Sometimes aspiring young drivers need to take a step backward in order to move forward in their career. Such is the case for 2021 Team USA Scholarship winner Andre Castro, who is excited about his prospects in this year’s new USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires open-wheel series.
It’s been awhile since my last Team USA Scholarship blog, but I’m back with some more updates on my journey thus far! Following a fruitful autumn of racing in England, my future as a young race car driver was uncertain, but after a winter of steadily sending emails and calls, all while studying at the University of Chicago, I landed in a situation I always dreamed of: a full-time ride on the Road to Indy.
I’ve never completed a full season in any racing series before, but now I’m set to do so thanks to the joint efforts of International Motorsport and Doug Mockett & Company. Juan Garavaglia, president of International Motorsport, believed I fit the vision for the future of his brand new team, and as such supported me to join his inaugural lineup. I also extended my relationship with Doug Mockett after working together for the Team USA program last year, and thanks to him I was able to complete the budget necessary to run a season in the USF Juniors Presented by Cooper Tires. Although this new championship is theoretically a step down from the USF2000 series I had intermittently participated in for a few years, the opportunity to run a full season is something I deeply value and have committed myself to excelling in. I believe it’s the best opportunity I’ve had yet to log solid results while learning all the way.
As a team, we collectively had no idea what to expect starting the year off at Ozarks International Raceway and Barber Motorsports Park. The first two rounds of our championship were separated by four days, meaning there was very little turnaround time. We started off our season with two fourth-place finishes at the Ozarks, a brand new sweeping, technical and extremely challenging circuit where there was no room for error. Many competitors suffered crashes, and some referred to it as an American mini-Nordschleife. Simply escaping the weekend without damage was an accomplishment for us, and we headed to Barber fifth in the championship amongst many more experienced teams.
We used lessons learned from our weekend in the Ozarks to come out of the box P1 in practice at Barber. We qualified in second place, a tenth and a half from the pole; this was a huge step up from how we had performed just five days prior. Our expectations were now to firmly stand on the podium, but we didn’t achieve that in Race One, falling from P2 to fifth at the end. To be disappointed with a top-five was, in a way, comforting, as my tentative goal before the start of the season was to be consistent top-five contenders. Race Two went much better, as we tweaked on the car and challenged for the lead much of the race, ultimately finishing in second place to earn mine and the team’s first ever Road to Indy podium. We head to the next round at Virginia International Raceway third in the championship standings and looking to score our first win.
To come out of the gate with a truly new team and do this well early on was highly rewarding for myself and for the whole team. I’ve been able to play a role in the development of our setup and communication skills, and I’m learning how to be a team leader in ways that I wouldn’t have been able to with a more established, multi-car team. Certainly, it can get frustrating to be beaten by teams and drivers with more testing and experience, but it only motivates me more and makes the successes that much sweeter. I’ve been happy to reward the team’s faith in me and honored by the trust they have in me. They’ve worked diligently to fix issues and to identify solutions to problems that have arisen, and since we started so far behind, I believe we’ll only continue to improve more than the other teams going forward.
Barber wrapped up the month of April, and as May approached, I was invited to attend the inaugural Miami Grand Prix with the Haas F1 Team. My exclusive entry into the F1 paddock was all thanks to Stuart Morrison, Haas’ head of communications, with whom I kept in touch following my visit to the team’s Banbury factory in England last fall. I was able to bring one guest, so I invited the co-founder of the Andre Castro Racing “brand,” my former classmate at University of Chicago, Adit Damodaran. He helped me create a website, design business cards and reinvent my social media channels four years ago when I was ostensibly out of contact with the racing world. It was deeply gratifying to show him, an avid Alpha Tauri F1 fan, around the paddock which we had both previously only seen on TV.
The highlight of the weekend was undoubtedly getting to speak with team principal Guenther Steiner and the two drivers, Mick Schumacher and Kevin Magnussen, on Sunday morning before the race. I had video-chatted with Guenther at the Banbury factory, but this was my first time speaking with him in person. All of them were candid and open with us, which surprised me as from looking at the team’s weekend schedule, I knew all of them were absolutely swamped with commitments. Their willingness to speak – and in Guenther’s case, actively delaying his next appointment to finish speaking with us – was more than I could have wished for. I watched the Grand Prix from the hospitality area with Gene Haas and others, and although the race took an ugly turn for the team toward the end, I left the track as an even more staunch Haas fan than I was before.
Since then, it’s been full focus forward toward my next USF Juniors race at VIR the first week of June; I know I have to keep working hard in the gym and in the sim to maximize our potential. VIR is a gnarly course on iRacing, so I can’t wait to tackle it in real life and see where we end up.
About Team USA Scholarship:
The program has been providing opportunities for talented American race car drivers at an early stage in their careers since 1990. Supporters include AERO ™ Sustainable Paint Technology, Doug Mockett & Company, the Road Racing Drivers Club and SAFEisFAST.com, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Chip Ganassi Racing, The Stellrecht Company, Tom Gloy Racing, Schaeffer Oil, Lamborghini Squadra Corse, US RaceTronics, Robertson Racing, Polecat Training Center, PitFit Training, RaceCraft1, Sparco USA, RACER Magazine, Speedstar Management, Styled Aesthetic and Manifest Group.
Previous scholarship winners include Jimmy Vasser, Bryan Herta, Jerry Nadeau, Buddy Rice, Andy Lally, Phil Giebler, A.J. Allmendinger, J.R. Hildebrand, Dane Cameron, Josef Newgarden, Conor Daly, Connor De Phillippi, Spencer Pigot, Trent Hindman, Tristan Nunez, Oliver Askew and Kyle Kirkwood.