The hometown underdog

Posted by Iannucci | 4/15/2010 | , , , | 0 comments »
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Forgive me for invoking the name of the heroic Butler Bulldogs in this post, but the comparison in this case might be appropriate. For most of nation, Butler's story this year was that of a relatively unknown who managed to scrape their way to play for the win in their hometown. It was a feel-good story that ended when some other school that always wins everything managed to beat them by one point, depriving us from what could have been the best sports movie since, well, since that last movie about about a basketball team from an unknown school in Indiana.

And while Butler's 2010 season may be concluded, feel-good stories of unheralded underdogs will forever continue to bubble to the surface in every form of competition. Except tennis. Roger Federer has single-handedly ruined that possibility. But we're not talking tennis - we're talking IndyCars. Indy Lights, to be specific, and without any embelishment from me here is an exceptionally interesting press release for one Joel Miller of SoCal, who many of you might end up cheering for this weekend at Long Beach.

Joel Miller's talent in pushing the pedals and cranking the wheel were important of course, but pounding the pavement is what got the 21-year-old from Hesperia, Calif. a ride in the Firestone Indy Lights race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday, April 18.

Miller lives about 70 miles from the street course in Long Beach, Calif., and he's been dreaming of competing there since he attended his first Long Beach Grand Prix a decade ago, when he was 11.

He's paid his dues.

He's racked up all sorts of accomplishments in karting, Skip Barber, USF2000 and Star Mazda. He's a past winner of the Team USA Scholarship and the John Gorsline Scholarship. After earning the championship in the BF Goodrich Skip Barber National presented by Mazda in 2007, he earned yet another scholarship from Mazda that helped pay for a full season of Star Mazda
competition the following year. He made good use of it, finishing second in the Star Mazda championship in 2008.

The following season he got picked up by Andersen Racing of Palmetto, Fla., a team that has rewritten the book on driver development. It has its own 1-mile road course test track; a regional, national and international karting team; its principals run the USF2000 National Championship presented by Cooper Tires and powered by Mazda; and it fields multi-car Star Mazda and Firestone Indy Lights teams.

Andersen Racing ran Miller in the Star Mazda series in 2009. (He finished fifth.) It tested him in a Firestone Indy Lights car twice; once in 2008 at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Fla., and again last December at Palm Beach International Raceway in Jupiter, Fla.

The team co-owners, brothers Dan and John Andersen, liked what they saw. They wanted Miller in Firestone Indy Lights and he desperately wanted to run one of their cars in that series, which is the final step before the IZOD IndyCar Series in the Road to Indy program. As is often the problem in such an expensive sport, however, money was the stumbling block, and it kept Miller parked.

He didn't like it, and on Monday he'd had enough. With a gulp of air for confidence and a smile on his face, he took all the tenacity he could muster and jumped in his 2006 VW GT1 (which has over 100,000 miles on it but is paid for), and hit the road.

"I literally just took off driving from home to Long Beach, and I visited every single company and person I knew along the way," Miller said. "I started when the first place opened and I stopped when they were closed. My dad has a little electrical contracting shop, and he has been keeping people informed about how my racing has been going. Even if I didn't know them but Dad did, I stopped by.

"You can't walk into a small company and throw a big figure at them and expect them to be able to do anything with you," Miller said. "But with smaller amounts from a lot of different companies and individuals added together, by the end of the day I was able to get close enough to call Dan and say I think I can do it. I still have some more calls to make, but I feel confident I'll have enough by the race weekend."

What was his sales pitch?

"I just asked them if they would help a local kid," Miller said. "I'm a local guy, and there were only two Americans who ran in the season opener in St. Petersburg, Fla. - Jonathan Summerton, who is from Florida, and Charlie Kimball, who is from Camarillo, Calif. Charlie is local too, but I really want to drive at Long Beach. I came up through the local karting ranks just like Joey Hand did. He got to drive Atlantics at Long Beach and we all looked up to him for that. Now I'm out of karting, and I want to be able to drive at Long Beach too."

Now he's going to, thanks to the following people and companies: Doug Mockett of Mockett and Co., John Wilkins of Rancho Motor Co., Vance Mitchell of The Mitchell Co., Seers Lumber Co., Daniel Singh, Joe Phillips and Greg Ewald. "Doug Mockett is a long-time supporter; he's helped me since I did Team USA," Miller noted.

Miller is still soliciting other companies and individuals for funds to help make his appearance at Long Beach - and hopefully other races - a reality.

He knows how to add it all up. He took some time off from school to pursue his racing career, but he's currently a junior mechanical engineering major at the University of California, Riverside. Last quarter he recorded a 3.1 grade point average. When he was graduated from Hesperia Christian School High School in 2006, he did so as the salutatorian of his class with a 4.0 GPA.

But racing is still his career goal. "This is a one-off ride now, but I hope to turn it into more," Miller said. "This will be the only street course race I've done except for the airport course at Cleveland, if you want to call that a street course, and Trois-Rivieres in Quebec. I did those races in Star Mazda."

If the course and the series will be knew to him, he'll have some familiar faces in the paddock and pits. "I'll be working with Yancy Diotalevi, who was my lead engineer on the Andersen Racing Star Mazda team," Miller said. "It's great for me, because Yancy and I already know each other and get along. And there are other people on the Andersen Racing team that I'll get to work with again too, so that'll be great!"

One challenge has already cropped up, though. "I'm trying to find tickets and passes for all my sponsors," Miller said.
For more on Joel check out Junior Open Wheel Talent's post on this story.

(Press Release: Andersen Racing, Photo: Joel Miller Racing)