By Damin Sawyer
Last weekend, the 10th season of stock car racing in Europe, and the eighth under NASCAR sanctioning kicked off in Valencia, Spain at the Circuit Richard Tormo. In its present name as the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, this division has seen substantial growth in terms of international recognition and competition throughout the years, and has provided a conduit for NASCAR to expand outside of the confines of the continental US. The tight racing and unique venues have drawn drivers from all over the globe, including North America. Some of these competitors, such as Bobby Labonte last year and Jaques Villeneuve this year, are motorsport legends getting a taste of an FIA sanctioned twist on tin-top racing. Others, such as Myatt Synder are young, well known quantities, but just needing a proper full season ride somewhere to continue to hone their skills.
Separate from all these, another young American; twenty year old Andre Castro of New York City made his closed cockpit racing debut, qualifying third and coming within one corner to winning on his debut race on Saturday. Driving the #24 PK Carsport Chevy, one of the best teams in the series, Andre had a chance at redemption Sunday as each division competing races twice a weekend. Race 2 came with Andre grabbing a hard fought second-place finish. After a weekend filled with so many ups and downs, Andre was gracious enough to grant me an interview to discuss his inaugural foray into the world of NASCAR, among other topics.
On the general topic of his introduction/initial interest in racing: “My earliest memories of racing come from watching Juan Pablo Montoya in Formula One. When I was a toddler, JPM had just risen to prominence with Williams F1, and by doing so became one of the most important sportsmen from Colombia. My parents are both Colombian, so they would watch the F1 races whenever they could to cheer him on. My earliest vivid memory is watching the cars run through the Monaco tunnel and thinking it was the coolest thing I had seen in my life. Before long, I took an interest in F1, and I became massively interested in NASCAR around the age of six.”
How did this opportunity to compete in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series come about? “I was in my bed at college, scrolling through Google search results, when I came across the NASCAR Whelen Euro Drivers Recruitment Program. I sent my resume in, and within a few days I was invited to test the car in Italy. I tested the car again in France in February, and from there things developed to the point where I was introduced to Anthony Kumpen at PK Carsport.”
How has the transition been from open wheel cars (USF2000, Caterham, F4, etc) to closed cockpit cars? “I think all the knowledge I have absorbed watching NASCAR throughout the years, in addition to my years spent on iRacing, has prepared me and taught me what to expect coming into NASCAR for the first time. I only ever had driven about 40 laps in a stock car before this past weekend in Valencia, but regardless I improved my driving throughout every session and was able to come one corner away from winning my first race. The #24 was on rails thanks to my team, who were also supporting me heavily, which made the learning curve exponentially easier. The handling of the vehicle was not so different from the way it is on iRacing, and since I have never been able to race much in real life, iRacing also taught me to be confident with my racecraft and how to run close to other cars.”
Who has been your “rock” that you have leaned on for information/advice over the weekend and testing sessions? “I had so many experienced people around me this weekend who taught me everything in such a short period of time. Anthony Kumpen, my team owner, was also my spotter and he gave me so much useful information whenever I was on the track. He coached me through leading much of the first race, kept me up to date on my pace compared to the cars behind, and gave me advice on how to maximize restarts. My Elite 1 teammate, Nicolo Rocca, has won several races in the series through the years and was thus very helpful for me to learn from. I learned so much from his data as well through my engineer Koen Bevers, who also has a multitude of experience and was an absolute joy to work with. Stienes and Bert Longin (PK Carsport teammates) are also incredibly fast and experienced. They did not hesitate to lend a hand whenever I had questions. I think the chemistry we all created in a matter of days should be a concern to our competitors moving forward.”
Tell me about the atmosphere at the race, and how it differed from any race weekend you have experienced in the past. “If I had to describe the atmosphere in one word, it would be uplifting. My team knew how to balance hard work and fun without stressing excessively, and when you put so many smart minds together, a relaxed but focused attitude is the best way to create an uplifting and effervescent atmosphere. The fan support also gave me such a boost; I have never had this many spectators watch any of my races before, and I had never seen the fans get so much access to the pit lane and the pre-race grid walk. Despite the relaxed paddock attitude, Jerome Galpin (President/CEO of NASCAR Whelen Euro) and the series ran the weekend with such precision that I could easily tell how organized the series is.”
Have you & Myatt (Snyder) spoken about that last lap incident? [Myatt attempted a dive-bomb pass on Andre in the final corner of the final lap for the lead in race 1 which resulted in third place runner Giorgio Maggi taking the win, while Myatt and Andre finished 23rd and 24th respectively. ] “Myatt came over to talk to me a bit after the first race had ended. I was obviously not happy with the events that took place in that final corner, but by that point I had calmed down and we were able to discuss what took place in a civil and calm way. I have spent some time around Myatt in preseason testing, and I could tell right away that he was a self-aware, smart guy, so I was pleased to hear his apology and talk it out with him. However, knowing his experience and his intellect also made me all the more disappointed in him for making such an over-optimistic move in the first race of the season when we could have had a 1-2 finish easily. The incident was frustrating and deflating, no way around that. Still, I am very excited to race fairly but hard with him for the rest of the season, and I know my first win is just around the corner.”
What kind of goals and ambitions do you have for the season? “My expectations going into Valencia were to have top 5 pace and to finish both races consistently, but after the speed we showed last weekend, our goal now is to win the championship. I am only going to become more and more familiar with the car throughout the season and going to pick up more pace, so the team and I see our potential and know this is a realistic goal. We also have to be consistent and finish races without much incident for this to become a reality.”
Final question, what, if any, other series/events do you have lined up for the season on top of the Whelen Euro? “Currently, we only have the first three races of the Whelen Euro sponsored, and are actively searching for sponsors to run the other four. Compared to the US, it is not overly expensive, needing between 6-8k Euro ($6,700-$9,000 USD) for an entire weekend, otherwise, no, nothing else yet. But if anyone is reading this and wants to extend an invite to race literally anything with four wheels, I am down!”
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