While the IZOD IndyCar Series was ramping up for the season this week at Barber Motorsports Park, the Mazda Road to Indy wasn’t idle, either. A very robust Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship field is part of the 12 Hours of Sebring festivities, and one of the entrants making noise early is Andretti Autosport’s Garret Grist.
The 17 year-old Grist comes from a background in karting and F1600. Last year, paired with Bryan Herta Autosport, the young Canadian racer managed three podiums and seven Top 10s during the F1600 Formula F campaign. He also was a recipient of the prestigious Team Canada Racing scholarship. He’ll be plenty of busy with on-track action this year, but the INDYCAR hopeful had sometime in between practice sessions to answer some questions for INDYCAR Nation:
Garett, thanks very much for your time. You’re coming from F1600 Formula F, and will be running the full USF2000 slate with Andretti this year. For the layperson, what are the biggest differences between the two series and cars?
GG: The F1600 doesn't have wings and is only 1600cc versus the USF2000 car that has wings, front and back and also a diffuser under the back plus a 2000cc engine. Add on bigger tires and you get a much quicker car. I ran a Van Diemen chassis in my first year of F1600 so I know the car well. It's a great package they run in the USF program.
What’s your experience with the Andretti crew so far this year?
GG: My mechanic Fran is amazing and so meticulous. I really enjoy working with my engineer Ian – we really communicate well. The whole group is really well organized and everyone knows their job. To see them all work together you understand why people call this a team sport.
You’re a Team Canada Scholarship winner, something many race fans have probably seen mentioned in passing, but might not be too familiar with. What does winning a Team Canada scholarship involve, what’s the competition, and what does a mean for an up-and-coming racer to do so?
GG: The Team Canada Scholarship is an amazing program put together by some incredible supporters of racing, specifically the folks at Grote. Like the Team USA Scholarship it’s a chance for a driver to be selected to head over to England and race against some of the best F16000 drivers in the world at some very cool tracks. The competition is fantastic and you get a chance to see how drivers and series race in other countries. I think the best part is getting to represent your country. It's a real honour to carry the Maple Leaf on your car.
So, why open wheel racing, and why the Mazda Road to Indy?
GG: Coming from karting, open wheel is sort of the natural course to take. The Mazda Road to Indy is the best development ladder around. They have so much going on over in Europe it's tough to know the right route. The folks at Mazda and INDYCAR have made it very clear and it's incredibly well supported. I mean, look at how many guys are coming from Europe to race here.
At age 17, are you still doing the school thing?
GG: Yes. I'm a senior at Grimsby Secondary. I am on a modified scholastic program that supports athletes pursuing a sport. I do two courses a semester and basically use my teachers as resources. It works well as it allows me to balance school and racing. It allows me to maintain the marks I will need to apply for university. My parents like to call it Plan B.
You do something really cool with your helmet designs—would you mind telling us a bit more about that?
GG: You might be referring to the SickKids Children's Charity helmet program that we have done the past two seasons. We get kids in the hospital to design a helmet. We take those designs and have them painted on a helmet donated by Bell Racing. We get it signed by drivers and then auction it off for the hospital. Last year it was the grand prize at the Rally for Kids Cancer in support of SickKids Foundation. This year we are doing at the Toronto weekend with all the Andretti drivers. It should be great.
As a Canadian, are any of your fellow countrymen in racing you’d want to emulate?
GG: Well I've known James Hinchcliffe for many years and he has been a mentor to me. I really got to know Alex Tagliani last year when I raced for Bryan Herta Autosport. Both are incredible drivers and really good ambassadors. They are complete athletes. If I can be as successful as they are, that would very cool. And they both have really attractive significant others, haha.
From a Canadian’s point of view, how’s the current climate of motorsports in your nation?
GG: Not as good as it could be. It's pretty challenging to get the support you need. I mean a couple of years ago we were the only country in the world to have an ALMS race, NASCAR race, Formula One race and an IndyCar race in the same year. And we are frozen for six months. We are a hockey crazy country, so it makes it tough to be a race car driver. But we have some great things happening and it's great to have Canadian companies like Davinci Foods and Sofina Foods get behind young racers like me.
Looking in terms of your development as a driver, do you have a plan on how you’d like the next few years to go? Is there a balancing point for drivers between the necessary time for learning and the pressure to move up to the next step of the ladder?
GG: I am really lucky to have some great support from many folks and especially from my manager Derek Daly. Everyone develops at a different pace. I think a lot of drivers are moving into cars too young and not taking the time to develop their entire program. Sure you can push the pedals and turn the wheel, but do you have the people around you that make sure you are understanding your weaknesses and turning them into strengths? For me the Mazda Road to Indy works well and we plan on taking the time it requires for me to learn and for our support program to develop.
Is there a course you’re really looking forward to competing on this year?
GG: Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I had a chance to drive there once before and I can't wait to race it in a USF car.
What sort of goals have you set for yourself this season?
GG: The first goal is to develop the car and improve my driving. If we can get some top five finishes early in the season, we hope to fight for some podiums in the latter part of the year. I really just want to be sure I put myself and my team in contention each time we hit the track.
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, or drop him a line at mail.rpgblog(at)gmail.com.