TJ Fischer prepares to kick off European adventure at Imola this weekend in Formula Renault 2.0 Alps

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With the Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons now in full swing, the month of April heralds the beginning of a number of junior championships throughout motorsport as the stars of tomorrow try to find their feet and make a splash in the racing pond.

In terms of American talent, Alexander Rossi continues to be the most notable racer in junior circles, competing in GP2 for a third year in 2015 with Racing Engineering.

However, another youngster trying to make an impact in European racing circles is TJ Fischer. Hailing from Vacaville, California, the 21-year-old is preparing to make his debut in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps championship this weekend at the iconic Imola circuit, former host of the San Marino Grand Prix.

An accomplished karter and racer in the Formula Car series, Fischer bucked the trend set by many young American racers by switching to the European ladder in 2014 by racing in the Protyre Formula Renault championship in England.

“We were figuring out our plans, we were thinking Pro Mazda, but budget was a little high for that series and kind of out of our range,” Fischer explained to MotorSportsTalk. “But that’s what I wanted to do. Then we were looking around and I was calling a lot of different teams looking at different options and eventually we got an opportunity to race with Cliff Dempsey Racing.

“And so it just kind of fell into place. I didn’t really think ‘I’m planning on racing in Europe’ at the end of the 2013 season I didn’t think that at all. But things just fell into place, and we got the ride with Cliff.”

Fischer enjoyed a solid year in the British championship, finishing sixth in the final standings and enjoying a run of six top-five finishes in the final seven races of the year. However, the bigger challenge he faced was acclimating to the European racing life, which he found to be very different to that of the United States.

“It was definitely a new experience for me, racing over in Europe and England especially,” Fischer said. “It was a different task for me, obviously the driving is different. It’s maybe more forgiving in the States; over in England and Europe it’s pretty cut-throat.

“Getting used to that was an acclimation period, but we just kept on learning, plugging away at it. Throughout the season we were getting quicker and quicker, and towards the end we started getting some better finishes and really started showing the potential of what we could do.”

And that potential led to a big step up for the 2015 season. After just one year in the national championship, Fischer is now preparing to embark on his debut season in the Formula Renault 2.0 Alps series that will see him race at some of the most famous circuits in the world.

Alps has produced a number of exciting drivers despite only enjoying its debut season in 2011. Red Bull’s Daniil Kvyat won the series back in 2012; two years later he’d be in F1 with Toro Rosso. Ferrari junior Antonio Fuoco won the title in 2013, whilst McLaren youngster Nyck de Vries took the crown last season.

The enormity of the challenge ahead is not lost on Fischer, though, and he feels ready to make the step up in 2015.

“It still is a bit of a big step for me, going from the Protyre Formula Renault championship up to Alps,” he said. “Sometimes, the guy who wins the championship or is second or third, they’re the guys who move up.

“We weren’t quite there yet, so it’s a bit of a jump still to go to Alps. But I think we’re prepared. Testing with the new car has been going really well and we’ve been very competitive, so I’m feeling confident going into this year.”

Fischer will be racing with Salvador Duran Racing in 2015, but faced an age-old question for young racers: funding. Moving with the times, he embraced a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to help get everything in place for the year ahead, and he is now all set to race at Imola this weekend.

The famous track is just the tip of the iceberg, though. The calendar for the series features many of the most famous tracks in Europe – Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Mugello, Pau, Jerez, and the Red Bull Ring – and racing on them is a prospect that excites Fischer.

“As an American, coming across the pond and getting the opportunity to race at these tracks – Spa, Monza, Imola – it’s pretty crazy,” he explained.

“Just looking at the circuits… I mean I’ve been watching onboards a lot, and I just get goosebumps watching it because it’s crazy to think that I’m going to be racing at them.”

It is an opportunity that many young, American racers do not get and puts Fischer on the right ladder to perhaps reach F1 one day, which remains a largely Euro-centric sport.

“Getting engulfed in the whole European experience at a young age at the junior formula level, I think is the better route to go,” Fischer said. “I get the experience of racing against the drivers that are at my same level trying to reach F1 as well, and I’m competing against them as opposed to racing in the United States and then having to acclimate later on if I chose to try and do F1 later in my career.

“I think it’s better off just getting fully immersed in the whole culture, the whole style of racing, and learning from it. That’s the most I can do, just learn as much as I can and try to improve as I go along.

“Things fell into place, and then I realized that this is very realistic and I can actually pursue my goals and dreams.”

The ‘drought’ for US drivers in F1 may be a long-running one, but it is the likes of Fischer who play a part in ensuring that the future is bright for American racers in the European scene and, one day, perhaps the top line single-seater series.

Graham Rahal tries to get up to speed in IndyCar iRacing Challenge

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Although he’s just 31 years old, Graham Rahal has been driving an Indy car since the 2007 Champ Car Series season when he still a teenager.

