The old joke that made the rounds among American Zionist circles back in the
1960s and ’70s, star-struck over the rugged Sabra heroes overseas, went
something like: It’s no wonder Israelis act like maniacs on the roads – most of
them learned how to drive while manning tanks in the army.
reputation may well be deserved – as any excursion on our roads will reveal – it
begs the question: If we’re such a reckless breed of speed-demon motorists, why
haven’t we produced any race-car champions? The answer is that everything
happens if you wait long enough, and Alon Day is proof of that. Living out the
dream that most local drivers apparently have when they pull away from the curb
every morning, the 20-year-old Ashdod resident can claim the distinction of
being the first Israeli race car driver – donning a helmet and gloves to join
American team Belardi Auto Racing for the 2012 Indy Lights championship that
begins in March and continues throughout the year in 12 US cities.
Day, this is the culmination of a 10-year fascination with motor sports that has
seen him graduate from karting to Formula Renault and Formula 3 racing while
spending much of his adolescence commuting to European and Asian locations to
compete – and win – against more experienced, accomplished drivers. The rows of
trophies adorning the top of his bedroom closet and the mantelpiece in his
parents’ home in Ashdod attest to his having excelled in many of those
Well before he joined other Israeli teens in taking driving
lessons and attempting a road test for his license, he was regularly traveling
at speeds of up to 240 kph. And yes, that experience helped him pass his road
test on the first try.
“It’s a good thing, too, because otherwise I
wouldn’t have been able to face my friends,” says the convivial, boyish-looking
Day, speaking to the Magazine last week in the living room of the spacious
beachfront home he’s shared all his life with his parents and three older
There aren’t any race cars parked on the street near the house,
and no jalopies up on blocks in the driveway like you might find at a car buff’s
home in the US – just the usual array of Korean and Japanese compacts familiar
in any Israeli street scene. And Day himself is just as unassuming. Unlike many
child prodigies who evolve into awkward and aloof adults, he seems relaxed and
well-adjusted – a handsome, polite young man whom one could imagine, under
different circumstances, hosting a Kids Channel series and breaking teen girls’
Instead, he’s breaking the hearts of fellow drivers who have been
eating his dust since he joined the neighborhood craze of karting (a sport
Americans may know as go-karting) at age 10.
“My brothers were all into
motorcycles and karting, and I was just naturally attracted to it, too. I loved the speed and
the competition,” says the racing champion, who received a 10th birthday gift of
karting lessons from his parents.
But while most of the other kids saw it
as a hobby, for Day, who rarely lost a race, it become something
FOR THE next five years, he lived and breathed karting, and when
there was no more competition in Israel, his father flew him to England, where
he graduated to two-stroke engines that could achieve speeds of up to 140
“I went with a friend of mine who was really good, too, and we
thought that we were the best in the world and would beat everyone in England,”
he says. “We found out it wasn’t true.”
Still, he participated in more
than a dozen races, and seeing his potential, a racing pro organized a test in
Budapest for him in Formula Renault, the singleseater motorsport where most of
the current Formula 1 drivers began their careers after graduating from karts.
At age 15, with no driver’s license, Day stunned everyone with a sterling test,
and his Formula Renault career began. Regular trips to Asia and China over the
next couple of years saw him accumulate 13 podiums, eight poles and six wins –
racing jargon that essentially means he was really fast.
But just because
he was winning races and spending weeks at a time in exotic places during his
high-school years doesn’t mean he was raking in big purses. In every location
except the US, Formula racing requires the drivers to provide a substantial
financial outlay to join a team. In exchange, the team provides the car, tires,
engineers and mechanics. Day explains that without his parents’ support – both
moral and financial – his racing career would have ended in the starting
“If you want to develop and rise to new levels, you need to bring
the money along with you,” he says. “It’s not easy to get a sponsor, especially
in Israel. And in Europe, if you’re not European, it’s almost impossible. That’s
why I raced in Asia, because even though the racing culture is very highly
developed with great tracks, it costs about half of what it costs in
“I only have my parents to thank for believing in my dream with
me,” he adds, referring to his father, Avi, who is involved with Dead Sea
mineral drilling, and his mother, Maggi, originally an immigrant from
Supporting her son has been a mixed blessing for Maggi, who walks
the tightrope between fear and pride when talking about his racing
“The fears are there all the time, but I can’t have my children
living according to my fears – if that were the case, they’d be staying at home
all the time under my watchful eye,” she says. “So I put my fears aside and hope
that all ends well and he goes and returns safely.”
That’s why when he
was a senior in high school, it was his father who would accompany him to China
or another Asian location every two months for two weeks of training and
Despite the jagged schedule, and thanks to the efforts of
private tutors, Day graduated high school on time and was accepted to the IDF’s
Outstanding Athletes program, which enabled him to structure his army service
around his training and competition requirements.
“My father and brothers
were all combat soldiers, so it was strange to have a desk job, but I had to if
I wanted to keep racing,” he says, adding that he wasn’t just a clerk, but ran a
program within the army. “Before I went in, I passed every test, including the
entrance exam for fighter pilots, so I was happy to know that I was at least
good enough to do that even if I couldn’t continue in that path.”
other paths to follow, though.
