Formula car racing is hellishly expensive, especially in Europe. A ride in a premier GP3 team runs about $800,000. To that, add travel and living expenses. And insurance. And crash damage. "We didn't have a Brazilian bank account with gazillions of dollars, so we had to be creative," Pieter Rossi recalls. When Alexander was racing in the Formula BMW series here in the States, the Rossis defrayed their expenses by putting together elaborate VIP programs for paying guests. Later, they created a limited partnership composed of commercial sponsors and personal investors to fund their racing program in Europe.
Conor Daly has taken a somewhat different route. Until this year, most of his racing expenses have been covered by scholarship money earned the previous season. For 2012, though, he struggled to come up with the funding for another year in GP3, and his father says they came close to forming a Rossi-style investment group. Derek Daly acknowledges that his own reputation in Europe probably helped his son secure a race seat with a front-running team. "But no matter what doors I can open, Conor has to be strong enough to walk through them by himself," he says. "Racing has a way of finding you out very, very quickly." There's not much shop talk about racing while Daly and Rossi kill time during a photo shoot in San Diego. That's business, after all. Instead, the conversation is dominated by the mundane stuff that interests most twenty-year-olds.
"So, have you met any famous people in Formula 1?" Daly asks Rossi.
Rossi thinks it over. "Natalie Portman at Cannes," he says.
Rossi scores extra points with Jennifer Lopez in Monaco and Paul McCartney in Abu Dhabi. The best a jealous Daly can do is having talked to Troy Polamalu in an airport lounge.
Rossi is the greyhound to Daly's bulldog. He's lithe as a dancer, fashion forward and quietly confident after three years of living largely on his own in Europe after growing up in Northern California. Daly is built more like a wrestler, and he's earnest and eager to please, with a deep voice and Midwestern accent that betrays none of his Irish heritage. Yet it's the similarities between them that are the most striking. They were both born in 1991. They both started karting when they were ten. And neither of them can imagine a life other than the one they're leading.
Rossi: "This wasn't a hobby that turned into a career. It was more like a career from day one."
Daly: "It's the only thing I'm really, really good at, and I love doing it every single day."
Although they have never raced against one another, their careers have followed remarkably similar trajectories. Both parlayed dominant performances in karts into Skip Barber championships. For Daly, his breakout season was a magical year in Star Mazda in 2010. Last year, he managed a few races in Indy Lights before moving to Europe to tackle GP3. There, he endured a hero-to-zero nightmare, going from first in the Indy Lights championship to last on the grid in Turkey. Although he never got to grips with the peculiarities of his Pirelli tires during GP3 qualifying, he was a demon in race trim, putting together a highlight reel full of ambush-style passes and briefly leading the field in the final race at Monza.
"He's still a goofball kid, but he's got a good head on his shoulders, and I was surprised by his maturity in the car," says Chris Finch, his race engineer in Indy Lights. "He's willing to take the risks necessary to make a car go fast. But he thinks about racecraft, and he understands that you have to adjust your driving to the demands of the venue."
Rossi's meteoric rise began in Formula BMW, an exorbitantly expensive junior series with the notable benefit of an international component. (Three of last year's F1 drivers were former Formula BMW champions.) He won three times during his first season, in the States. His second, he won the World Finals in Mexico City, which earned him a Sauber-BMW F1 test (and an FIA Super License). In 2009, Rossi excelled in the International Formula Master Champions. The next year, he won twice during a frustrating up-and-down GP3 season. Last year, he was third in World Series by Renault, which is one rung down from Formula 1 and which has produced two world champions in Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel.
"You don't meet very many people like Alexander," says Stuart King, his race engineer in World Series. "He's not arrogant, but you can tell that he believes in himself. He's so clued in. He knows exactly what he wants from the car, and it never seemed as if his brain was saturated when he was on the track. There were times last year when he made everyone look pretty average."
For Daly, 2012 promises to be a make-or-break season. If he doesn't win races in GP3, he realizes that he can probably forget about Formula 1. "The politics are brutal," he says matter-of-factly. Rossi, a year or two ahead of Daly, is already on the cusp of F1. But he, too, knows how quickly the dream can evaporate. "We're getting closer, but there is still a long, long way to go," he says.
Purely from a statistical standpoint, the odds against making it to Formula 1 are astronomical. This is the goal of virtually every driver in the world outside the United States, and it's uncommon for more than five or six seats to open up any given year, so you do the math. Back when Derek Daly was clawing his way up the ladder in the 1970s, the map for reaching the Promised Land was simple: prove that you've got the requisite skill and determination, amass a reasonable sum of money, and you, too, could be a Formula 1 driver.
These days, the model is much more complicated. Talent is still a given, and winning races is still a must. But Daly and Rossi realize that they also have to align themselves with the right sponsors and fashion a persona that attracts the right team. Caterham F1 wouldn't have been interested in Rossi if he wasn't blazingly quick on the track. But as team principal Tony Fernandes says approvingly, "He conducts himself extremely well in and out of the paddock, and he is the sort of ambassador that ticks the boxes of many global brands."
It has been twenty-nine years since two Americans were in the same F1 field. Here's betting it won't be another twenty-nine years before we see two more Americans sharing a GP grid.