Americans in Formula 1.
It is a concept with which many in the F1 community have a love-hate relationship. On the one hand, some feel like getting an American driver, American team, or even a US Grand Prix is simply stunt casting - a blatant pandering attempt to corral the highly-sought-after United States consumer market. But at what cost? And how successful would it be given the stranglehold that NASCAR stock car racing holds on the American motorsports landscape?
Still, there has been no shortage of effort to get some representation of the Stars and Stripes on the F1 grid. But outside of Scott Speed's two-season tenure with Red Bull's Toro Rosso squad and a couple of aborted-in-embryo attempts to build a US-based F1 team, the World Championship has remained bereft (or, some say, unsullied) by American participation.
Speed made it to Toro Rosso in the first place because of his long-term association with Austrian-based Red Bull - an association made nearly a decade ago after the inaugural Red Bull Driver Search. The RBDS was a marketing idea that came into being during a heavy period of interest in an "all-American Formula 1 team," a concept that intermittently springs up every few years like a religious revival.
In 2002, the prevailing rumor was that American F1 vets Dan Gurney and Phil Hill were collaborating to create such a team. That no such plans existed did not stop the racing press from badgering Gurney and Hill relentlessly of a period of weeks - even months - for details. Though the furor eventually died down when it became clear that there was nothing to the rumors, the kerfuffle proved that there was an appetite for the concept even if there was no execution.
It was into this atmosphere that Red Bull introduced its Red Bull Driver Search program. Red Bull owner Dietrich Mateschitz and former F1 driver and Indy 500 "spin-and-win" champ Danny Sullivan, backed by an opportunistic marketing firm named Maxim Sports Management, announced the program to the world as the first step towards an "all-American Formula 1 team."
Sullivan, the man in charge of the program, revealed that a group of "undercover scouts" were scouring the United States for the top open-wheel prospects in order to give them a chance to qualify for four scholarships being offered annually by Red Bull.
Naturally, the racing world was set abuzz by this news. In 2002, the domination of Sebastian Vettel lay far in the future, but Red Bull had already made a splash in F1 as a sponsor for both Sauber and Arrows. In an economy where nobody was getting a ride without money, Red Bull's available dollars looked like pure ambrosia for the cash-starved young hawks attempting to negotiate their way into a top-level racing career amidst the Split-racked shambles of US open wheel racing.
Prior to the Red Bull Driver Search, young American open-wheel racers who had dreams of racing in Formula 1 had to relocate to Europe and try to penetrate the frustratingly inaccessible Euro formula ranks. This meant not only moving across an ocean, but learning a handful of new languages and spending one's days in perpetual poverty while on the lookout for the next open test or slim strand of opportunity.
Phil Giebler was one of these determined young Yankees. Giebler, who was already in the European feeder system both on the merits of his racing results and by repeatedly proving his worth in other driver searches, saw the Red Bull program as the final boost he might need to break into Formula 1. Giebler, who had moved to Europe to pursue his F1 dream independently, quickly discovered that though he could succeed and win when equipment and funding were equal, sponsorships were not readily available. He had no doubt that with Red Bull backing he could translate his talent into victories on a worldwide stage. For him, the RBDS program was "everything you dream of having... to be able to give one hundred percent of yourself in a professional team in the best junior racing series and to have the chance to prove yourself" without having to have a loaded wallet to use as incentive.
Sullivan and Red Bull soon announced the first group of fifteen candidates, and the who's-who featured some of the brightest prospects in the American open-wheel world, including Rocky Moran Jr., Joey Hand, A.J. Allmendinger, and Ryan Hunter-Reay. Also on the list were two drivers who were already had impeccable European Formula experience on their resumes, Giebler and Paul Edwards. Ranging in age from 16 to 24 years old, the selected drivers represented an interesting cross-section of American racing talent and included some of the most coveted racing prospects in the country.
Rocky Moran, Jr. and Joey Hand, at the time competing in CART's Toyota Atlantic feeder series, were convinced that their road to Formula 1 would lead through the CART Champ Car series. Historically, CART had been the best option for American drivers to get to Formula 1 because of the enormous difficulties for Yankees trying to break into the European Formula ranks. Selection into the Red Bull program meant the possibility of leapfrogging both the Champ Cars and the political hurdles that they faced getting onto the fast track for F1. Though they lacked the European experience of Giebler and Edwards, the two drivers were confident in their own skills and knew that with the right opportunity to prove them they would be front-runners for the Red Bull scholarships.
