Sullivan cultivating young U.S. F1 hopefuls

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- Former auto racing star Danny Sullivan hails from the basketball hotbed of Kentucky, so it was only natural that he pick a "Sweet Sixteen" for his Americans-in- Formula-One project. On Sept. 26 in ...

INDIANAPOLIS, Friday, Sept. 20, 2002 -- Former auto racing star Danny Sullivan hails from the basketball hotbed of Kentucky, so it was only natural that he pick a "Sweet Sixteen" for his Americans-in- Formula-One project.

On Sept. 26 in Indianapolis, 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner Sullivan will reveal the 16 young drivers selected by him and his fellow "scouts" in the Red Bull F1 Driver Search program who will head to Europe to display their driving skills and learn the ins and outs of the racing route to Formula One.

And just like in basketball, the 16 will be trimmed to a Final Four.

Sullivan hopes that in the not-too-distant future that at least one driver from the group will emerge as a full-fledged F1 driver and compete on the circuit that includes an annual stop at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the SAP United States Grand Prix. The third SAP USGP at the Speedway will take place Sept. 29.

The last American to race in F1 was Michael Andretti in 1993. Current Indy Racing League star Eddie Cheever Jr. raced in F1 from 1978-89, making 132 starts, more than any other American. Sullivan raced in F1 in 1983.

Mario Andretti was the last World Champion from the U.S., in 1978. Phil Hill won the World Championship in 1961, the only other American F1 champion.

"In all sports, if there is a certain nationality participating, there is much more interest (from that country)," Sullivan said. "There is someone to cheer for."

Sullivan, who won the 1985 Indianapolis 500 in his famous "Spin and Win" drive, noted that the Speedway has done a tremendous job in building the 2.606-mile F1 track and accompanying facilities for the USGP.

"Now they need someone (American) running in the front," he said.

Sullivan devised the idea of bringing a select group of American drivers to Europe for driver training. Red Bull, sponsor of the Sauber Petronas team in F1 and Red Bull Cheever Racing in the IRL, was receptive and enthusiastic.

"I presented it to Red Bull and they liked it," he said. "Then at Imola (Italy), I presented it to Bernie Ecclestone, and he liked it and became a supporter."

A list of potential candidates then was gathered. Veteran racing people became judges. A total of 28 drivers filled the list, and then Sullivan and his associates weeded this down to 16, all of whom will be introduced at Indy.

In mid-October, the drivers will be flown to a track in France. During testing there, the "Sweet Sixteen" will be reduced to eight, or maybe only six.

This group will be trimmed to four as European judges, experienced in what Formula One teams look for among participants in training series, pick the drivers they think have the best chance of succeeding. Those drivers will be offered fully sponsored rides in various junior categories in Europe.

The candidates all are between 16 and 23, Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the judges tried to limit the selections to the younger-aged drivers because they would have time to develop. He felt older drivers with more experience would be eclipsed by the time an American was ready to fill an F1 seat.

"I think there still are drivers with enough desire and plenty of talent (in the U.S.) who want to go this route," Sullivan said about Americans who aspire to race in F1.

The four finalists will be assigned to various European teams depending on their skill level. No two drivers will be on the same team or circuit.

"I don't want them competing to be the best American but competing to be the best, period," Sullivan said.

The move to Europe could be a culture shock for some of the young Americans. Sullivan said he interviewed each one individually and tried to "paint a depressing picture." He wanted to be certain that each was willing to sacrifice this period of his life being away from his family, friends and home surroundings and living alone in a strange country.

"Across the board, at every age, they said they wanted to do that," Sullivan said. "I was surprised at their professionalism. The easiest part is to have a dream. Now they will get over there and show how hard they want to get that dream."

Sullivan will assist in that move, but he won't meddle in their development.

He said he will help them get settled in with whichever team they are assigned. But from there, it is up to the driver to go through the daily routine with the team.

"This is an experience for everyone (of the 16)," Sullivan said.

The Red Bull program is scheduled to last a minimum of five years, Sullivan said.

-irl-

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Series Formula 1
Drivers Eddie Cheever , Michael Andretti , Mario Andretti , Bernie Ecclestone
Teams Sauber