Neil Verhagen became the youngest ever Team USA Scholarship recipient when he was selected in 2016 alongside subsequent Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires standouts Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood. Verhagen, who will turn 19 in a few weeks, has endured a roller-coaster three-year experience in the European junior open-wheel ranks but has recently been offered an exciting new opportunity with the BMW Junior Team.
I can’t believe it’s already been three years since I moved to Europe at 15 years old to pursue a racing career. It’s been a fantastic experience with the first two years as a Red Bull Junior racing in the Formula Renault Eurocup and then last year contending the British F3 series. And now I’m proud to say I have opened a new chapter with a fresh challenge lying ahead…
Overall, my time racing the Formula Renault was very positive. Racing all over Europe at some of the best circuits in the world was very exciting. I learned so much from running in what many considered to be one of the most competitive racing series in the world. My first year I managed some success with a podium at the Hungaroring, a few rookie podiums and a win in the Formula Renault NEC at Assen. As the season progressed, I was able to score points more consistently and very much looked forward to a second season there to put it all together.
My second season, however, would turn out to be very frustrating. It all started out well enough with me finishing on top of all the official tests ahead of the season, but the team decided to get a new car at the beginning of the season, which didn’t work out. I crashed it twice during the first practice day and could never come to terms with it. It was incredibly frustrating. The team made lots of changes during the season, but it only made things marginally better. Despite that, I managed to finish in 11th ahead of my teammates.
The disappointing results meant the end for me in the Red Bull Junior program. I was sad to not be part of it anymore but I really appreciated the opportunity they gave me. I grew up a lot during those two years and definitely became a better driver. I also learned a lot about the business side of racing, as well as sponsorship and media.
Last year, I decided to run the British Formula 3 Championship. I think it’s one of the best values in motorsport with a season costing only a fraction of a season in FIA Formula 3. To be honest, it was really the only relevant series that I could scrape a budget together for. It’s known as a very good development series with a rich history in motorsports which visits all the technical and historic British tracks. I knew that there were a few areas of my driving that I wanted to develop and felt that this series was the best way to work on those areas. In the end I finished fifth place in the season, which I think was a fair result considering my lack of experience at those circuits.
A funny thing happened with the livery on my car. When the team asked me what I wanted, I told them something with the colors of the American flag. I guess they took that very literally, and when I then saw the car, I realized I would actually be driving the American Flag around the track. They called me Stars and Stripes which I accepted proudly, happy to represent the USA racing in Europe.
All last season I also had to face the reality that without proper funding it would be very difficult to continue racing in Europe, especially in open wheel. So I was absolutely thrilled to then receive a call from BMW about a new Junior program which was being put together by none other than Mr. Jochen Neerpasch who is considered to be the father of BMW Motorsports and responsible for so much of their success starting in the 1970s. He also formed the first BMW Junior team called the “Wilde Reiter GmbH” (Wild Riders) which was very successful.
After a number of interviews, I met with Mr. Neerpasch in Munich and was offered a spot on the Junior team along with Dan Harper and Max Hesse. What an opportunity for us! One thing I learned about Mr. Neerpasch and BMW is that when they do something, they take it very seriously and do it right. This junior program will cover all aspects of driver development. Our first few months of training have started in Italy at Formula Medicine which is known as the best place in the world for driver physical and mental training programs. We also each have top of the line simulators from Fanatec which we use to augment our training. All three of us live together and we live, breathe and dream racing. Our on-track training will start in the spring at the Nordschleife where we will train to contend the Nurburgring Endurance Series (formerly VLN) season in a number of different BMW race cars. Perhaps the best part of the program is access to legendary BMW drivers such as Dirk Werner and Philipp Eng who will mentor us and may drive endurance races with us. Altogether, I literally could not dream of a better program to develop us as drivers, and we all look forward to making the most of our training and carrying on the BMW Motorsport tradition – and perhaps even earn our own team nickname like the original “Wilde Reiter GmbH” did!
A couple of weeks ago we also had an opportunity to travel to Rolex 24 hours At Daytona as guests of the Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW team. It was a great chance to wrap our heads around what it takes to run a 24-hour race. This was especially helpful for me as I have no background in sportscar racing. I was able to watch and understand how the drivers were working through the weekend. The coolest parts for me were throwing the green flag for the Michelin Pilot Challenge race and being guests on the IMSA Radio broadcast with John Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw.
The race itself was a real nail-biter in the GTLM class. Even with me not driving, the last 20 minutes felt like an eternity. I’m sure it was even more so for Jesse Krohn in the #24 car bringing it home for the win. It was amazing to be invited up to the podium with the entire BMW team after the incredible effort everyone had put into the race. Definitely a weekend I won’t forget.
I want to thank everyone who supports me and especially Jeremy Shaw and the Team USA Scholarship for their continued support of my career and urging BMW to consider me as a part of this exciting new program.