Winning on and off the track

“I’m going pretty fast,” I think to myself as I race around the track at the St. James- located indoor kart track facility, Speedworld. Just then, in my peripheral vision, I see the colourful helmet of David Richert, about to lap me for a second time.

After he passes, I figure I can get some free advice and follow him through the bends, learning the best lines. This idea is quickly thwarted, though, as Richert is out of sight before I know it.

At the end of our race the results speak for themselves: my fastest lap was a full two seconds slower than Richert’s — an eternity on a small kart track. The outcome is not surprising, though. This spring Richert will be in Italy, having been invited to race in the country’s Formula Renault 2.0 (FR2.0) series, widely acknowledged to be a stepping-stone into Formula 1 (F1). Felipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi, for example, are both former FR2.0 Italia champions (2000 and 2005, respectively) and current F1 drivers.

The journey to the racetracks of Italy would be tough for anyone, but especially someone like Richert, who has been told time and again by detractors that he would never make it.

“You’re too tall, too old and you’re from Manitoba.” This is what Richert, a self-described “farm boy,” was told when he decided that he wanted to be a professional driver in F1, arguably the pinnacle of motorsport. But he had other ideas.

Richert says that he has never let what he isn’t get in his way; and that a modern racecar driver is more than just someone who can win on the track, but someone who can also win sponsorship dollars.

“I raced with 55 guys in the Jetta Cup, and there are maybe five guys who are still racing,” said Richert. “It seems unfair, but that’s racing. You can say ‘this sucks, this is unfair’ or you can go out there and try to find sponsorship.”

As an example, he cites Pastor Maldonado, the driver from Venezuela who recently replaced Nico Hülkenberg in the AT&T Williams team. There has been much speculation that Maldonado was chosen over other, arguably better drivers, because he brought significant sponsorship dollars with him.

As a graduate of the University of Manitoba’s school of business, Richert is well positioned to concentrate on winning sponsors as well as races, and has recently signed an important deal with Silver Jeans Co. that will help him race in Italy this coming spring and summer.

That doesn’t mean that Richert has license to be reckless on the track, though. He still has to be very careful since every dollar spent on hammering a banged up racecar back into shape is one less dollar he has to put towards tires, fuel and the other costs of racing.

This might mean that Richert isn’t willing to take stupid risks just to be out in front, but he doesn’t think that’s much of a hindrance in modern motorsport.

“I can sit in a boardroom with the series champion and he can say ‘I win races.’ Well great, I can put down my sponsorship binder that says I got 10 times the amount of exposure this guy got. Where are you going to put your marketing dollars?” asked Richert.

Since Richert seems to have the business side well in hand, the Manitoban asked him about the physical requirements facing a racecar driver, and whether he felt, contrary to what many think, drivers should be considered athletes.

“I laugh when someone says that [racing drivers are not athletes].”

Richert says that in a race your entire body is fighting against G-forces in every corner, every time you brake and every time you accelerate. Anyone who’s not in peak physical form will suffer after doing this for 12 corners a lap over the course of a 30-lap race.

“At the end of the race,” says Richert, “if you get tired, you’re losing a couple of seconds a lap, and then you’re screwed.”

Illustrating his point, at the end of our 12-laps my hands feel like they have been run-over by a freight train, my lungs are on fire from the fumes and my legs a bit wobbly. Richert on the other hand looks fresh as a daisy, and is eager to go out again. He offers me a chance to redeem myself and challenge him a second time, but I know when I have been beaten.

Leaving the track, despite feeling the protests of my apparently fragile body, I have sense of elation; how many people can say they turned a wheel in anger against a professional racecar driver?