All fifteen drivers knew that at the end of the selection process, four guys would be very happy, and eleven would go home empty-handed. All they wanted was an equal chance and a level playing field upon which to prove themselves ready and worthy to be the first Americans in over a decade to knock on the Formula 1 door.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, neither the selection process nor the selection criteria would have anything to do with equality or fairness. It would become very clear to everyone involved who the intended beneficiaries of the Red Bull F1 Driver Search would be... and it wouldn't be the drivers.
Giebler, Hand, and Moran were all surprised to learn that they had been chosen as part of the first crop of Red Bull driver candidates. Each thought that being selected was a product of their previous racing record. Their reactions to the news, however, were very dissimilar.
Ever since he first heard of the program, Phil Giebler was hoping against hope to be one of the lucky selectees. Certainly, as a six-year veteran of European racing, he felt that he had the "home court advantage" over the other potential candidates. The prospect of a driver shootout did not faze Giebler, who had gotten to where he was in racing by winning four such shootouts.
But despite his racing record, he had been unsure if he would be considered because, at the ripe old age of 23, he was older than the rumored age range that Danny Sullivan and Red Bull were considering. "When Danny gave me the call to say I was selected," Giebler said, "[I] was very excited, but probably more relieved than anything."
Rocky Moran, for his part, did not share Giebler's opinion on driver searches. "Throughout my career I've found that winning driver tests is like winning the lottery," admitted Moran. "Very rarely does the best driver get picked. There is often so much politics, money issues, and variables involved that don't allow the truth to be revealed."
Still, it was obvious that Red Bull was spending a lot of money to make the program go, and if he was going to be invited he'd certainly take his best shot. "Because of my past experiences with these types of programs, I didn't have my hopes up," he said. "I was mentally prepared for anything."
His fellow Toyota Atlantic competitor, Joey Hand, did not even know he was selected until he called Maxim Sports Management, the company managing the Driver Search, to check on his fate. "The day that Danny Sullivan was supposed to call, I never heard anything," Hand recounted. "So I called the management company that was running the whole thing. They said, `Oh yeah, you're in. Danny must not have been able to get to you.'"
Giebler, Hand, and Moran, along with their twelve other cohorts, were hustled off to Indianapolis to be paraded to an eager press as America's future in Formula 1. It was at Indy that the drivers got the first details about what Red Bull's plan was for the driver candidates.
All three drivers had assumed that the Driver Search would be an opportunity for the most talented among them to get full backing for an immediate shot at F1 through the appropriate European feeder series. Joey Hand initially thought that the plan was to put the winning candidates "in F3 or F3000 and look for F1 in a year or two."
But as the drivers listened, they began to get the impression that this was not a "plug-and-play" situation where a talented, experienced driver would get his foot in the door with the best teams and Red Bull money. In fact, Sullivan and the other organizers revealed that the program was intended to be a more long-term proposal - a "five-year plan" that would ostensibly train and develop the winning drivers physically and mentally for the challenges of Formula 1.
For Phil Giebler, even with the extended time frame the program was everything he had dreamed of having in his career being offered to him on a silver platter - provided, of course, that he won. Rocky Moran, on the other hand, began to feel niggling doubts as he sat there on display. "I was told that the goal of the program was to find the driver with the most potential and star-like quality for an eventual seat in F1," he says. But until he got to Indy, he had no idea that the program had a mandatory long-term element - a very important detail that would figure prominently in future decision-making, he would discover.
As part of the Indy experience, the drivers were asked to participate in a "fitness test." In a sentiment that was to become an oft-repeated mantra among the drivers, Moran thought the whole idea of the fitness test was simply a histrionic - filler for the cameras. "We weren't given feedback on how we did against the other drivers," he said. "It seemed to mainly be a publicity stunt."
Once the Indy pleasantries were concluded, the drivers looked forward to the three-day driver test in France at the Paul Ricard test circuit, where the initial candidate corps would be pared down to four finalists. But before they would participate in the actual driving, there was the small matter of contracts to work through.
