karters together in one series. There maybe no more equally matched race series anywhere in North America, and Di Leo was to be one of the 24 selected to put it all on the line.
Though all the participants were amateur drivers, some had more experience than Di Leo. At year's end, he would lie sixth in the overall results with a best race finish of third. The season was full of promise for the year ahead.
"From karting, I've always been used to being at the front of the field and winning championships," relayed Di Leo in reference to the 2001 National Championship Series. "The competition was tougher than I expected and I learned a lot, so finishing sixth overall in my first season of formula car racing I think is pretty successful."
In 2001, Di Leo has already garnered that coveted first victory at Indianapolis Raceway Park in round 4 this past May. Coupled with several other strong performances Di Leo resides third overall presently. The challenges of racing betwixt the concrete barriers lining the Exhibition Place Circuit on the fringe of downtown Toronto will be a momentary diversion for Di Leo. The focus will be on becoming CART's first ever National Champion.
"At the start of the season, I saw my self as one of the favorites, and if I can keep winning races and reaching the podium, then I'll be a contender at the end of the year. The National Chanmpionship is still wide open, and I'm giving it all I've got," added Di Leo.
With a month until the next round of the National Championship, Di Leo can spare some of that focus for this weekend's race. Outside of a test at Sebring International Raceway earlier this Spring, he's never driven the 265 hp Dodge Reynard. An array of set-up options will be at his disposal which he's never had before that will further his challenge. Yet he remains optimistic of a Top-10 result.
"It's a new track for everybody," he says noting that it is the first time that the Barber Dodge Pro Series has raced in Toronto. "If I can get on top of the car's set-up then there isn't any reason I shouldn't be competitive. With a little good fortune, maybe a Top-5 is possible.
By the way, that first ever start in a racecar back in Virginia yielded a second-place finish.