By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
Parker Thompson had what many racers would consider to be a successful 2016 racing season. After winning four races in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship powered by Mazda and finishing second in the championship to teammate Anthony Martin, Thompson represented Team Canada at the Formula Ford Festival and the Walter Hayes Trophy Race in England.
However, heading into 2017, it’s unclear what 18-year-old’s racing plans are in the Mazda Road to Indy presented by Cooper Tires.
“We’re doing everything we can behind the scenes to be on the grid for St. Pete, but what it comes down to [is] a lot of teams sometimes don’t want to do [a] race by race deal. I’m slightly optimistic we’ll get a deal put together but it’s definitely going to be a little bit late and I’m really hoping I can be back in a car next year – that’s the main goal,” Thompson told Motorsports Tribune.
The USF2000 championship runner-up’s success might be a good reason to jump back in the series but by not having a full budget in place, it’s not an attractive situation for teams.
“You look at USF2000, I mean there’s a lot of hype about USF2000, there’s a lot of drivers that are coming in with budgets already prepared to go race. At the end of the day, it’s a liability for a team to take a driver that doesn’t have full funding and run him for the first couple of races and take away a seat from another driver that could’ve brought a full budget.”
Being a Canadian running in an American series brings up an interesting conundrum: the exchange rate. However, being a winning Canadian can help alleviate that woe. The Red Deer, Alberta native earned one of his victories on the Streets of Toronto, where he raised a lot of his budget and might be able to use that as leverage for next year.
“You look at the Canadian dollar right now, all the money I’ve raised back home, pretty much any time you bring that across the border it’s going to be divided in two with the Canadian dollar the way it is so it’s really difficult.”
“Last year I raised a quarter of my budget alone just in Toronto and that was before I won a race. So, hopefully I can leverage that more this year but unfortunately that American dollar seems to be getting stronger and stronger so it’s awesome for you guys, but for the Canadians and for any other country across the world, competing in the MRTI, it’s making it a little more difficult.”
Attracting a Canadian sponsor to go race in America though is a very difficult challenge also because those sponsors are not seeing their name in front of their home market except for one weekend per year, and that lack of exposure in Canada can stress their relationship with Thompson.
“I think it comes down to the fact that all our races primarily are in the U.S. and that’s not a bad thing. I love to race down there and obviously in most cases [it’s] a lot warmer, but at the same time, it’s tough to get a Canadian sponsor and convince them to give you money to go elsewhere to race and I think that’s where the real roadblock starts and then the roadblock finishes – when you need to not only ask him for X amount but you need to ask him for XX amount because our dollar doesn’t go as far as America’s. So, it really comes down to being a double whammy.”
“I’ve had an awesome group of partners that have stuck with me for this long and this year there’s a lot of pressure, it’s kind of my make or break year. I’ve had partners that have been with me now going into the third year and they’ve all kind of come forward and said ‘Hey, this is our last shot at hopefully winning that Mazda scholarship,’ so we’ll see.”
Thompson began his career racing karts and made the move to USF2000 in 2015 with JDC Motorsports before going to Cape Motorsports with Wayne Taylor Racing in 2016. Having worked with two different teams and having two knowledge bases to draw from can help as well as two seasons of experience, especially coming into 2017 with the new Tatuus-built USF-17.
“I know what I want as a driver. I know what I want to feel in the car. I know all the tracks that we go to and I think for any rookie coming into this series that’s going to be their biggest downfall is now not only do they have to learn a new track they also have to learn the new car. I’m at an advantage where I only have to learn the new car. I’ve known the tracks now for two full years so I should be good in that fact. I should be able to pick up the pace quick and just focus on developing the car.”
Developing the new car this year will be more of a challenge. There is a plan in the works for only one practice session per race weekend with two qualifying sessions, one for each race, and that can really put the pressure on a driver to do well.
“That puts even more emphasis on a driver because now you’ve only got one practice to go get the job done and get the car dialed in. So, hopefully a team realizes that asset and you’ll see me back on the grid in USF2000.”
If Thompson had his choice he knows where he would like to race, but he must remain realistic about how much money it will take and how far that can get him.
“Realistically I think Pro Mazda would be a great bet. You’ve got a (near) $800,000 US scholarship on the line to get to Indy Lights and that’s probably the most enticing, but at the end of the day, there’s a big jump in budget between a USF2000 car and a Pro Mazda car. So, to try and relate that between the two, it’ll be tough.”
Last year, a competitive budget for a USF2000 car was around $275,000 (US dollar). A Pro Mazda ride was around double that amount.
“I’ll be lucky to get a budget together for USF2000, if I get a budget together. So, that’s kind of where I’m at. I mean, I’d love to go jump in a Pro Mazda car. I think I’m ready to go, really the only reason why we lost the championship comes down to just a little bit of bad luck my way, you know. We would’ve been right there in the hunt at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca fighting for the championship if it weren’t for a flat tire.”
“So I kind of have to hold my head high, I might have to take a step back to take a step forward here at this point in my career. It’s not that I want to, but at the end of the day it’s what you have to do to keep moving forward. So, I just need to survive the cold storm here, survive this part in my career and hopefully look forward to the future.”
And what’s the end goal for Thompson?
“I don’t care what I drive as long as I drive for my living.”