This small matter, however, would quickly bloom into a controversy that would threaten the whole program.
It is a fair bet that none of the Red Bull Driver Search candidates were prepared for the language in the standard contract that each driver was required to sign as part of the program.
Phil Giebler was prepared to see strict terms when he took his first pass at the contract. "Look, the racing business has never been fair or a level playing field when it comes down to the people with the money versus the underfunded driver," he explained. "I am certain even in (F1 great Juan Manuel) Fangio's day, when you needed a break behind the wheel you had to pay for it with a sizable piece of your future.
"In a nutshell," he continued, "if you don't have enough money to race, you sign and hope that your performance will level the playing field when contract renegotiations come up."
But neither Giebler nor his compatriots were ready for just how far the driver contract that Red Bull and Maxim Sports presented to them would push the boundaries of acceptability.
According to the original draft of the contract, they discovered that should they be selected as a driver candidate, the drivers would be obligated to drive for free and pay their own travel and lodging expenses in any series anywhere in the world - including but not limited to everything from karts to Champ Car or the Indy Racing League. If the driver were to make it to Formula 1, their compensation would range from a $100,000 annual salary as a test driver to a $1.5 million maximum - with the caveat that the top salary range would only be paid after the third full year in Formula 1 proper.
Worse, the $1.5 million salary cap would be renewable without limit by Red Bull. The terms went on to stipulate that any excess of compensation on the team side over the $1.5 million contract limit would be pocketed by Red Bull, not the driver - a healthy windfall for the Austrian company if the eventual salary turned out to be on par with the $75 million (in 2002 dollars) commanded by top-line drivers like Michael Schumacher.
Finally, the contract allowed Red Bull to sell the driver's contract or assign the driver to any team in any series or any championship in the world without notice or the ability of the driver to share in any profits.
Needless to say, most of the drivers refused to sign the contract outright. Even for drivers like Phil Giebler, who was used to the authoritarian contracts prevalent in European racing, the Red Bull documents represented an unacceptable commitment for him and his compatriots.
"To give the folks in this program the benefit of the doubt," Giebler said diplomatically, "I believe that they were trying to get a contract together on short notice and had it leaning way too far in the company's favor."
But, he conceded, even with his understanding of the Machiavellian world of motorsports finances and politics, the Red Bull contract still amazed him in its audacity. "It appeared that they were asking you to sign with them forever, with them guaranteeing you absolutely nothing in return," he admitted. "I was told by one of the most respected and well-known attorneys in motorsports that it was `one of the worst examples of athlete slavery and upper-handedness' that he had ever witnessed."
Not surprisingly, Toyota Atlantic compatriots Moran and Hand were less accommodating than Giebler, perhaps because, since they still raced domestically, they had less of a personal investment in the outcome of the program.
"The contract was a joke," Joey Hand said bluntly. "My lawyers laughed and said they have never seen anything like it. I would never have signed that contract as it stood."
Moran was even blunter in his assessment. "The contract that was issued to me was absolutely ridiculous," he maintained. "It was a never-ending contract that entailed too many complications and it didn't seem like something that was written by anyone in motorsports.
"There was certainly some arm-twisting going on by particular people at Maxim that wanted it signed immediately. I was in no way even close to considering signing it."
The drivers nearly unanimously resisted signing the Red Bull contract until the contract's details were leaked to the press, spurring Maxim to revise the terms of the contract significantly to make it more palatable to all parties. But for two of the most talented driver candidates, the unacceptable first draft had been the deciding factor in their decisions about their future plans. Faced with the choice of indentured servitude or taking a chance on a rare stateside ride, both A.J. Allmendinger and Ryan Hunter-Reay elected to forgo Red Bull's scholarship program, thereby removing two of the program's best-known names from consideration.
The rest of the thirteen drivers signed the second draft, clearing the way for the three-day evaluation test at the Paul Ricard circuit. Still, the experience with the contract had several of them, including Giebler, Hand, and Moran, looking at the whole thing with a rather less optimistic eye. Who knew what would be waiting for them in France?
THE GONG SHOW
The thirteen young Americans arrived at the Paul Ricard circuit in the south of France ready to prove their mettle and vie for a shot at F1 greatness. Their first look at their testing grounds gave them cause to feel very encouraged about the program.
