If you follow the Verizon IndyCar Series and Mazda Road to Indy, chances are you’ll hear the names Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico a lot in 2016.
It’s not necessarily a guarantee that you’d be hearing any or all of those names if it wasn’t for the support and presence of Art Wilmes, founder and principal of Rising Star Racing.
Wilmes and Rising Star Racing enter their third year in North American open-wheel racing with a bigger presence than normal, with Pigot having graduated into IndyCar from Indy Lights, Alberico having moved up to Indy Lights from Pro Mazda, and with other Americans – notably Jake Eidson and Aaron Telitz – in the pipeline to join the program this year. Interestingly, all of the aforementioned drivers are also Team USA Scholarship recipients, thanks to Jeremy Shaw’s efforts and talent scouting.
Wilmes, whose initial and consistent business success in the healthcare world provided him the financial resources to be able to support drivers, admits he’s not doing it for the bottom line, but is doing so for love of the sport.
“My wife asked me the same question, why do you do this,” Wilmes told NBC Sports in a phone interview.
“First of all, I like racing. I have a passion about open-wheel racing and open-wheel racing in America. I’ve been a longtime fan.
“I got to a point where I could use some of the assets, some financial but more on the business side to do something to try to create a path for these people that lack the resources to get to the next level. For me, it’s when I see someone who is crazy talented, but held back by the financial barriers. I think that’s what drives me.”
Pigot and Alberico, as the first two drivers in what Wilmes hopes will be a longtime funnel or pipeline of North American talent into IndyCar, likely would not have been able to make their progressive steps up for 2016 without Rising Star Racing’s support.
The support isn’t just financial, but also features Newgarden as a mentor and driving coach, as well as a PR representative to assist and help them grow with media training (see above, “Rising Star Racing Egg Russian Roulette”). Having grown up with them the last few years, I can say it’s no surprise that these three are among the most media savvy in the business.
“The key deliverables for us are that we’ve found a way to get Neil moving up the ladder, and have Spencer getting up the ladder,” Wilmes said. “We’re still working for as much of the season as we can. But the fact is, we have sustained with those two drivers. Josef doesn’t need our help. The real focus is for guys like Neil and Spencer, to get them into IndyCar.
“I think we’re behind in developing our sponsorship program. But we made some changes, starting last year, I think we have pretty good momentum going. We hope to expand on the program.”
Wilmes’ program is essentially a way for businesses to collaborate and help promote young drivers. It’s companies like D.A. Lubricants (and brand PennGrade Motor Oil) and Doug Mockett & Co. to name a few that help support the effort, thanks in large part to Wilmes’ hard work and dedication.
“It’s part fun, and as much work as it is, it’s very satisfying to me. It’s an expensive hobby, like everything else,” he said.
“If I can limit the level of expense we’ll all be happier. We’re getting to that point. I’ve had to personally invest more than I thought, but that’s a failure on my part to get to where I needed to be. We have to work harder. We have some good sponsor relations to help us get successful.”
Understandably, all of Pigot, Alberico and Newgarden are appreciative of what the Rising Star Racing program has meant in their respective careers.
“Obviously Art has been a great supporter of mine, and Rising Star Racing has helped us a lot in many ways,” said Pigot, who’ll drive the No. 16 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Honda this year for at least three races.
“The way it all started for me, I just got an email. At first, I was kind of confused of what it was and trying to do. But I started to talking to him, and he was serious about helping young drivers. The program is growing and growing. It has a bright future ahead.”
Alberico said Wilmes’ presence and support has been far more than just financial.
“It all started with one handshake with Art, before he was even involved in racing,” Alberico said. “Now it’s (my) second year officially of Rising Star Racing, and he’s made so much progress with it as an entity. There’s the relationships he’s built within IndyCar and his personal work as well. He’s good at connecting people.
“He’s good at making B2B deals happen, and good at finding win-wins for both parties. It can benefit me, them, Rising Star Racing, it’s like the ultimate Rubik’s Cube.
“With Art, he’s been a huge blessing in my life, not just in racing. He’s taught me about the world, business, and how to be successful. I was chatting with him the other day, traveling, being on my own all the time, and there’s more than one kind of father figure. He’s taught me so much about life in general, and he’s a huge influence on my success. Yeah it’s not just me. I had to learn from somewhere. Art is one of these guys.”
Newgarden’s the driver mentor but ultimately he said he doesn’t need to do too much for the group.
“Art has been such a blessing for the young racing community and some of the drivers, specifically Spencer and Neil,” he said.
“Art is one of those rare, great energetic people to be around with enthusiasm and a big passion for motor racing. The passion is a big component for Art. He wants to help. Part of the problem is finding the money or support, specifically for young Americans. It’s made an impact.
“My part has been to help present it correctly. It’s to help create the direction and be a part of the growth. It’s been something he’s put together well. He loves motor racing, and is pretty damn good at working the business end of it.”
Wilmes’ love of sales is what helps drive both him, and the business model.
“Our focus has always tended to be using racing as a platform for sales,” he said. “I still believe most racing will have to eventually deal with this, that people have to have demonstrable value out of what they’re spending. So how do you use racing for business purposes? And I think the sponsors understand that.
“I do with my own business, with people I’ve never met, then we go to a racetrack and I did business with them. They want to know about our drivers, and follow up.
“It’s I guess a perspective… I think we work extremely hard in satisfying the sponsors. It’s easier for us than race teams.
“Our focus is on finding money, making sure the sponsor gets value, assisting them in logistics, all the things necessary, focus on selling or connecting them with someone with we have relationships to directly do business. That’s primarily the approach.”
Going forward, continuing the Rising Star Racing brand development is one of Wilmes’ key goals. It’s apparent with Alberico’s sidepod of his Carlin Indy Lights car featuring the Rising Star Racing logo and branding.
“One of the things we’re trying to do is brand Rising Star Racing, and recognize it more as its own branding entity. That opens up opportunities where all our drivers are your product spokesman. It opens up opportunities where consumer plays want to focus on the segment our guys connect to. That’s a lot about different strategies.”
The Rising Star Racing season kicks off for all three at St. Petersburg this week.
“I enjoy all the work that goes into doing this,” he said. “I enjoy going to track when the season starts, and seeing the results where they just do their thing.”