When it comes to the virtual world, however, Rahal is an admitted “newbie.”

The Rahal Letterman Lanigan driver hopes to get up to speed in time to be competitive in Saturday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama virtual race. It’s part of the INDYCAR iRacing Challenge and will be televised live by NBCSN at 2:30 p.m.

The six-time NTT IndyCar Series race winner got his virtual racing rig before last week’s American Red Cross Grand Prix at Watkins Glen International but was still learning the nuances of the iRacing platform. He started 12th and finished 14th out of 25 cars in the contest. The first 12 finishers were on the lead lap. Rahal was one lap down.

“I had never done it before,” Rahal said Friday. “At least it probably had been 10 years since I had driven any sort of sim. It’s addicting…rather addicting. Second of all, it’s bad for your marriage, but it’s a great way to kill a day of quarantine.

“But I think it’s been a big challenge just to get used to the way that you feel a car, the way that you drive a car in the sim, it’s all completely different than real life. To get used to that sensation, to get everything set up right is a huge part of it.”

Inside the cockpit of his No. 15 Honda at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, Rahal feels at comfortable in his own element. It has taken him time to find that comfort level in the virtual world.

“For me it has been a challenge to just figure out the right settings, what to do from afar, too,” Rahal said. “Obviously you don’t have anybody here (at his home) that plays iRacing or anything to help you firsthand. It’s been a bit of a challenge; but I’ve really enjoyed it.”

Next up is Barber Motorsports Park, which in the real world is a very challenging course but it puts on some of the best road course racing on the real IndyCar schedule. Rahal believes it will also be quite a challenge on iRacing.

“I think Barber is going to be actually more difficult than Watkins Glen,” Rahal said. “The track has a little bit less grip than Watkins Glen did last week. Although everybody was still crashing at Watkins Glen, I think you can get away with more than what you can at Barber. In real life it’s that way, too.

“I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be fun.”

Rahal is married to former drag racing star Courtney Force. Both are playing it safe by staying home by statewide order from Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb. But Rahal still has to find the balance between husband and virtual race driver.

By contrast, some of the other IndyCar drivers are spending 10-12 hours a day practicing on iRacing.

“That’s the challenge,” Rahal said, responding to a question posed by NBCSports.com. “I could definitely spend way more time on it. My line to Courtney is, ‘Just give me two laps.’ Then, one hour and 45 minutes later I’m still sitting there. It’s frustrating.

“As Robbie Wickens said, the frustrating part is you go out, you put in a good lap, then it’s, ‘I need to go beat that.’ You spin and you spin, and you spin. Then you get mad. The competitiveness in you, two more laps, two more laps. You try to go and go and go.

“You sit there for hours and hours and hours.”

Rahal admits he can’t stay away from iRacing for long. He is genuinely curious and interested in seeing what the competition is doing.

“I go on pretty frequently to see what’s going on,” Rahal said. “A lot of guys are on all the time. Scott Dixon, Sebastien Bourdais has been on a load, Tony Kanaan, Willie P (Will Power). I think everyone is enjoying it. But it’s a huge challenge.

“There are a couple of guys that are clearly quicker than everybody else, Will being one of those. I’m trying to figure out where and how to find the lap time. I’m telling you, it’s so different than reality in that way.

“But it’s been fun, man. I’ve enjoyed the challenge. It’s good for the exposure, good because people are paying attention. You can see it on our Instagram. If you look at the clicks or page views in the last seven days, they’ve been doubled since we started to do this stuff. While it’s great for that, it also does help kill a ton of time.”

These are unique times as the world has essential shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As more and more humans are testing positive of the potentially deadly virus, the threat becomes more real.

It has also created a tremendous void as people try to find something to do to pass the long times of isolation.

By giving race fans a few hours of entertainment, even if it is virtual instead of real, then Rahal believes it’s worth it.

“I think a lot of people are just dying for something to do, something to watch,” Rahal said. “The competitiveness in all of us wants to see some sort of sport.

“I know there are other buddies like hockey players that are watching it because they just want to watch something. They need something to do. So, I think that’s a big part of it.

“I think it’s great that NBC Sports is covering it this weekend other than just being online. I think it will be tremendous to see how that turns out.

“This is very realistic. When you see the cars on track, you watch a replay, see the photos, it’s eerily real looking. I did a race at St. Louis last weekend. It was extremely entertaining I think for the drivers that were participating. Other than 400 yellow flags, which happened early in the race, it was really, really entertaining to be a part of. People who watched that race would have loved the show that they had been seeing. I think there’s a lot of realism to it.

“I think it’s also people just want something right now. The desire and the demand is there to log in or tune in and see something competitive on TV.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500