Even for Phil Giebler and Paul Edwards, who already had experience racing in Europe, the Paul Ricard circuit was one of the most impressive tracks they had ever seen. A 2.369-mile all-asphalt natural road course, Circuit Paul Ricard had recently been renovated in hopes of wresting the French Grand Prix away from Magny-Cours. The track had also served as Toyota F1's test facility for their Grand Prix effort in 2001.
Astute observers among the candidates soon noted, however, that the circuit lacked any gravel or grass areas or barrier systems - the track outline was simply painted on with flat berm-style sections to indicate corners. "It felt like driving between two white lines in a massive parking lot," Giebler remembered. "There was no feeling of fear at all - it was like playing a video game."
For his part, Rocky Moran felt a measure of foreboding about the all-asphalt layout. "There (were) no gravel traps, tires, or grass on the exits of corners anywhere in the track's surroundings," he relates. "The track was designed this way so that when F1 teams tested there they didn't have to worry about their car going off in the dirt. So if for some reason your driver loses control and leaves the track, he will simply spin out onto asphalt and then will be able to drive right back onto the track without a tow and a ruined paint job.
"While this is good for safety and convenience for test teams, it is very, very poor for conducting a driver test because it allows for drivers to get creative with their driving line, which can alter lap times by up to a second depending on how much one shortcuts."
The drivers had been told to expect three days of intense workouts in what were termed "detuned F3 cars" on a variety of different course configurations under the close scrutiny of Danny Sullivan, Skip Barber, Alan Docking, Bertram Schafer, and Dr. Helmut Marko. Since the winning drivers would be placed in F3-spec race cars for the 2003 season, all of the drivers looked forward to some seat time in the quick little cars.
However, they were dismayed to find that the actual cars they were to drive were tube-framed school cars with F3 tires, not the F3-Martini cars they had expected to find. The school cars, it turned out, only generated between 140 and 170 horsepower - and, worse, the power level apparently depended on which individual car the driver was assigned. The hope for a level playing field had begun to dissolve without even a single lap yet turned in anger.
On the first day, the drivers were given a fifteen-minute period to learn the cars and the track. Following that, the candidates were divided into three groups based on their experience level. Group one included Joel Nelson, Bobby Wilson, Boston Reid, and Michael Abbate - the four least-experienced drivers in the field. The "intermediate" group featured Grant Maiman, Scott Poirier, Scott Speed, and Bryan Sellers. In the "experienced" group, Europe vets Giebler and Edwards joined Patrick Long, Moran, and Hand.
Once the drivers were separated into groups, Danny Sullivan told them to take five minutes to get acclimated to the school cars. For Moran, who had to deal with a fused spine thanks to previous racing injuries, the cockpits were incredibly uncomfortable. With no head or leg padding, an abnormally low steering wheel, no submarine strap in the harness, and a plastic seat with a fire extinguisher behind it that fairly screamed "back injury," the car looked to Moran less like a race car and more like a disaster waiting to happen.
As the biggest driver in the group, Moran had been hoping for extra time to fit himself in the car. He quickly noticed that his knuckles would hit his knees if he turned the wheel more than 40 degrees, and he was struggling to support his back with some loose padding. After his attempts to communicate his problems to the French mechanics proved fruitless, Rocky tried to plead his case to Sullivan. "Sullivan said I needed to stop `fussing' and not really worry about comfort," Moran said. "After trying to tell him that I couldn't even turn the steering wheel, he said, `We don't have all day,' and then proceeded to tell a story about how he once drove an F1 car at a driver test without a proper fitting."
After the drivers struggled to acclimate to the cars, they were taken to be weighed. Not surprisingly, Moran weighed in the heaviest at 168 pounds. The other drivers were between 12 and 40 pounds lighter. But what the weighing was for ended up being a mystery, as the cars were never properly ballasted to accommodate for the discrepancies between the candidates.
