In a bittersweet announcement Porsche announced Connor DePhilippi as one of their new Porsche Junior drivers. While this is great news for Connor it’s also a little frustrating because he was probably only a year away and few million dollars away from reaching the Izod Indycar series.
Connor is one of the few Americans who have worked their way up the Road to Indy without a famous last name, family money, or an attachment to an Indycar team owner. He has paid his dues and proven his mettle but didn’t land a big sponsor or development deal. I fear that as good as this is for Connor it means I’ll never get the chance to see him start the Indy 500.
The Porsche Junior Programme is the development program for their endurance racing program. It goes beyond being able to pick their ride, they get fitness and nutrition training, driver coaching, professional mentoring, it is probably the most extensive driver training program in the world outside of Red Bull and McLaren’s F-1 program. Unlike F-1 programs you don’t buy your way in, you earn it, and that sums up Conor’s career.
De Philippi has earned everything in American racing that he can’t buy, and apparently that doesn’t include a Firestone Indy Lights ride. I’ve heard drivers are being asked to bring anywhere between $400,000 and $1 million for an Indy Lights seat. This guy put in three years in Star Mazda, finishing in the top three each time, won the prestigious Walter Hayes trophy when he was 17. He amassed a stronger resume than several full time drivers and still has yet to turn 20, and still can’t land a seat on talent alone in America.
With Connor signing on they will be able to pick their team in the Carrera Cup Deutschland. From there, if he succeeds, he’ll probably be hired as a Porsche works driver. Works drivers are essentially given to Porsche supported GT teams. Basically if you win a Porsche contract they supply at least one driver to your team. Also it’s widely believed that Porsche is the largest owner of private race tracks in the world. They have private facilities in China, Atlanta Los Angeles and routinely rent tracks for their own events. Although I don’t know this for a fact, it’s been long suspected that Works drivers lap these tracks weekly for VIP buyers, executives and R&D.
The only American Works driver is Patrick Long, who once was a promising open wheel prospect but like Conor had no money, no name, and no where to go in a American open wheel scene split between Champ Car and the IRL. Not to take anything away from Long, — he has won the 24 Hours of Le Mans twice and amassed 22 GT victories — but it’s not the career I would have wished for him. Still, it’s a great life; they get paid, drive some of the world’s best production cars, and get paid to race.
I’m happy Connor won this program, but saddened too, because if Long’s career is any indication we’ll never see him at Indy in May. Indycar lost Jeff Gordon to NASCAR, probably never had a shot at Kyle Larson, and will lose more talent unless more teams and the series ownership start doing something to help young drivers.