CART AFRICAN-AMERICAN DRIVER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM CONCLUDES INAUGURAL TEST SESSION BUTTONWILLOW, Calif. (Oct. 27, 1999) - When David Francis Jr. climbed out of the blue MCI WorldCom/Toyota/Pioneer Toyota Atlantic race car Tuesday and walked to...
CART AFRICAN-AMERICAN DRIVER DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM CONCLUDES INAUGURAL TEST SESSION
BUTTONWILLOW, Calif. (Oct. 27, 1999) - When David Francis Jr. climbed out of the blue MCI WorldCom/Toyota/Pioneer Toyota Atlantic race car Tuesday and walked to the PPI team transporter, his feet never touched the ground.
The excitement and enthusiasm of participating in the first Championship Auto Racing Teams African-American Driver Development program was obvious as he slipped off his helmet, revealing a grin that just would not go away.
"This was awesome - by far the greatest experience in all the time I have been racing," said the Los Angeles native who has raced periodically in the Barber-Dodge series in 1999. "This car, the team, everything - awesome is the only way to describe it. I want to thank PPI, CART, Toyota - everyone involved, for giving me this chance to prove myself."
His words reflected the feelings of both Bill Lester and Andrew Kelley, the other two drivers who, along with Francis, comprised the first three African-American drivers to go through CART's program in its inaugural year. Announced July 1, CART worked with the African-American-owned Miller Racing Group to identify drivers qualified for the test session that serves as a reference point from which the drivers can approach sponsors and race teams in an attempt to advance their racing careers.
"It's important that we not only open the door but reach out to African-American drivers who exhibit the potential to race in our open wheel series," said Andrew Craig, chairman and CEO of CART. "We believe our program is a good first step in building a bridge to the African-American community from our racing series."
Each driver completed 72 laps on the 1.41-mile road circuit located 135 miles north of Los Angeles. The intent was not to see who was fastest among the three but rather to determine the potential for each to drive in one of CART's open wheel racing series, with the ultimate goal to participate at CART's top level - the FedEx Championship Series.
"We followed a standard test regimen for all three drivers that focused on monitoring how each individual athlete handled the car and responded to changes in the car's set-up," said Nick Harvey, PPI's Atlantic team manager. "Our overall goal, along with CART, was not to compare the drivers but to determine their individual skill sets and levels of ability in a one-on-one working environment."
As it turned out, Lester registered the quickest lap followed by Francis and then Kelley. Each driver, along with CART, will be given a comprehensive, written evaluation of their test session by the PPI staff. The evaluations are being completed and will be presented to the drivers within the week. If the evaluations indicate one of the drivers is at a level that warrants a further test, that individual would be given that opportunity in a CART Indy Lights car, provided by Team KOOL Green.
"I am just grateful to CART, PPI and Toyota for making this a reality for me," said Lester, the most experienced of the three, who has taken a leave of absence from his job as a manager at Hewlett-Packard to pursue his life-long dream to be a professional race car driver. "This was my first time in an open-wheel car (he most recently raced in the NASCAR Busch Grand National event at Watkins Glen, N.Y. in August). It was an experience I had only dreamed about. It was great and I hope it is just the first step toward racing in open-wheel cars."
Kelley, who resides in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, was the least experienced of the three test drivers. His last time in a car before his test was this past February. He walked away pleased with his showing.
"There's no doubt, this experience exceeded my expectations in every way," he said. "I feel good about the way the day went - with every segment of the test, I improved. I just wish I had more time in the car. Hopefully, that will come."
While the program gives the participants a full evaluation, it does not offer any guarantees. Each driver will take the information PPI gathered, place it in his portfolio and use it in an attempt to get a drive, and the sponsorship it takes to race at this level.
Toyota, one of four engine manufacturers involved in CART's FedEx Championship Series, is pleased to play a role in the program.
"The Toyota Atlantic Championship has long been the launching pad for stardom among open-wheel race car drivers in North America," said Jim Aust, Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A.., vice president of motorsports. "What better place for CART to offer more opportunities to young, deserving drivers. We're proud to be a part of this program along with our long-time partners, Vicki O'Connor at Toyota Atlantic, PPI and CART."
CART's racing season concludes this weekend with the Marlboro 500 Presented by Toyota at California Speedway, the last of 20 races in the FedEx Championship Series. Dario Franchitti holds a nine-point lead over rookie sensation Juan Montoya in the season points race, with the champion to be determined in Sunday's 12 noon (Pacific Time) race. Also concluding its 1999 season at California Speedway Sunday is the CART-owned PPG Dayton Indy Lights Championship.