During the afternoon, the drivers were able to go out on 20-minute acclimation runs in their respective groups. It was immediately obvious to all the drivers that great inequalities existed between the cars in all critical elements of power, torque, and suspension. Worse, the school cars immediately began to suffer mechanical failures. In the acclimation session alone, there were stuck throttles, failing brakes and clutches, electrical shorts, and a blown engine. What was initially scheduled to be a two-hour session turned into an all-day event. Naturally, nobody wanted to shoulder any blame - Oreca, the supplier of the cars, blamed the drivers; the drivers blamed the cars; Danny Sullivan, for his part, blamed everyone. It was, as one driver put it, a "total gong show."
ON THE TRACK
From the start, the Red Bull driver candidates knew they had more to overcome than the competition from their peers. No two cars in the program drove the same, except for the fact that nearly all of them were experiencing one mechanical failure or another. Nobody was asking the drivers for setup input or, indeed, any feedback whatsoever, even though virtually everyone was offering their unsolicited opinions on the cars.
After one particularly depressing session, Rocky Moran got together with some of his peers to compare notes. In this session, Moran was a whopping 3.2 seconds off the fastest time, but the car was undersprung, unbalanced, and beset by electrical failures. Disheartened by his poor showing, he talked to other drivers who confirmed his suspicions that the cars were badly mismatched - one driver even claimed to have picked up a full second in lap times after switching machines. The lack of weight ballasting was particularly frustrating for Moran and the heavier drivers - with the best cars only putting 170 horsepower onto the track, every pound was critical in maintaining momentum in and out of the slow 1st and 2nd gear corners.
Phil Giebler had reason to be happier than Moran - his times overall were at the top of the charts, faster even than Oreca's test driver and former CART driver Nic Minassian's times. But he too had been troubled by the poor state of the school cars and wondered whether his luck would last in the next sessions.
On the second day, things initially seemed to be going the same way as the first day. Moran, for his part, was significantly faster after switching cars, but he was still frustrated because the technicians working on the cars were making adjustments to the cars' throttles and ECUs following each run in an attempt to equalize them. He and the other drivers, lacking data acquisition to see what was going on with the cars, figured out how to scroll through the dash monitors in the cars and discovered that some cars had higher full-throttle settings than others - as much as a nine percent difference in one case.
If all of this was not enough to convince the drivers that their lap times were a matter of subjective thinking rather than hard results, some of the drivers who were watching the monitors suddenly discovered that the fastest times were being turned in by drivers who were cutting the course. As Rocky Moran had feared on the first day, the lack of gravel, sand, or grass traps in the corners and the flat apex curbing were making some of the drivers very brave. Emboldened by the lack of track hazards, a few drivers were putting all four wheels onto the curbing - in some instances, even beyond the curbing - and racking up much faster lap times.
The only hedge against this kind of corner-cutting was an admonition from Danny Sullivan to pretend that there was grass beyond the curbs, and that video monitors would be watching every move. However, when Rocky Moran, Phil Giebler, and Pat Long noticed the monitors were not being watched, they surmised that the judges might not notice why some of these drivers were so much faster. With that information in mind, the three drivers went out for their final sessions fully intending to try the trick for themselves. Sure enough, they ended up cutting over two seconds off of their fastest lap times.
Sullivan admonished the drivers at the end of the second day against curb-hopping and warned that there would be cones in the corners on the third day to discourage the practice. But when morning rolled around there were no cones in evidence, and the Group One drivers went back to curb-hopping. When the Group Two and Three drivers got ready to go, however, they found that Sullivan and his cronies had gone out and placed cones on the course - depriving them of the speed advantage that the previous group enjoyed. If this inequality were not enough, the cars continued to break down and plague the drivers with reliability problems, cutting short lapping sessions and fraying tempers among all the drivers.
It became painfully clear to all thirteen drivers that their chances to make the final cut rested entirely on the agenda of the judges. The problem was that with the level of general disorganization and inequality present at the test, it was anyone's guess what that agenda would be.
By this time, each candidate was beset by an air of fatalism with regards to who would be the finalists for the Red Bull program. When all was said and done, the bottom line was that there would be, in Phil Giebler's words, "four very happy campers who think the program is perfect and nine who think the process is flawed." It was a sure bet that the unfriendly conditions at the Paul Ricard test - which Rocky Moran humorously titled "a goat rodeo" - would be seen as sour grapes by the losers in the press.
