PROgression: Neil Verhagen – So Much to Learn
Meet Neil Verhagen. At just 15 years of age, Neil was too young to compete in the Formula Ford events in Europe last fall. But after impressing all the judges during the initial Team USA Scholarship interviews at Mid-Ohio — then proceeding to dominate the F1600 Championship Series and become the youngest-ever SCCA National Runoffs Champion — he was afforded an opportunity to meet with Dr. Helmut Marko, ex-Formula 1 driver and head of the Red Bull young driver development program…. The young man from Mooresville, N.C., who attained his 16th birthday in February, is now based in Holland and has just completed his first weekend in the ultra-competitive Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup. Please check out first Team USA blog: teamusascholarship.org/?p=3855
After racing in karts for five years and competing in a few Skip Barber events, it was about this time last year when I started my season racing in the F1600 Championship Series. Wow, since that moment, how my life has changed! I still cannot believe all the things that have happened. The F1600 Series was an amazing experience and I am so glad I was able to race it. It was really the only series we could afford, and it would give the winner a ticket to the Mazda Road to Indy Presented by Cooper Tires USF2000 $200k Scholarship Shootout at the end of the year. My main focus all season was to put myself in position to win that ticket, so I would have a chance to continue racing open-wheel cars. I learned so much, especially thanks to Tonis Kasemets who was my engineer and driver coach. The F1600 is still so relevant and it specifically teaches you mechanical grip and race craft. We continued to improve all season and I went on to become the youngest champion with a record nine wins and earned my ticket. Thank you, K-Hill Motorsport for everything you did to make it a great season.
I had also begun racing the SCCA Majors with the same car in Formula F and won every race I entered securing both the North East division championship as well as the national points championship. The Majors races qualified me to race the SCCA Runoffs National Championship which was another place I could win a ticket to the MRTI shootout. A funny thing that happened is that after all my Majors’ success, in the SportsCar Magazine article giving predictions of who would win, I was not even mentioned as a potential threat. Well, you can imagine how that got me very fired up and focused! I absolutely dominated that race, and I was later told that it was by far the most dominating performance ever recorded in Formula F racing.
That win made me the youngest ever SCCA National Champion at 15 (the record was previously held by Graham Rahal). I also was very honored to be selected as the 2016 Jim Fitzgerald Rookie of the Year. The biggest honor, however, came when I was selected as the RRDC Mark Donohue Award recipient. Imagine being in a room packed full of motorsport legends and important people in the motorsports industry to receive the award from Bobby Rahal at the Daytona 24-hour event? To top that off, I was inducted as the youngest member of the RRDC which means I will be able to see everyone at the dinner there every year, which I will definitely do. I have a special connection with Daytona because I was born on the exact day that Dale Earnhardt lost his life there (which is also why I had car number 3 last season).
While all this was going on, I attracted the attention of the Team USA Scholarship and I was absolutely thrilled to be nominated for that program too. I was invited to the IndyCar race at Mid-Ohio along with 10 other nominees for an interview. Through that interview, I met drivers, media, team owners and team engineers who were all happy to share great advice. I even got to go to pit lane with Penske Racing and was able to listen to Juan Pablo Montoya on the radio while he was out for practice.
I quickly realized that there was so much more to racing than I was used to, but it was all very exciting. One piece of advice I can give all young drivers out there: you have to learn to network and work hard to get your name out to as many people in the business as you can. I can say that, because thanks to the connections I made with the Team USA Scholarship, my life was about to change even more drastically. There is a story on the internet about me that I was sitting in math class and received a call from Dr. Helmut Marko, head of the Red Bull Junior Team. Well, that story is absolutely true! What’s even more amazing is that he invited me to Austria to meet with him and, after talking with him, he offered me a contract to be part of the Red Bull Junior Team. Never had I even thought that something like this was a possibility. To be part of the Red Bull program which has been responsible for creating opportunities for so many great drivers all the way through F1 was beyond anything I could have dreamed.
