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America decision the right one for Cunningham

 

Three years into his international motor racing career 2003 World Karting Champion Wade Cunningham says that his decision to head to America rather than stay in Europe was definitely the right one.

Having won the Rookie of The Year award in the US Formula Ford Zetec 2000 championship in his first year in the United States in 2004, won the Indy Pro Series in his second, then set the standard for the other drivers in that series to aspire to this year, the 22-year-old Auckland-born international is now 'knocking on the door' of the United States' premier single-seater category, the Indy Racing League.

The League is where fellow Kiwi kart-turned-car-star Scott Dixon made his name in the United States and Cunningham says that after two years in what in effect is the 'support class' he wants to 'play in the main game.'

Cunningham raised eyebrows at home, in Australia and in Europe when, after winning the World Karting Championship in Italy in 2003, he turned his back on Europe, and the junior single-seater formulas there for the Cooper Tires Formula Ford Zetec 2000 Championship in the United States.

Though some Australian drivers - V8 Supercar team leader Jason Bright and fellow hard charger David Besnard - had enjoyed success in the category the move was a first for a Kiwi, and it was very much a matter of heading into uncharted waters.

Successfully navigate them Cunningham did though, setting the fastest lap time in qualifying at the first round - meaning he started his first ever motor race from pole position - and spending the year battling with eventual title winner Bobby Wilson.

The next step was the Indy Pro Series (then called the Menards Infiniti Pro Series) and again Cunningham was immediately competitive, quickly adapting to the many oval tracks (a novelty to a driver raised on kart tracks with left and right-hand corners) and beating experienced Americans Jeff Simmons and Travis Gregg (the latter an acknowledged oval expert) to the 2005 title.

Having won the title in what was supposed to be the first of two years in the Indy Pro category Cunningham decided to return for a second year rather than seek to move up to the Indy Racing League too soon.

Again that decision proved a good one, though any chance of successfully defending his 2005 title was scuppered early one this year when he had to miss the first double-header (two points-carrying races in one weekend) meeting of the year because of an emergency appendectomy.

Despite that the hard-charging young Kiwi never gave up, claiming five poles, winning three races and leading 310 laps, almost three times that of eventual title winner Jay Howard.

While it is worth noting that one of his contemporaries from the World Karting Championship, German driver Michael Ammermuller, has enjoyed similar meteoric progress through the junior single-seater formulas in Europe, Cunningham felt that there were more realistic opportunities for a Kiwi in the United States than in Europe, hence his decision to head east rather than west in 2004.

"Back then I thought that a career was more sustainable in the United States, and I still think that today," he said this week.

The fact that prize money is still paid in the United States is one of a number of reasons why this is so, with drivers able to factor their earnings into a budget, rather than having to rely 100% on sponsorship.

Racing in the US didn't quite have the cachet that competing in one of the blue riband classes in Europe did when Cunningham started but that started to change last year and this year he was competing against two of Great Britain's best young drivers, Jay Howard and Alex Lloyd, both also coming to the conclusion that there was more potential to forge a career in the US than - in their case - the UK or mainland Europe.

Cunningham's decision had quite a lot to do with that, because traditionally the winner of the World Karting Championship has followed a well-worn path through Italian or German Formula Renault and/or Formula 3 before a move to F3000 or GP2.

However in recent years only charismatic Italian Tonio Liuzzi has been able to continue on to Formula 1, and even then only with one of the lesser ranked teams.

Cunningham, by contrast used the Cooper Tires F2000 Zetec series as a springboard to the IPS and now has his sights of the IRL.

Drivers round the world take the IRL seriously because with a drive in it comes a drive in the Indianapolis 500, the self-proclaimed 'World's Greatest Motor Race.' It's a race every professional single-seater racer wants to win, and if you win it the world can quite literally be your oyster - both Jacque Villeneuve and Juan-Pablo Montoya getting their break into Formula 1 after winning at Indianapolis.

Cunningham is not thinking that far ahead at the moment but he definitely wants a crack at the Indy 500, hence his decision to spend a second year in the IPS then set his sights on an IRL drive in '07.

"In terms of this season just gone," he says, "I felt that it was best to stay where I was and continue to leverage the associations I had made from '05 and try and build from that and that was definitely the right thing to do. It allowed me to focus all my energies developing myself as a driver and pushing the limits of everything, myself, the car and my team. If you look back at this year and things like the number of poles, wins and laps led you see a lot of development and I couldn't be more happy with my results or those of the team. We did everything that was asked of us this year and it was really only circumstances (the emergency appendectomy) that stopped us from winning the title again in '06."