Most of the drivers felt conflicted. Surely, if they were chosen, they would be elated and thrilled for the opportunity to go racing in Europe. But even those who felt the most confident suffered from a disturbing knowledge that the test had not been at all fair, and that the only way the really deserving drivers would get their shot would be if they fit into the organizers' game plans. Nobody wanted to claim an ulterior motive on the judges' part, but it was difficult not to think about that unpleasant probability.
For his part, Giebler certainly had cause to feel confident. Having finished at or near the top of the charts on each day, he seemed to be well-positioned for a slot on the Red Bull team of finalists. The biggest doubt he had was about the judges and how they would respond to the glaring inconsistencies between cars and the curb-hopping that artificially lowered lap times. Still, he felt reasonably confident that he would have good news when cut time came.
For Rocky Moran, things weren't quite as scintillating. He made rapid advances up the lap charts from the first day, but considering everything that had happened with mechanical failures, course-cutting, and the disinterested attitude of the organizers and judges, he was considerably less optimistic about his chances. His already-healthy misgivings of the driver search system had blossomed into a complete lack of faith. He found himself wishing that the judges had seen him in competitive conditions driving laps in anger and facing the full pressure of a race weekend. What would happen at lunch was anyone's guess.
One by one, the drivers were summoned into a room with dozens of cameras and bright lights to face the music. In front of the TV cameras, Danny Sullivan and Skip Barber broke the news to the unlucky drivers who were being cut.
Joey Hand, indignant at the way things were handled during the test, had already resigned himself to the inevitable. He was already looking forward to returning to the CART feeder system when Sullivan and Barber broke the news. "They told me their reasoning, and I told them my opinion," he remembered. "All they said about the future was, `Good luck!'"
Rocky Moran was not much more optimistic, but he did not expect the explanation that Sullivan and Barber offered for the cut. "I was told that I was very fast and impressive," he relates, "but for my experience level I should have been much quicker, and that unfortunately I was not going to be one of the final four." Apparently, Moran was told, he was expected to be at least two seconds quicker than anyone else in the field based on his experience and career results - an unreal and ridiculous expectation that had not been communicated to him in advance.
Finally, it was Giebler's turn. His sense of optimism was punctured immediately when Sullivan and Barber repeated to Phil what they had told Rocky Moran. "They told me that I was `too experienced' and that they expected me to dominate more than I did," Giebler said incredulously. "I was very frustrated when they used that as a reason to cut me right out of the box and did not put me into one of the F3 cars, where the dominance of my experience would have actually shown.
"You could have put (Michael) Schumacher or (Juan-Pablo) Montoya in those `school cars' and I guarantee they would not have been any faster. Minassian set the cars up and was second in the F3000 championship, and I was faster. (But) it would have been impossible to be the three seconds a lap faster that they expected from me.
"The funny thing is, I was told by Danny, `Sorry Phil, this is a five-year program. If we were looking for a guy to win a championship next season, you'd be in.' So it kind of went smack in the face of everything I've ever learned or worked towards in racing."
The drivers who eventually were chosen as the four finalists were Paul Edwards, Grant Maiman, Joel Nelson, and Scott Speed. Of the four, only Paul Edwards had more than three years in race cars. The selections were mystifying for Joey Hand for another reason. "Two of the guys picked drove the same car as me either just before or just after me," he said. "One guy was over four tenths slower than me, and the other was over a second slower."
According to Danny Sullivan, however, speed was not the only issue looked at by the judges. "Besides being among the fastest during the lapping sessions, we had to consider not only each driver's individual experience, but also the variety of the cars they've driven and the variety of the cars we utilized here at the run-off," he said. "To do this right, to find the drivers most likely to succeed in the extremely competitive European racing universe, the judges had to factor all of it in."
Sullivan's explanation, however, seems contradictory in light of who was chosen and how they performed in the driver tests. Three of the four drivers had little to no experience in anything but karts and Barber Dodge or Formula Russell cars. Hardly the kind of résumé that would be "most likely to succeed in the extremely competitive European racing universe" - particularly in light of the experience and success enjoyed by drivers like Giebler, Hand, Pat Long, and Moran.
