Once a tiny racer to make his first start in the big IndyCar league

Head spin: James Hinchcliffe and Juan Montoya have both done ‘a lot for me over the years’

Years ago, around 2012, I did an interview with a young kart kid from Ontario named Devlin DeFrancesco, for whom big things were expected. I spoke to a lot of kid racers back then – Lance Stroll, Robert Wickens and Daniel Morad among them – and it was always fun to ask them what their ambitions were.

Stroll, of course, said he intended to be a Formula 1 driver. He was on his way when he was 12. His father, Lawrence Stroll, had invested $25 million in the Ferrari Driver Academy, where Lance was already enrolled. The family had moved from Montreal to Switzerland to be near the school. So Lance knew where he was going.

Wickens won everything in sight – he had Red Bull sponsorship – but when it came time to move up to F1 there was always someone ahead of him who had serious money (Wickens didn’t have that much only that). The following year, Morad won the Formula BMW North America championship, like Wickens before him, and traveled to Austria to collect his prize. Helmut Marko, Red Bull Driver Development Manager, looked over at him and said, “Get out of here! I don’t need another Canadian.

All of these guys – and others – wanted to make it to F1. But when I asked DeFrancesco during that first interview, he surprised me by saying he wanted to be a NASCAR driver. Why, did I ask? “Because there are more races and you have a lot more fun,” he said. His father, Andy, was standing next to him when he said that and slowly shook his head.

“We will see that,” he said.

Dad was right – then and now, but maybe not forever. Devlin DeFrancesco will launch his IndyCar career in St. Petersburg, Florida next weekend when the NTT-sponsored series kicks off its 17-race championship that will include stops in Toronto (fingers crossed) and the biggest race in the world, the Indianapolis 500.

Now, a reminder: When he was born in 2000, DeFrancesco was 15 weeks premature and barely weighed a pound. His eyes were fused together. No one gave him a chance to live and he received the last rites from the Roman Catholic Church. But he was a fighter and never gave up. Now he is five-foot-five and weighs 138 pounds. He drives race cars (which he’s done since he was six years old) and when he’s not on the track, he works out at the gym twice a day, five or six days per week.

DeFrancesco currently lives in Miami Beach (when he was racing in Europe before deciding on a career in IndyCar, he split his time between Toronto and Fort Lauderdale, Florida). When he feels like it, he bikes around town with Romain Grosjean, a teammate of the Andretti Autosport team which also includes Colton Herta and Alexander Rossi.

DeFrancesco’s Andretti car is co-owned by George Steinbrenner IV of New York Yankees fame.

“I have a huge opportunity in front of me now,” DeFrancesco said in conversation the other day. “I have a great group of people around me, so I’m very excited to start.

“Going from Indy PRO 2000 to Indy Lights and then IndyCar with the same team was a big help. After two years this place feels like home and it will make the transition to the IndyCar so much easier.”

He said Michael Andretti has been in his corner since signing with the team to drive Indy PRO 2000 two seasons ago.

“Michael and I have set goals for the season,” DeFrancesco said. “He’s been a big help to me. I didn’t have a good year in Indy Lights (last year) but the plan was for me to move into IndyCar this year where the car might be better suited to my styling. For example, the biggest thing you notice is how amazing these cars are on the brakes compared to the Indy Lights. I wouldn’t be here without Michael Andretti and George Steinbrenner.

Unlike many others on the current IndyCar and F1 roster, DeFrancesco does not have a coach. However, he receives a lot of unofficial help from friends.

“James (Hinchcliffe) has been in my corner and Juan (Pablo) Montoya has done a lot for me over the years. There aren’t many riders who have the adaptability that he has and I hope acquire a part.”

Of all the races on the schedule, however, the Indianapolis 500 is the one most drivers look forward to each year. De Francesco is no exception.

“It’s the racing that stands out for me,” he said. “The Speedway cars are already being prepared and I’ve been keeping an eye out and asking questions: what do we look like and what are things like in the wind tunnel. Indy is the crown jewel – there’s no biggest race in the world – and while I’m looking forward to all the races, St. Pete and coming home to race in Toronto for the first time, that’s what I’m looking forward to too, but c is definitely the Indy 500.”

And what about Toronto? The race has been canceled twice due to COVID-19 and although things are opening up in Ontario, there is still a cap of 500 people attending any sporting event.

“I think the show wants to come back to Toronto,” DeFrancesco said. “Their decision depends on the situation in Canada – what, if anything, is the sporting event situation and how they want to deal with it. To be honest, I think it’s more of a government situation than a series situation. .”

Agreed. Devlin. Tell me about your NASCAR racing plans, like you told me you were planning to do all those years ago. When you do a count, there are no more than 100 (or more) jobs in North American auto racing. You have one now, but who knows what will happen in 10 years when you’re 32 and still want to run.

“I would love to race in NASCAR,” he said. “I think you have to have an open mind about these things. Stock cars, sports cars – it wouldn’t matter. I want to race now and I want to race then. If anyone wants me to run for them, I would be stupid not to at least listen to them.

“But I love IndyCars and I’m really looking forward to the season. We’re talking about the future, I know that, but hopefully I never have to make that decision.”

Norris McDonald, former editor of Wheels, covers the Canadian and global motor racing scene for The Star. He is a member of the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame. nmcdonald@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter @NorrisMcDonald2.

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