My Mazda Road to Indy: Sean Rayhall

Sean Rayhall. Photos @ Indianapolis Motor Speedway Photography, LLC

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 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.”

Lessons learned in three rounds of Extreme E pay huge dividends in the Copper X Prix for Tanner Foust

Foust Copper X Prix
McLaren Racing

To paraphrase the Grateful Dead, what a long, unique trip it’s been for Tanner Foust in his first season with the Extreme E series as he took his early season lessons to Chile to compete in the Copper X Prix. And he’s learned his lessons well.

In February, McLaren announced they would expand their motorsports program with an Extreme E entry. They signed two talented rally drivers in Foust and Emma Gilmour – and paired them for the opening round in Neom, Saudi Arabia with just a few days of testing under their belts. Baked by the Arabian desert sun, it was trial by fire.

The duo performed well in their debut, advancing into the final round and finishing fifth. As Extreme E headed to another desert halfway across the globe for Round 4, it was a good time to catch up with Foust and ask about McLaren’s progress. The Copper X Prix was held this past weekend in one of the most extreme regions in the world: the Atacama Desert.

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“The shock going into the first race was the speed,” Foust told NBC Sports. “It was much higher than we had tested. We spent a lot of time around 100 miles per hour [in race trim] and our testing speeds were more in the 60 to 70-mile range. Then, once we sort of got around that, the car got updated so you can drive it even faster.”

In rally racing, some incidents are out of a driver’s control. Even peeking around another car can be dangerous because of potholes that have recently been gouged in the ground or large bushes that seem to sprout up between laps. A couple of rollovers brought Foust back to earth – but the pace was there and that was important.

“We had some challenges this season,” Foust said prior to the Copper X Prix. “We had a good start; made the final, which is a difficult thing to do in this series. I had two rolls in the first three events, but I have improved each time. Now we come into Round 4 in Chile in a pretty strong position. We have competitive times as a team. We are communicating really well and have our heads around this Odyssey vehicle.”

Foust’s words proved to be prophetic.

He won the Crazy Race – Extreme E’s version of a Last Chance Qualifier – and did so after passing the field. It was the same manner in which he qualified for Saudi Arabia’s finale, but this time things would be better. There were those hard-earned lessons on which to lean – and Foust had reps under his belt. He was not going to be caught off guard by any random obstacles.

Tanner Foust passed Sebastien Loeb heading to the Switch Zone in the Copper X Prix. (Photo by Sam Bagnall / LAT Images)

In the Copper X Prix finale, he pressured one of the best rally drivers in the history of the sport.

Pitching sideways through a tight left-hander late in his stint, Foust put his McLaren Extreme E Odyssey at the head of the pack in front of Sebastien Loeb as they headed to the Switch Zone. There, he would turn the car over to his co-driver Gilmour.

The Extreme E series pairs male and female drivers with both taking a turn behind the wheel.

After the driver change, Gilmour lost the lead momentarily to Loeb’s teammate Cristina Gutierrez, but as they charged toward the finish line, she surged ahead and crossed under the checkers first.

“What an improvement for the team over this year,” Foust said after the race. “We have struggled through some of the events, being in our first year in competition. We showed true pace this weekend; overtaking Sebastien Loeb was a highlight.

“Emma put in a great run in the Final. I was fortunate to go from last to first in the Crazy Race and then first in the Final but with some flag penalties, we had 20 seconds added to our time, which put us into fifth. It was a great feeling crossing the line first, I love this wide style track and the NEOM McLaren Odyssey was fantastic here.

“Hopefully we can continue that momentum into Uruguay.”

Loeb and Gutierrez were elevated to the top of the podium, but no one can take away the feeling of crossing under the checkers first.

Racing Responsibly

Since cars were first invented, racing has played a socially responsible role by improving safety. As Earth reaches a tipping point with climate change, racing needs to adapt to these new needs and requirements, which is where Extreme E’s unique strategy becomes increasingly important.

The Extreme E experience is more than simple racing. Each race is accompanied by a legacy program designed to offset damage done by climate change and to erase the footprint caused by the events.

Foust, a biology major from the University of Colorado, was given the chance to rekindle his interest and give back to the environment ahead of the Copper X Prix.

The Atacama is the oldest desert in the world at 150 million years. It is the driest place on earth and has the highest degree of ultraviolet light. And yet somehow life perseveres through underground rivers with oases dating back to Incan times. Foust participated in preparing a local habitat for the reintroduction of a critically endangered water frog to Chile’s longest river, the Loa, which snakes its way through the desert.

“I’m loving the experience,” Foust said. “I’m putting on a lot of Chapstick, a lot of sunscreen. What a fascinating part of the world. I never would have come here otherwise.

“I honestly am very honored to be a part of this sport. I am a huge believer in the fact that motorsports has done us good in the last 100 years. I think we benefit every single time we put our seatbelts on and drive down the road to the lessons learned in racing since the turn of the century. And I really hope motorsports continues that tradition.

“I think that motorsports like [Extreme E] does it in a responsible way, a gender-neutral way and a carbon-neutral way.”