Talk about putting pressure on yourself.
Three years ago, Brian Graham decided that the only way his idea of a Team Canada scholarship to the famed Formula Ford Festival would happen was to make sure he had no choice about it.
After seeing a similar program work wonders for U.S. motorsport, Graham and a few friends talked about doing it for years, but never got out and raised the cash. The solution was simple: Unveil the scholarship for 2011 even though they didn’t have the money because that would put them under the gun to deliver.
“We knew we needed to find outside funding to do it because none of us could afford to give someone money to go race in another country,” he said.
“And, it became obvious that we were never going to find the money and then announce it, so we decided that the best way to do it was to announce and then we would have to find the money or it meant we would be paying for it ourselves.”
A few months later, Graham and his partners, both of whom have now left the scene, had begged and borrowed enough cash needed to send their first competitor to England for the annual festival.
The Festival brings talent from all around the world to compete in a winner-take-all weekend of knockout heat races where only the top drivers in each move to the next round. It began in 1972 and has featured some of the best up-and-coming talent on the planet over the years, with 14 Formula Ford Festival winners going on to Formula One, including Jenson Button, Tommy Byrne, Johnny Herbert, Eddie Irvine, and Mark Webber. The competition is not for the faint of heart.
“It’s not part of another championship or anything like that; it’s a standalone event and it’s all or nothing thing for a lot of guys,” said Graham who runs teams in several ladder series in Canada and the U.S..
“You get drivers coming from all over the world to do it, so that’s a nice part too.”
The low-downforce, open wheel, and small-engined Formula Fords are good bridge between karting and cars for young drivers.
In the first year of the scholarship, Team Canada driver Xavier Coupal, of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., started from pole in the final and led the race for the first seven laps before retiring after being punted off the track by another driver. The next year, Grimsby, Ont.’s, Garrett Grist was spun by another driver in an early heat race and Team Canada’s festival ended almost before it began. Grist just ended his maiden Cooper Tires U.S. F2000 Series season as Rookie of the Year after finishing third overall.
This year, Graham attracted the support of three main sponsors, AIM Autosport, K-Line Insulators, and the Racing Drivers Guild of Canada, and raised enough money to send two drivers to the 2013 competition held at the U.K.’s Brands Hatch circuit, which hosted 14 Formula One races between 1964 and 1986. The two-day 2013 Formula Ford Festival begins Saturday with the finals going Sunday afternoon.
The drivers flying the Maple Leaf this year are 2013 US F2000 champion Scott Hargrove, 18, of Surrey, B.C., and 2013 Toyo Tires F1600 runner-up Zach Robichon, 21, of Ottawa, Ontario.
“Getting the chance to represent Canada is a huge honour,” said Robichon.
“Whatever sport you do, when you have the opportunity to do this, it really means that you have are considered one of the best there is. There were some really good drivers who were nominated this year for the program and when I finally got picked, I couldn’t believe it.”
Hargrove looks to be a star on the rise after storming to the U.S. F2000 title with four wins and nine podiums in 14 races this year. He also started on pole four times this year.
The B.C. teen looks forward to marking his mark on the international stage in his first trip overseas to race cars in what might be the toughest field he has ever faced.
“Honestly, I don’t really know what to expect,” said Hargrove who was one of the three finalists for the scholarship in 2012.
“I would imagine because people come from all over the world to go and do this event that it will definitely have some pretty stiff competition, but not to say that I wasn’t racing against stiff competition all year since some of the people I raced against this year were definitely top notch drivers. No matter where you race it’s always really tight at the front.”
With so much on the line, Robichon also expects to face some stiff competition on the weekend, as well as some aggressive racing from his rivals. His No. 1 goal is going to be to improve every time out there and learn as much as possible during the two days of intense competition.
Although getting two drivers to the festival this year wasn’t easy, it’s a step in the right direction for Graham, who said he needed to raise about $50,000 to pay for the teams to run the two cars at Brands Hatch as well as the travel and lodging costs while the drivers are in Europe.
Although Graham adds cash into the pot to make sure that the scholarship stays afloat, he’s looking for more corporate support to expand the program and give future scholarship drivers a few extra opportunities to race in events that happen around the Formula Ford Festival.
As a former racer, he also understands the challenges young drivers face trying to achieve their dreams and would like to see the path get a bit easier for Canada’s up-and-coming talents.
“At one time I was the 18-year-old kid trying to figure out how I was going to make money to go racing, so I know what it’s like,” said Graham.
“Over the years, there have been different programs to help young drivers – there was the Player’s Driver Development Program for a long time in Canada and Red Bull had a junior program that helped launch [Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters Series driver] Robert Wickens – but right now there really isn’t anything around, so it was good timing to come in to give a prize to young drivers and what they make of it is up to them.”
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone