Choosing a racing team to invest your (or more likely your parents!) hard earned money is a very serious decision with vast implications for your motorsport career. Choose wisely and you will learn and grow as a driver. Choose unwisely and you could have potentially ruined your potential to become a professional driver.
This is just one of many topics that I touched on with Phil Picard of US-based Momentum Motorsports, currently competing in the F3 Americas series.
Motorsport Prospects: You have an extensive history in motorsport. How did you get to where you are now?
Phil Picard: It all evolved organically. I used to race motocross back in high school and that lead to me buying an old Formula Ford with a buddy to race in club races. I was fascinated with the sport and hooked from there. I went to automotive college after high school but that didn’t necessarily give me my ticket to work in motorsport, it was more structured to work at high end car dealerships.
I ended up racing in Formula Continental and had a great time while achieving pretty good results. At the same time other racers started bringing me their cars to work on so I built my customer base around F1600 and F2000. This led me to outgrow my garage and my neighbor’s barn after 35 – 40 years leading me to where I am now with a 6-acre facility based in Montgomery, New York. After I stopped racing in 2007, I focused on managing the team full time while doing some automotive consulting on the side.
MP: Tell me a bit about Momentum Motorsports.
PP: We have developed a great nucleus of people over time and this is something that I am most proud of. The people behind a race team are critical and having the right people in place makes the difference to both how you develop drivers and the results you achieve on the track.
I was interested in US F4 when it was introduced and got involved as a team from the very beginning. I have a great relationship with Max Crawford and David Cooper of Ligier Automotive, who design the F4 and F3 chassis and we were in fact the first team to get an F4 car.
We have had good results in US F4 in the first two years of the championship. This year we are entering F3 Americas for the first time with Kent Vaccaro and Shea Holbrook behind the wheel. Shea will also be competing in the new W Series over in Europe and we are looking to announce another F3 driver shortly. Eventually we would like to go to the LMP class which is why the relationship I have with the people at Ligier is so important.
MP: Momentum offers a number of services to a young driver including assistance with helping to find sponsorship. Describe a little bit to us the approach that Momentum uses when they start with a new driver.
PP: Most people misunderstand sponsorship. It is rare for most sponsors to say, “Put my name on your car for 100k.” Sponsorship and budget are most often developed to give exposure to a business that they would not normally have had. The income created through this partnership funds the racing. At the lower levels of racing, media exposure is lower than at the upper echelons of the sport and so the businesses involved are usually doing so for the B2B opportunities that it presents, not for the exposure their logo on a car brings.
Together with our business partners, we educate the drivers to assist them in building a sponsorship package. The drivers need to research potential sponsors that are looking to connect with other sponsors in a B2B relationship and then we connect the two. Profits generated through these relationships are filtered back into the team as sponsorship dollars.
Sponsors want to see a return on investment (ROI). Unless the series is so high profile on mainstream TV, what value is the ROI? As I mentioned, in the lower formula real media exposure does not exist. The ROI that sponsors are looking for then is an actual business return. The car is not making the sponsor money. It is the business connection that is making the sponsor money.
Related to this is the fact that most of these young drivers are very bright kids. Often their parents are well connected in business so we try to build a synergy between their business interests and other businesses that will be mutually beneficial. It is an educational process as much as a business one.
Unfortunately, most drivers who want to race do not have a rich parent to sponsor them so the hunt for sponsorship is a lot of work. We look for those drivers that want to put in the time and effort necessary before we involve them with our partners. Sadly, a lot of drivers don’t want to put in the time and that just confirms to us that they would probably be better off with another team.
In addition to the business aspect, one trend that I see as encouraging is that a lot of kids are pursuing engineering backgrounds which I think is a smart move. Whether it is engineering or business, having this background is extremely important if the driving career does not work out. They are not putting all their eggs into one basket.
MP: Tell us a bit about your Karts to Cars development program.
PP: We sometimes get drivers that approach us who are clearly not ready for an F4 car yet so we developed the Karts to Cars program as an internal ladder system for those drivers. Not only do we provide testing opportunities, an internal ladder, marketing and media programs as well as advanced level coaching and data and video analysis, the program offers kart racers a familiar face when they do enter the world of formula car racing.
The program is also multi-directional. We have teamed up with Don Guilbeault and his DRT Racing karting team (https://www.drracingkartnorthamerica.com/) for a number of benefits to drivers. While Momentum Motorsports can sign drivers at a young age to an early testing and development program, they can also send season-long F4 drivers back to karting to stay in shape, sharpen their skills and keep up to speed. In addition, we can funnel young drivers to DRT Racing if they are not ready for cars and Don and his team can funnel up to us karters ready to make the next step. It is a win-win program for all involved.
MP: At Mid-Ohio last summer, we had talked a bit about what is important for parents to consider when choosing a racing team for their child. In your opinion, what are the most important things they should look at? What are the least important?
PP: There are unfortunately a lot of sharks out there as well as lot of misinformation. Young drivers have a lot of passion for the sport, but they sometimes fall prey to situations where they are not getting the best value for their budget. Research is key here and whether they do it themselves or through somebody like Motorsport Prospects, parents need to understand what they are getting in a team. The most important thing to ensure is that the team has the necessary internal resources to develop a driver and that boils down to that most key of elements in any team, the people. The people who make up a race team are the most important denominator. The people under the tent are what will make the difference between a positive experience for a driver and a negative one.
Another key issue is whether the team has the technical understanding of the car and the coaching capabilities to move your child along a development path where they will learn and grow. This is not just about technology and tools but about the skills of the engineers and driver coaches and whether they truly understand how to set up a car for a particular driver at a particular track for those particular conditions. I live to work on my cars, so I have an inherent understanding of their technical capabilities. I am probably the most technically involved with the cars themselves. It is in my DNA. I am an automotive engineer and I make sure that the people I hire are good.
Unfortunately, not every team is as technically proficient, so it is important to research who does what in a team and what kind of relationship they have with a driver. It is easy to get a list of who has driven for any particular team. Talk to those drivers to understand their experiences with a team that you are looking at. And make sure that the personnel that worked with that driver are still with the team in question.
People are the ultimate differentiator on a team, and I am lucky to have some great people working at Momentum Motorsports. There has to be a good fit with the driver and the team. Personalities are important. We place a huge emphasis on that. There has to be a synergism and energy in the team. Ultimately the trailer and motorhome, while important, are not the most important thing in a team.
The relationship between team and driver is so key that it cannot be overestimated. If the driver has the passion for the car and if they have the passion to put the work in, then they will succeed. There are no free rides in racing. The efforts of a hard-working driver spur on a team and vice versa. Everybody is working towards a common goal and they can only achieve that if they are all pulling their weight.
MP: What is the most difficult thing to teach a karter moving into cars?
PP: Certain karting practices don’t translate well to a formula race car. A driver cannot afford the aggression level in karts going to cars. The series will not accept it, and the teams will not accept it. With budgets what they are to race even at the F1600 level, aggressive driving and the damage that follows often exhausts a budget before the season has truly begun, possibly discouraging the driver from further competing in the sport at all.
At Momentum, our driver coach came from karting so he can set up the car so it is dialed in which will help the transition, but it is a bigger move than most karters realize.
MP: You are involved with both the USF4 and the F3 Americas Championships. What makes these championships the ideal training ground for your racers?
PP: Ultimately, I feel that both F4 and F3 have the most to offer a driver because of the sheer versatility of racing in a FIA-sanctioned series. Putting aside the issue of Superlicense points, the sheer variety of series that race around the world make it both easier for teams and talent scouts to compare and contrast drivers as they are driving in essence the same car. It also gives you a lot of options. As you are seeing more and more as the series mature, drivers are using various series for different aspects of their development. You can race in an F4 series during the summer and then tune up by racing in a winter series in Asia for example to get ready for your upcoming season. Or you can negotiate one-offs with a different series in order to gain exposure, much like some drivers have done by racing in the Mexican or UAE series in order to race in front of the F1 crowd.
While I think the USF4 and F3 Americas series are excellent training grounds for young drivers, it really depends on what a driver is looking for. If their interest is racing in North America and Indycars, then the Road to Indy is probably the way to go as it is a great series and the cars are exclusive to RTI. Also, none of the F4 and F3 series race on ovals so if that is where you ultimately want to go, the RTI is the best training ground for that.
If you look at the percentages though, the versatility of F4 and F3 really give you a greater pool to play in which is really important at this level of driver development.
At the end of the day you need to answer this question: Are you having a good time and getting what you need out of the series you are racing in? As long as you are then you are doing what is right for you.
By the way we are looking for F4 drivers! We have two cars that are fully developed. We finished last season with the fastest car. We discovered a number of things about the car halfway through the season and we would love to continue to apply what we learned this year in F4. For any drivers reading this, contact us and we can talk.
MP: Where does F1600 fit into a young driver’s development scheme?
PP: It depends on your school of thought. If you want to learn mechanical grip without aero it is a great way to go and it costs less money both in budget and in crash damage. You are also flying a bit under the spotlight compared to F4 so that might be a consideration for some young drivers and their families. The other school of thought is that some people think it is better to go to wings right away as that is where you will eventually have to go.
This is where you have to determine what your needs are and what your perceived future plans are and see what best fits those plans. I do not want to convince somebody to do something they do not want to do. If F1600 makes more sense than F4 then that is what the driver and their family should do. I am a long-term guy. I am in it for the good for the sport and not short term gain so as long as a driver and their family have all the facts then they need to do what is right for them.
MP: How important is the relationship between team and parent? Do you attempt to integrate them into the team are is there more of an understanding that they should be “hands off?”
PP: As I have stated before, a team is all about relationships and the relationship between a parent and the team is extremely important but can be tricky to manage. Some parents want a certain level of involvement on the race weekend while others take a completely hands-off approach. It is important to feel them out and see what it is they can bring to the table. I do not shut the door on parental involvement so long as it does not affect the driver’s development in a negative way. If their involvement builds a bridge between team and family, then it is all good but it is important to make it clear that they have hired a professional to develop their child into a race car driver so ultimately they have to let us do our jobs. They are writing a cheque to the team so we want to make them happy, but it has to be within reason.
As with everything, a successful relationship breeds success. The depth of that relationship will allow you to develop the driver best.
MP: What would be your single most important piece of advice to a young driver looking to make a career in motorsport?
PP: Put in the work. It is a business. Understand that and do what it takes to get the job done. It is not always glamourous, but it is necessary if you want to succeed. It is not just about driving a car fast although that is obviously important!
MP: What do you look for when evaluating a driver?
PP: As a driver you want focused, teachable kids that apply what they are taught quickly. This becomes clear in testing. You need to test because you are developing both the car and the driver. This is where we learn if they have what it takes to develop.
Which brings me to another key point. If a driver does not have the budget to test, they should not go racing. You cannot develop or progress on a race weekend. You also need to make sure that your budget can handle crashes and the financial hit that goes with them. You have to be realistic when it comes to this. Passion and desire often cloud judgement but blowing your budget on the first race weekend because you didn’t test and then crashed will not help you develop as a driver.
MP: Thank you so much for your time Phil. Where can we find out more about Momentum Motorsports?
PP: You can check out our website at http://momentummotorsportsllc.com/ or our Motorsport Prospects listing here (https://www.motorsportprospects.com/teams/momentum-motorsports/)
[UPDATE: Article has been updated to reflect that Shea Holbrook will now be competing with the team for the entire F3 Americas season as well as the pending announcement of a new F3 Americas driver with the team.]