None of the cut drivers wished the happy four ill, but to a man they all felt as though they had more to complain about than the normal sour grapes. It seemed as though none of them had been able to evaluate themselves fairly against their peers, which is really all they had hoped to do. They could have accepted defeat had they been out-performed in fair, well-organized conditions - conditions they did not feel existed at Paul Ricard.
For these drivers, the Red Bull Driver Search had turned out to be anything but the opportunity to match themselves equally against their peers for a shot at greatness. It was instead a poorly-organized circus with ambiguous intent that had some of the finest American open-wheel racing talent jumping through hoops like show dogs.
Once the Red Bull drivers were announced to the press, the Maxim/Red Bull marketing machine went into full swing. Rapid-fire press releases were issued as each of the Red Bull drivers were placed with prominent teams in the European race scene.
The 24-year-old Grant Maiman, whose previous claim to fame was the 2002 Barber Dodge championship, was the first to be placed, landing a plum ride with Jenzer Motorsport GmbH in the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup series. After six races in that series, as well as 14 starts split between the Italian and German Formula Renault 2000 series, Maiman had accumulated no wins, poles, podiums, or fastest laps. By 2004, Maiman had left Europe and was spending the bulk of his time as a driver coach with Skip Barber's racing programs.
Since then, Maiman has, to all intents and purposes, fallen off the motorsports map - apart from a handful of starts in the Grand Am Continental Tire Sports Car Series, he spends his days as a driver coach.
On November 12, 2002, Joel Nelson got his travel orders to race in the 2003 Euro 3000 championship with John Village Automotive. On Friday, November 29, 2002, Maxim Sports Management issued a press release stating that Joel Nelson had broken - shattered, in their words - the lap record at Jerez, Spain "for 1999 spec F3000 cars." What Maxim failed to mention was that Nelson was participating in a two-car test using a 2003 spec engine which generated 45 more horsepower than the 1999-2002 formula.
At any rate, that would be the last breathless press release issued about Nelson, who fell off the radar even faster than did fellow RBDS winner Maiman. He competed in nine races for JVA, winning one pole and finishing on the podium twice, and then ran four races for Alan Docking Racing in British F3. That, sadly, is the last of we hear of Nelson in European Formula racing and he virtually disappeared from racing from that point on.
Paul Edwards - the most experienced driver of the lot with European racing experience under his belt - was ironically the final candidate assigned a 2003 ride, picking up a seat with Team KTR in the Formula Nissan series. But after scoring a total of 41 points over two seasons, he too had returned across the ocean, his Formula 1 dreams essentially over.
Edwards, however, eventually found success three years later in the Grand Am Rolex GT series, notching 10 wins from 2006 to 2009 and winning the 2008 GT Series championship for Banner Racing. He made the transition to Daytona Prototypes in 2011 with Spirit of Daytona Racing and piloted the team to its second-ever and second-consecutive pole position at Virginia International Raceway in May.
Of the four inaugural scholarship winners - in fact, of all the Red Bull Driver Search drivers in the short history of the program - Scott Speed was the only one to actually make it to F1. After 14 races with 2002 British F3 champs Alan Docking Racing in 2003, Speed broke through with a dominating 2004 season, winning both the Formula Renault 2000 Eurocup and German Formula Renault 2000 championships with a total of 12 wins, 11 pole positions, 22 podiums, and nine fastest laps.
By 2005, Speed was the test driver for Team Red Bull F1, and after a third-place result in the 2005 GP2 Series championship and a brief six-race stint for A1GP Team USA, he finally landed in the World Championship with Scuderia Toro Rosso, Red Bull's junior squad.
That, unfortunately, is where the fairytale story is derailed. Speed's tenure with the team was contentious and disappointing for both sides, and after 10 races in 2007 Speed was let go from Toro Rosso in favor of eventual World Champion Sebastian Vettel.
With Red Bull still backing him, Speed returned to the US to try his hand at NASCAR racing, winning four of five starts in the ARCA RE/MAX Series and taking a surprise victory for Morgan-Dollar Motorsports in NASCAR's Craftsman Truck Series. Soon thereafter, he was promoted to Team Red Bull's Sprint Cup Series team, but after two seasons of struggling he lost that ride at the end of the 2010 season. This season, he started three races for journeyman and start-and-park NASCAR teams, then attempted to qualify for the 2011 Indianapolis 500 with Dragon Racing, but failed to make the field after the team could not find sufficient speed.