As we were signing the contract, he told me “Neil, I give you the opportunity but you are coming in at a disadvantage.” I would soon realize what he meant. He arranged for me to race in the 2017 Formula Renault 2.0 Eurocup championship which is one of the most highly regarded and ultra competitive junior series in the world…and the training ground for a lot of F1 stars. Drivers who do well in this series go places. My team is MP Motorsport, based in Holland, and my teammates are Richard Verschoor, who is a second-year Red Bull Junior having won two European F4 Championships, and lightning fast Jarno Opmeer who is a Renault Sport Academy Driver. We work together very well and the relationship with them and the team is very positive.
I packed up and moved to Holland and switched to an online school (more about that in future blogs), but as soon as we started testing at the end of the year I realized just how difficult the task ahead of me would be. It turns out there are many areas where I need a lot of work if I hope to be successful in this series – and in the future. I immediately started a heavy dose of simulator training with Atze Kerkhof at Adrenaline Control. Atze has also worked extensively with Max Verstappen as well as my current teammates, and without his help I would not be anywhere near as ready as I am now, which is still nowhere near where I want and need to be. I am also working hard to improve my physical conditioning to not only be ready for this season but for future seasons which become much more physically demanding. The MP Motorsport team is fantastic and also has very successful GP2 (now F2) and F4 squads. The team and Red Bull provide me access to absolutely everything I need to prepare and improve myself, including regular sessions in the Red Bull F1 team’s simulator in England. First class every step of the way. But of course, for Red Bull the expectation is nothing less than win.
Which brings me to last weekend which was our first race weekend at Monza. We had tested here at the end of last year so, thankfully, I had some experience on the real track as well as the simulated track. Official practice on Friday put me in 11th and 13th position out of 30 entries. Not great. My goal had been to get top fives which I had been able to do a couple of times in preseason testing. Saturday morning qualifying was horrible as I only managed to qualify 22nd out of 30 while my teammates scored 12th and 16th starting spots. With the cool morning, I struggled to get the tires up to the right temperature and, when the tires were prime, I had poor track position. The race started OK as I managed to move up six positions during the first lap although a few of those were a result of a crash. There were multiple safety cars and after one of the restarts I lost a spot to 17th. Then on the last lap I took advantage of a battle for 15th by the two cars in front of me who raced each other through the first chicane. They both got poor exits and I was able to get by the first one before Turn Three and was side by side with the second one leading to the second chicane. He forced me to the edge of the track which was fine, but then after a while decided to turn hard into me which forced me to crash into the wall at around 200kph. I was fine, but the car sustained very heavy damage. It took an incredible effort by the team to repair the car before the next morning’s race.
Did I mention that Red Bull had asked Jos Verstappen to attend the event to keep an eye on the Red Bull drivers? It was awesome to have him there and he gave me plenty of good advice. He reviewed my video and said that while the crash was not my fault, it was my poor qualifying that had led to the incident. So I was determined to qualify better on Sunday. I put in a lap which was 0.375s off pole which put me in 11th position. The car felt great and that continued into the race. We only had one safety car early on so we could run under green the majority of the race which I really enjoyed. I was able to make some passes and after the cars in third and fourth had an incident I was running fifth. On the last lap into Parabolica I managed to out-brake one more car and cross the finish line in fourth…which meant I was invited up to the podium as the top rookie finisher. I could not believe standing there on the podium at Monza on my first European race weekend. Simply awesome!
A huge thank you for everyone who have made this possible for me from my parents and grandparents to Dr. Marko and Red Bull for this incredible opportunity and to Jeremy Shaw and the Team USA Scholarship for believing in me and their continued guidance, and finally to MP Motorsport for a great car and support. Silverstone is about two weeks away and I have a lot of work to do, so I better get at it.
About Team USA Scholarship:
The program has been providing opportunities for talented American race car drivers at an early stage in their careers since 1990. Supporters include Doug Mockett & Company, the Road Racing Drivers Club and SAFEisFAST.com, Cooper Tire & Rubber Company, Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, Mazda, Honda Performance Development, Basecamp, Robertson Racing, CXC Simulations, Lucas Oil School of Racing, PitFit Training, RaceCraft1, Sparco USA, Bell Racing, RACER Magazine, Speedstar Management, Styled Aesthetic and Manifest Group. For more information, please visit www.TeamUSAScholarship.org or find us on Facebook and Twitter.