TALENTED TEEN HELPS CEMENT NEW ZEALAND'S REPUTATION IN THE UNITED STATES Talented Taranaki teenager Marc Williams has helped cement New Zealand's reputation in US motor racing circles as 'the new Brazil' by breezing through his rookie test...
TALENTED TEEN HELPS CEMENT NEW ZEALAND'S REPUTATION IN THE UNITED STATES
Talented Taranaki teenager Marc Williams has helped cement New Zealand's reputation in US motor racing circles as 'the new Brazil' by breezing through his rookie test and gaining a place on a top Indy Pro Series team in the United States.
Through the late 1990s and early years of the new millennium the best up-and-coming young drivers in Champ Car and the Indy Racing League seemed to come from Brazil; the likes of Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Bruno Junquiera finding fame and fortune on the Indy Car circuit in the United States.
Since Junquiera however the pickings have been slim, and New Zealand has edged ahead in the 'best motor racing nursery' stakes on the back of 2000 Indy Lights and 2003 IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, and 2003 World Karting Champion and 2005 Indy Pro Series champion Wade Cunningham.
Dixon, now 26, currently lies third in the 2007 Indy Car Series points standings after a great start to the year capped off with the closest of second placings to winner Dario Franchitti at last month's Indianapolis 500.
While Cunningham, 22, has been the dominant force in the main feeder series, the Indy Pro Series, for the past three years. The young Aucklander won the overall series title in his rookie year in 2005, then claimed four pole positions, three race wins and most laps led to claim third overall in the championship points standings last year, despite missing a double-header round early in the season.
Like Dixon and Cunningham, 18-year-old young gun Marc Williams from New Plymouth got his career start in karts, and like Dixon he parlayed obvious talent in that category to an early move to cars, first in the Volkswagen 1200cc Formula First category before making what at the time was a quantum jump into a wings-and-slicks Formula 3 car in the Australian Formula 3 Championship in 2005.
There the highlight was fifth overall - out of 26 cars - in the Formula 3 support race at the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix meeting in Melbourne.
Encouraged by support from the likes of New Zealand racing veteran Ken Smith, and Scott Dixon's parents Ron and Glenys, Marc and his father Tony travelled to the United States last year to check out opportunities there.
It was long time Indy Pro Series general manager Roger Bailey, who had watched with interest the progress of both Dixon and Cunningham, who suggested that since they had travelled all that way they might as well give Marc the opportunity to drive an Indy Pro Series car, and one was organised at short notice at the Putnam Park road course near Indianapolis with veteran New Zealand driver-turned team owner Dave McMillan.
Having seen hundreds of young drivers attempt to get to grips with an Indy Pro car McMillan was impressed with what he saw, telling Tony that Marc's was the best test he had ever seen at the short, bumpy Putnam Park circuit.
The Williams then returned home, but as they did, wheels within the Indy Pro Series organisation were put in motion and Marc was invited back to do his rookie oval test at the Kentucky Motor Speedway earlier this year.
At that stage there were no offers or promises. Marc was just like any other eager young hopeful the Michael Crawford Motorsport team tests each year.
Or at least he was until he went out on the track.
This was Marc's first ever experience of an oval course, and the Kentucky Speedway is a genuine 2.4 km long 'super speedway' which Indy Pro Series cars lap at an average speed of between 290 and 300 km/h.
Yet, according to team boss Michael Crawford, a man who has been involved both as a team manager and now team owner in the Indy Pro Series since its inception in 2002, Marc's test was the best he had ever seen.
"I have personally attended/administered 56 oval rookie tests in the Indy Pro Series cars since the fall of 2002 (and) Marc clearly has the talent to run with anyone that I've worked with over the past six years," he told Tony.
"The primary goal of the test," he said," was to earn Marc his licence. Any work above and beyond that goal was a bonus for this event. These are not easy cars to drive. Another competitor was in the car for over four hours on Monday, never getting it 'flat' ( running at full speed). Marc was flat early in the test - by lap 11. This is an outstanding achievement for a driver's first visit to an oval, in fact his best time would have put him fourth on the grid for this race last year, a huge accomplishment. All in all, " he concluded," it was one of the most productive rookie tests that I have ever experienced."
On the strength of the test Marc was offered a drive in the team's second car at the next race, the Freedom 100 on the Friday afternoon before the Indianapolis 500.
Again, Marc took making his debut in the series at the biggest meeting of the year in his stride, qualifying 21st and finishing the race in 17th position.
That performance in turn led to an offer to do the rest of the series and with Ron Dixon helping with advice on how to set up a company to invest in Marc, Tony agreed to fund the campaign in the interim.
An incredible commitment but one he is prepared to make on behalf of his talented son.
"Why am I doing it? he asks. "At the end of the day I am trying to help Marc realise his dream. I'm just fortunate, as a father who would love to see his son succeed, that he has the talent to do it. Everyone says it and it's been proved yet again in America."
In his latest race, at the famous Milwaukee Mile oval in suburban Milwaukee Marc qualified 20th but worked his way up through the field to finish ninth.
Back home Marc's parents Tony and Jan are now working on the professional structure of the company that will help fund the next couple of steps in Marc's career before he can expect to be paid to drive by a top team.
The business 'model' will be similar to the one used to get Scott Dixon to America and more recently, Marc's karting contemporary Brendon Hartley, to Europe.