This is a new weekly series assembled by the Mazda Road to Indy, providing an inside look at drivers involved in the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.
Open-wheel racing, especially the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” was always a dream of Sean Rayhall’s but never one he thought was within his reach, until a conversation with Townsend Bell opened his eyes to the concept of finding sponsors interested in business-to-business connections. When Enzo Potolicchio of 8Star Motorsports – a team Rayhall drove for in sportscars – decided to enter Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires, Rayhall saw his chance. The two joined forces ahead of the race weekend at Barber Motorsports Park in April with the hopes of putting funding together to run the remainder of the series’ schedule.
“Enzo started an Indy Lights team and we were able to put two and two together with a sponsor, so there was an opportunity there,” said Rayhall. “I’ve always counted myself a bit short because I didn’t have funding to do open wheel. But after the first practice at Barber Motorsports Park, when we were P5 in our first practice session, I thought ‘wow, I never thought I’d be able to drive an Indy Lights car!’ It was so fortunate.”
Rayhall made his presence known at the next race weekend in Indianapolis, taking a second-place finish in the first race of the Grand Prix weekend and an emotional victory in race two, from the outside of the front row. Rayhall took his second win at Mid-Ohio and finished on the podium at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca finale, but the win at Indy stands out as the season highlight.
“Mid-Ohio was great, but to win at Indianapolis was really special,” said Rayhall. “We had issues at Barber, so I didn’t really count that race weekend, it was more about getting laps. But at Indy we were on pace, qualified in the top three and won the second race. I had a penalty in the sports car race there last year when we were in the lead, so this was really redemption. It was so cool for me and so special to get the win for Enzo. I’ve won for him in sports cars and won for him in Indy Lights. That relationship is very special. He’s not just a team owner, it’s like a family.”
Rayhall arrived on the Indy Lights scene with a racing resume beyond his years. The 20-year-old Georgia native began karting at the age of 7, winning several titles before moving into cars. Rayhall drove formula cars, Legends and stock cars and was the youngest Skip Barber race winner at 13, beginning the racing diversity that would become the hallmark of his fledgling career. Moving into sports cars in 2013, Rayhall won the IMSA Cooper Tires Prototype Lites Championship Powered by Mazda and finished second at Petit Le Mans in a Prototype Challenge machine. He finished sixth in the PC class driver’s championship last year, driving for two different teams including 8Star Motorsports.
Rayhall has worked hard to find enough sponsorship this season, both for his Indy Lights efforts and in sports cars. He’s employed some creative methods to find that sponsorship – including a crowd-funding campaign on GoFundMe.com ahead of both the Freedom 100 and the season finale.
“The idea came from my best friend, Tyler Johns, who is an engineer,” said Rayhall. “He told me I should try it and when I brought it up with Enzo, he thought that if we could get something, we could piece it all together. It’s a real testament to what kind of fans I have. Everyone really supports me and I’m really thankful for that. They did a great job getting the word out and helping me. Because of the crowd funding, Silver Arrow [a Kansas City-based IT consulting firm] is now a partner in all my racing, as is Bass Egg [a palm-sized speaker which uses everyday objects to project sound].”
As Rayhall nears a decision on his 2016 plans, he knows that the impression he’s made in Indy Lights has gone a long way toward increasing the number of available options. One of those impressions came in August, when Verizon IndyCar Series team owners invited seven Indy Lights drivers to participate in test sessions at Sonoma Raceway, including Rayhall who ran alongside Scott Dixon with Chip Ganassi Racing.
“We did well this year in Indy Lights and it’s done a lot for my career,” added Rayhall. “It opened doors with Ganassi that wouldn’t have been open before. Being on the Mazda Road to Indy is taken seriously; people look at you as a pro driver. It’s amazing, the phone calls I’ve gotten based on what I’ve done in Indy Lights, so there’s something to be said about how the ladder system works. This is where you should be if want a career in racing.”