Most recently, Speed signed a one-race deal to race for Kevin Harvick Inc. in the NASCAR Nationwide Series and will attempt to make the field for the Nationwide Series event in Montreal.
Both Rocky Moran and Joey Hand returned to America immediately after being cut from the Red Bull program. Moran would race five races in 2004 for Polestar Motor Racing in the Toyota Atlantic Championship, but his open-wheel career effectively ended afterwards. With his father Rocky Sr., Moran opened and operated Moran Raceway, a highly-regarded kart track in Beaumont, California, but the track closed its doors in 2007. From there, Moran would make spot starts in several series, including the NASCAR K&N Pro Series East, IRL Infiniti Pro Series, and Grand-Am Rolex Series. For a while, it appeared that his career had stalled until this season, when he landed a plum ALMS GT ride driving Jaguars for Paul Gentilozzi.
Hand is also currently racing in the ALMS GT series driving for BMW Team RLL and is the category's points leader with co-driver Dirk Mueller. He co-drove to an overall win in the 24 Hours of Daytona with Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, and also competes for Turner Motorsports in the Grand Am Rolex GT Series. Perhaps the most prolific of all of the Red Bull Driver Search drivers, Hand has spent the years since the Paul Ricard test as one of American sports car racing's star drivers. Like many of his contemporaries, Hand seems to have little regret for having left open-wheel racing behind.
Phil Giebler doggedly hung on in Europe as long as he could, but eventually his luck and money ran out. Returning to the United States in 2004, he hooked up with Keith Duesenberg Racing in the IRL's Infiniti Pro Series and brought home a shock victory in his first race for the team at the oval in Homestead, Florida. But that was as good as it got for Giebler, and he and the team went their separate ways soon thereafter. After two years of spot starts in IPS and Toyota Atlantics, Giebler then took over driving duties for A1GP Team USA in 2005. In 2007, he raced eight races for Playa Del Racing in IPS and won Rookie of the Year honors in the '07 Indy 500. But after another stint with A1GP Team USA in 2006, Giebler finally tired of the rat race and pulled back to his first love, karting. Today, he operates a highly-regarded racing operation on the West Coast as a factory team for FA Karts as well as serving as a driver coach.
As for the rest, AJ Allmendinger is making a life (and a boatload of money, he reports) in NASCAR Sprint Cup Racing after abandoning an abbreviated but stellar Champ Car career; Ryan Hunter-Reay is a full-time IZOD IndyCar Series driver and race winner after years of journeyman racing; Patrick Long races Porsches in ALMS and Grand Am after dabbling in stock cars, as does Bryan Sellers; Boston Reid flirted with a NASCAR career as a Hendrick Motorsports development driver, but now is building a new career in real estate; Bobby Wilson spent several years in the Infiniti Pro Series/Firestone Indy Lights Series before returning to karts in 2009; Michael Abbate, the youngest RBDS candidate at the tender age of 16, is a safety inspector for Perini Building Company at project City Center in Las Vegas and currently races Legends cars in his spare time; Scott Poirier disappeared from the racing scene after 10 races in the Barber Dodge Pro Series in 2003.
As for the Red Bull Driver Search, the organizers formally concluded the program in 2005 after Scott Speed was named to drive for Toro Rosso. The program was termed a "success," as if the only goal was to get one driver to F1; but at the start of the program it was understood to be something very different indeed. In fact, it was one of the most visible of a number of "developmental driver" programs in various disciplines (which at one point included a televised Survivor-style reality show involving NASCAR's Roush Racing) that were intended to create a scouting-and-promotion system similar to stick-and-ball sports. But the driver development fad largely faded at the end of the decade, and even the pretense of multi-year cultivating of young talent seemed to vanish as quickly as it appeared.
In the end, of course, the most significant legacy left by the RBDS is the amount of publicity it got for its parent company... as well as the raised, and subsequently dashed, hopes of many of its participants. Today, Red Bull is atop the F1 world, while most of the inaugural Driver Search participants are on their own - either carving their own racing niche or moving on to other interests.
As for Americans in Formula 1? Maybe some other time.