“It begins with character.”
Those were the first words from Art Wilmes, founder of Rising Star Racing, when asked what he looks for in adding potential candidates to his program.
The unique racing support system is structured to focus on talented young American drivers who are presentable to media and sponsors and in need of financial resources to help further their careers. Founded in 2013 by Wilmes, Rising Star Racing pairs its young talent with teams and corporate sponsors. An initial driver class that began as three – Josef Newgarden, Spencer Pigot and Neil Alberico – became four in May with the addition of Oliver Askew.
Newgarden captured four wins en route to the Verizon IndyCar Series championship this season with Team Penske. Pigot was confirmed for a full-time ride with Ed Carpenter Racing in 2018 following two years in a part-time role.
Alberico continued to show improvement with a pair of podiums in Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tires, the top step of the Mazda Road to Indy. Askew (shown above with Wilmes at the 2017 MRTI awards banquet) claimed the title in the development ladder’s first rung, the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda.
Wilmes said there is a bond among the RSR drivers that has been there since its inception and aided the group’s success.
“What struck me foremost in the first couple of years was how much the drivers considered RSR to be a family,” said Wilmes. “One strives for that principle to take hold, but it was pleasing how the principle emerged organically – much like the (organization’s) star logo on the front of the helmet.
“The drivers decided that was how they wanted to identify themselves and their racing family. With such a strong base of character, one can accomplish great things.”
Newgarden, the 2011 Indy Lights champion who has competed in the Verizon IndyCar Series the past six seasons, has been viewed as an ambassador for the program. The 26-year-old from Tennessee humbly stated that it’s his RSR teammates who have been far greater impacted.
“I wish there were more programs like Rising Star Racing,” Newgarden said. “They help a lot. They help specifically young American talent that wants to hopefully drive Indy cars one day, so it’s geared more towards open-wheel racers.
“Racing is such a different sport than any other, in that money and opportunity are so much more difficult to attain, that we need groups like Rising Star Racing help the talent of the sport make it to the top and at least have those opportunities to try and make it to the top.”
If Newgarden is the ambassador, Pigot would be the poster child. The 24-year-old Floridian has been with Rising Star Racing while successfully running up the MRTI ladder and into the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“RSR has done a lot for me and a lot for some of the other guys within the program,” said Pigot, whose 24 race wins across all three MRTI levels are the most all time, including six victories in his 2015 Indy Lights championship season.
“Basically, for me, it started at the beginning of 2014,” Pigot added. “I got an email just outlining the goals and the idea that they had for this program. It sounded too good to be true to begin with. Sometimes you hear about these things with guys and they’re all talk and nothing ever actually comes of it, but Art is obviously not that kind of guy. Before I had even met him in person, he had agreed to help me out in Pro Mazda that year.
“It’s just a great way to try and further your career. His goal is to find corporate sponsorship to share between all the members of RSR, and he’s been able to do that on a few different occasions and really help us out.”
For newest RSR member Askew, it was perhaps the simplest decision of his young career to join.
“Within the sport of open-wheel racing, Rising Star Racing has proven to be one of the most effective driver support systems,” said Askew, 20.
“After seeing the success that Art and RSR has had with Josef, Spencer and Neil, it was a no-brainer for me to join the ranks. While we may not all race in the same series, we each have the ability to learn and grow from one another. To me, that’s what made the decision so easy — I can be a part of something that makes me a stronger, more well-rounded driver and learn from some of the best in our sport.
“RSR is something that’s bigger than any one driver. We are four American drivers who dream to race in the Verizon IndyCar Series, and Art and RSR are making that dream a reality.”
Some may have been surprised by Newgarden’s quick ascension to Verizon IndyCar Series champion when he joined Team Penske this season, but not Wilmes.
“It is very gratifying, but I have noted to people that the feeling is more like 'mellow satisfaction,’” he said. “Perhaps that comes from high expectations and the confidence that Josef had what it took to be a successful driver and a champion.
“With all the drivers, you have the ability to observe a lot of their work over an extended period of time. It allows us to better understand how they approach their craft, but also to see the glimmers of talent that start to gleam as talent begins to refine.
“Beginning last year, you began to see Josef do things in a race car that very few people could match. At that point, we began to believe it was only a matter of time. 2017 was his time, a manifestation of a life dedicated to one goal – to be a champion.”
That doesn’t mean Wilmes is ready to rest on the accomplishments of this season.
“The goal continues to be getting young talent into race cars so they can excel,” said Wilmes. “Every year is a challenge. 2018 began before Sonoma (the 2017 season finale) ended. We have to continuously look for sponsor support to achieve our goals.
“I continue to learn on the job, trying to minimize mistakes and understand better how to position auto racing as a great medium for brand association and activation.
“What's next? I need to do my job.”