The Star Mazda Championship Series this year is full of tremendous prospects and competitors. Perhaps none have been more impressive so far this season than American racer Connor De Phillipi. He won the season opener at Streets of St. Petersburg, and followed it up with a record-breaking performance and win at Lucas Oil Raceway for the Night Before The 500. He's considered a frontrunner to contest for the Star Mazda Championship, and the accompanying Mazda Road to Indy scholarship that would look to see him get an opportunity to move up the INDYCAR ladder.
While preparing for Star Mazda's next race at the Milwaukee Mile (June 17-19), Connor sat down for an exclusive interview for INDYCAR Nation members, wherein we cover his development in Star Mazda, the search for sponsorship, the open wheel ladder, driver superstitions, and much more!
Connor, you're coming off a great win at the Night Before the 500. How did that compare to other events you've been in, and what did it mean?
CDP: Winning at the Night Before the 500 definitely has gone to the top of my win list! The atmosphere was intense and there were a lot of peers there that I had to perform well in front of. Winning was such a special moment for me, especially being able to do it in such a dominant fashion. And then being able to attend the Centennial 500 the next day and do an interview in front of over 300,000 people was nothing short of a dream come true!
You set the track record at Lucas Oil Raceway this year, right? Have you ever done that at a track before?
CDP: I have set a few track records before, but never fashion we did that night. To break the record by 6/10th’s of a second on that small of an oval was quite the accomplishment! It was the first sub 20-second lap ran there. That truly showed how hard we have been working, and we will continue to try and break track records each and every race weekend this season!
Both you and your teammate Nick Andries have looked very strong so far this year. How's Nick as a teammate, and to what does Team Pelfrey owe its success?
CDP: To win races and championships, you have to work harder than the rest and you need the best people possible surrounding you. As a team, that is exactly what Dale Pelfrey has done and we owe all of our success to him. I could not ask for a better teammate in Nick. Nick and I work extremely well together and we push each other until we have nearly reached perfection. Our relationship as teammates has absolutely given us an advantage over the rest of the field and it will only grow to an even greater advantage as the season continues.
What's the competition like in the Star Mazda Championship this year? It seems like the field is absolutely loaded.
CDP: The Star Mazda Championship is very competitive every year and that is why I am competing in it. It’s the best of the best at this level in America and with the large variety of foreigners; it makes it even more competitive. There are many drivers with capabilities of winning races, especially my teammate Nick. This year definitely will not be a walk in the park, but both the team and myself are improving each and every race, so we approach each weekend expecting success.
Following up on that, who are the toughest drivers you've faced in the past few years, and what specifically makes them such tough competition?
CDP: As far as past competition goes, Josef Newgarden and Conor Daly have been my two hardest competitors. The last time I raced with both of them, they had a bit more experience on me, so I hope that I’ll get a chance to be racing against both of them very soon. Preferably, it will be in the IZOD IndyCar Series!
What's your view of the Mazda Road to Indy? What sort of impact are you seeing from it, and would you make any suggestions to improve it?
CDP: The Mazda Road to Indy program has been a huge success so far, and I hope it continues to bring attention to the younger drivers who are trying to make a career in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Not only has it brought the scholarship program into place, but we have had so many opportunities to mingle with the professionals of our sport and even get to speak with the CEO of the IZOD IndyCar Series, Randy Bernard. This shows you the commitment they have and it gives us drivers that extra motivation to push harder to achieve the dream each of us have, which is to compete at the very top level of American open wheel racing. Everyone involved with the program is 100 % dedicated to helping us and they are willing to do whatever it takes to assist you in any way they can. Those associated with the IZOD IndyCar Series believe we have developed the skill set to be drivers in their series, and it’s our job to prove we have what it takes.
Which track remaining on the Star Mazda schedule are you most looking forward to?
CDP: That is a really hard choice. I’d have to say that I am really looking forward to Baltimore. No one will have had prior experience there and I am a big fan of the street courses. It may be hot, but the layout looks sweet and I know we will have a very solid car that is capable of a win each and every time we take the track.
As a driver, how do you deal with adversity?
CDP: Adversity hasn’t really affected me much in my career. I think we showed a good demonstration of that this season when we had some bad luck at Barber Motorsports Park, then turned right around to win the “Night Before the 500” in dominating fashion! However, when a driver has to overcome adversity, he or she is never alone in this. The team of people around them plays a huge roll in how adversity is handled, and thankfully I have the best team there is in the paddock that supports me every step of the way.
How important as a driver now is to be able to connect to fans and potential sponsors? Can you still succeed without mastering that art?
CDP: Connecting with fans and potential partners is everything in motorsports. Now, I say partners because that is one of the things that has been beaten into my head at all the Mazda Road to Indy summits! Unfortunately, sponsors are virtually non-existent because no one has money to throw around in this economy. Without money, the racecar does not leave the shop. So to think you’ll find your way around by having to master the art of finding financial support is just a big dream! Funding is the biggest piece of the puzzle, especially these days, and it is without a doubt the most important aspects an up and coming driver needs to focus on obtaining. There are so many unbelievable drivers who fizzle out because they are unable to find the support. It’s a hard reality some drivers have to face.
Before a race, do you have any sort of ritual or superstition you engage in?
CDP: I am definitely a very superstitious person… Often times a little too much I think! If I were to just name a few they would be: Getting in on the left side of the car, putting the steering wheel on before my gloves, putting my left glove on first, and probably the one I have done longest would be always using the middle urinal! After all, that is the top step of the podium right? Oh, and to top it all off, I have a lucky pair of underwear that I ONLY wear on race day!
OK, time for the Lightning Round, where the INDYCAR Nation fans get to know you better.
CDP: No favorite really. Any electronic music is good to me!
CDP: I’m not considered a NASCAR fan if I say Days of Thunder, right?
Favorite TV show?
CDP: Dave Despain, without a doubt. He is the man!
Favorite driver, historical or otherwise?
CDP: Michael Schumacher from day one.
Favorite race track?
CDP: Mosport International Raceway.
Favorite moment from your own career?
CDP: Winning the “Night Before the 500” and getting a chance to speak in front of over 300,000 dedicated IndyCar fans on race day during the Centennial Indy 500.
Ideal vacation spot?
CDP: I’ve always wanted to go to Fiji. There is no cell service there right?
If you weren't racing, you'd be....?
CDP: Racing. It’s really the only option and pretty much all I think about!
Lastly, looking ahead, where do you hope this year's results leads to for 2012?
CDP: Without a doubt, my goal for 2012 is to be in Indy Lights. If we keep focused on continuing what has led to our success so far this year, I believe great things will be coming our way as this season progresses.
For more on Connor, check him out on Facebook or on Twitter! Thanks, Connor, and best of luck the rest of this season!
Zachary Houghton runs www.indycaradvocate.com, which features regularly-updated INDYCAR, IZOD IndyCar Series, and Mazda Road to Indy interviews, commentary, and more. You can find him on Twitter at @indycaradvocate.