More American talent goes abroad

Bret Smrz, Brands Hatch

January 13, 2010
by Jeremy Shaw

Three months ago, few people outside of the Skip Barber Racing School in North America would have recognized the names Connor De Phillippi or Brett Smrz. However, by the conclusion of their first ever overseas foray to England in late October the pair had earned instant acclaim due to their outstanding performances in the traditional Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the equally prestigious Walter Hayes Trophy Formula Ford race at Silverstone.

De Phillippi (pronounced DEE phi-LEE-pee) and Smrz (smurrs) were the latest in a long list of drivers to have been granted an opportunity to display their talents on the international stage by the Team USA Scholarship, which has been assisting talented young American drivers in the early stages of their careers since 1990. The pair joined up with veteran Formula Ford racer-turned-team owner Cliff Dempsey in time for several days testing in preparation for their debut at Brands Hatch, and were immediately close to the front-running pace.

Their first weekend brought mixed results. Both youngsters were fast but each hit bad luck during the Semi Final round. De Phillippi, 16, from San Clemente, California, was putting pressure on the race leader and eventual Festival winner Rory Butcher, from Scotland, with just a few laps remaining when a momentary gear shift difficulty pitched him off the track and into the gravel trap. He recovered but could manage no better than an eighth-place finish. Smrz, 18, from Coeur dAlene, Idaho, fared even worse. He survived a quick early spin, only to tangle with another rival and be forced out of the race. But Smrz wasnt done. He qualified for the final by virtue of a magnificent drive in the Last Chance Race, rising from 17th on the grid to third in just five laps, then mounted an even more spectacular charge in the Final as he rose from 27th on the grid to fourth on the tight, twisty 1.2-mile Brands Hatch Indy circuit where overtaking is notoriously difficult. Almost two months later, fourth became third when the second-place finisher was disqualified for an engine irregularity.

Connor De Phillippi and Brett Smrz

While Smrz played the starring role at Brands Hatch, it was De Phillippis turn to shine two weeks later at Silverstone as the Home of British Motor Racing attracted almost 120 drivers to vie for the coveted Walter Hayes Trophy. De Phillippi claimed an emphatic victory in his Semi Final race and continued that rich vein of form in the Final to become the youngest ever winner of the event which honors of one of the founding fathers of Formula Ford.

Europeans can be hard to impress, as countless international drivers have found in the past, but De Phillippi and Smrz certainly made their mark, and once again belied the popular misconception that there is a shortage of talented young American drivers. With plenty of hard work and no doubt a little good fortune, perhaps well hear a lot more of their names in the months and years to come.