One of the only sticking blocks (ironic really when the Indy Pro Series was originally set up to 'feed' the IRL) is that the IRL is very much running to capacity with a grid full of well-credentialled drivers in no hurry to either retire or chance their arm in Formula 1, meaning that opportunities for a proven IPS talent like Cunningham to move up are few and far between.

In an ideal world, says Cunningham, he would be driving a 'white and orange car' in '07, a reference to one of the all-conquering Marlboro Team Penske cars currently piloted by Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr.

However, because it was originally set up by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's Tony George to showcase young American drivers, the likes of Sam Hornish Jr and top female driver Danica Patrick have the twin virtues of talent and birthright. Then you get the precociously talented 19-year-old Marco Andretti, a recent race winner who as well as being an American by birth is also both supremely talented AND a member of one of American racing's most famous families, the Andrettis.

Cunningham is matter-of-fact about the process by which talented young drivers like himself earn a drive in a series like the IRL pointing out that; "being an American series everyone is always looking to promote young US drivers so the rest of us (non US nationals) are fighting the same battle. Results always help, though they are by no means the defining factor when people get rides. Personally I think differentiation is the key."

Settling in and making a commitment to a career in the United States is also appreciated, something Cunningham luckily has absolutely no problem with whatsoever. After living and racing in Italy for three years you would think that he would miss the 'buzz' of the 'European' way of life, but that could hardly be further from the truth.

"You know what?" he says. "I really enjoy living in Indy (Indianapolis). In fact I'd have to say that I have enjoyed my time here (Cunningham has been based in Indianapolis for the past two years) more than anywhere else so far. The American lifestyle is actually quite easy to slip into, probably because there aren't the things like language and food that you have to adapt to when you are in Italy or any of the other European countries. Everything here is more laid back as well. I live in the North-East corner of the city in a generally young area of town called Castleton. I've got a little one bedroom apartment and it suits me just fine. There are lots of like-minded young people with similar goals and aspirations so when I'm not racing, or at the gym I don't lack for company or things to do and places to go. Everything is in close proximity where I am as well, which is unusual for the States. There's a little place called Broad Ripple about 10 minutes down the road which is kind of like Ponsonby, with shops and cafes so that's where we'll go if we want to meet, eat or whatever."

Not surprisingly Cunningham is in no hurry to return 'home' to Auckland, in the near future anyway, preferring to take a short vacation to watch younger brother Mitch compete at the 2006 World Karting Championship meeting in Italy later this month, before returning to Indianapolis to work on his plans for next season.

Having rarely missed his old kart club, KartSport Mt Wellington's annual Christmas meeting, he will be back in Auckland in early December however, and there is the distinct possibility that he will stay on for the 2007 CIK Trophy of New Zealand presented by Karcher kart meeting.

He did this year, and promptly won the Senior trophy from all of New Zealand's as well as some of Australia's best karters!

On which point Cunningham has some interesting comments for the next generation of karters keen to follow in his wheel tracks.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, who moved to local single-seater starter classes as soon as they legally could (having seen Scott Dixon win the New Zealand Formula First title at the tender age of 13), Cunningham stuck resolutely to the kart route, moving to Australia when he had won everything in New Zealand, then Europe after winning the Asia Pacific ICA title in Japan.

It wasn't easy, and there were plenty of challenges along the way, but would Cunningham do anything different if he was given the opportunity to start again?

The answer is simple.

"No. My advice would be to follow karting through until you can't take it any further. Why? Because I honestly believe that this has been my biggest advantage over my competition. There is so much to learn racing karts, but the majority of people miss it because they are rushed into Formula First or Formula Ford. There is no harm in waiting until a driver is more mature before making that next step."

Wade Cunningham is proud to be one of New Zealand motor racing's Black Bullets. To find out more about our Black Bullets go to www.blackbullets.com

2006 Indy Pro Series

Final Points
1. Jay Howard 390
2. Jonathan Klein 386
3. Wade Cunningham 379
4. Bobby Wilson 343
5. Nick Bussell 319
6. Jaime Camara 298
7. Alex Lloyd 294
8. Chris Festa 205
9. Brett Van Blankers 179
10. Raphael Matos 154


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