After winning the Formula Renault
championship, he got offered a seat in the ATS German Formula 3 Championship, in
which he has competed over the last two seasons. The jump in power and speed
proved to be a challenge, and he finished in ninth place overall for the first
“I was good, but I was a rookie. I knew I needed to be better,” he
And that’s exactly what happened, as he moved up to fifth place in
the Formula 3 2011 competition. In addition, he was selected out of 500
applicants to be one of 12 ambassadors in a program at the European FIA
Institute for Motor Sport Safety and Sustainability. The course provides
opportunities for young racing drivers to develop the skills they need to
progress in their motor sport careers, with an emphasis on safety.
trained together at camps throughout Europe, always under the guidance of a
Formula 1 driver. It was an invaluable experience for me,” he
FOLLOWING THE season, however, his career was at a crossroads, with
not enough funds for another season of racing in Europe and his team going
through personnel changes.
Enter Christopher Harfield, a former tennis
pro, sports manager and member of the London-based Jewish Racing Drivers
Association. Harfield recruited Day to be the ambassador for the association,
which nurtures young, Jewish racing talent with the aim of finding a Jewish
Formula 1 or IndyCar champion within the next five years. According to Harfield,
Day is the leading candidate to achieve those goals.
“The thing about
Alon which drew me to him was his raw determination,” he says. “While the
popularity of motor sport is now on the rise in Israel, when Alon began, there
was very little for him to engage in. It was quickly recognized by his father
that Alon had a tremendous gift and if he was going to nurture it and have a
chance of making it to the top, he must go and challenge the best in the
business on their terms and on their home soil.
Alon did precisely that –
this task would have been too overwhelming and daunting for 99 percent of the
drivers out there, but it wasn’t for Alon. He relished the opportunity, and it
is the fight and desire to excel which I took to. “ Harfield was so impressed
with Day that last year he became his manager, taking over Avi’s duties of overseeing his
career. Together, they decided to send Day to Florida’s Palm Beach International
Raceway in December to do a test run for the Indy Lights series. In the US,
Formula 1 racing is called IndyCar, and one level below it is Indy Lights.
However this was a huge leap up from the Formula 3 racing in which Day had
competed until then, with car speeds approaching 300 kph.
“I just jumped
in the car, for the first time ever, and ended up getting the best time,” he
says. “At the end of the day, I had broken the track record, much to everyone’s
surprise. I immediately got offers from a lot of teams.”
He and Harfield
ended up going with the Belardi Auto Racing team, signing up to participate in
the season’s 12 races, beginning next month in St. Petersburg,
“Alon really blew us away when he came down to test with us at
Palm Beach in December,” said team owner Brian Belardi after they signed the
contract last month. “His very first time in an Indy Lights car could not have
gone better, and we are very lucky to have him join our program.”
the European and Asian racing circuits, the teams in the US do provide some
financial backing for their drivers.
And even though the drivers don’t
receive the purse money (up to $20,000 for some races), the funding covers their
living expenses and then some.
So next week, Day will be headed back to
Florida for the first time without his father, renting an apartment with another
Belardi driver and launching his quest to become a top Indy driver.
really expect to be good this year,” he says without a hint of bragging. “It’s
going to be different, not flying back to Israel all the time and not being with
my father. But it’s time to see what I can do on my own.”
“If I thought that Alon was only going to be a ‘top
driver,’ managing him would be of little interest to me,” he says. “We believe
Alon can be an IndyCar champion, and with it will become one of the top Israeli
sports profiles of his generation.”
Still, he continues, “like every
motor racing driver, he will need some help to give him his shot, and we hope
the Israeli and Jewish business communities join us in this exciting journey, as
we are so close now” – a reference to the need for sponsorships that will enable
Day to advance beyond his first year in the Indy Lights
IRONICALLY, ONLY a couple of years after Day graduated from his
entry-level Formula Renault stint, that type of racing is beginning to make
inroads in Israel, no pun intended.
As the Magazine reported late last
year, an event-promotion specialist launched Formula Israel Company and held a
Formula Renault event in Eilat last December.
However, for Day, going
back to Formula Renault at this point would be like Beyoncé getting back
together with Destiny’s Child.
Instead, he is looking ahead to being the
first Israeli Formula driver in the US.
Unlike the NASCAR motorsport –
made famous by events like the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500 – the Indy
Lights series takes place on open tracks through cities with blocked off roads,
much like a running marathon.
Day emphatically states that he has no
desire to race on the high-speed oval tracks of NASCAR, claiming that they’re
“Everyone is pack racing really close together, and if
somebody touches your car, no matter how slightly, you’ll go flying.
that happens at 300 kph, it’s not so nice,” he says, adding that he’s flipped
over once in his career, during a race in China.
“I don’t really remember
what went through my mind, other than realizing I was upside down,” he says.
Luckily he emerged unscathed.
Looking at him, one wouldn’t get the
impression that he possesses extraordinary strength. But his one exercise
regimen is a strict daily workout on weights to build up his upper arm and neck
muscles – two areas in which Formula drivers are taxed to their
“Between the power of the cars and the speed you’re going, it’s
imperative that I can retain control,” he says. “There’s that same G-force that
there is in fighter jets – your whole upper body, especially the neck, needs to
be really strong. Sometimes the pressure is so great, it feels like your neck is
going to explode and leave your head with nothing to sit on.”
When he is
back in Israel, though, he has no problem keeping his head on his shoulders.
When he takes the family car out on the road, he’s a mellow, law-abiding driver,
and says he has no desire to take on other motorists in a drag race on the
“I’m the most relaxed driver. I put all my energy into
the race track,” he says. “I like cars, but for me, it’s the competition that’s
most important. I’d be happy riding on a bike or a horse if I were competing
against someone. So on the road, since I’m not competing, I don’t care if
someone’s going faster than I am.”
That philosophy sits well with his
mother, who confirms that her son is in the driver’s seat when the family takes
a trip together. And when he goes out at night with his friends, it’s clear who
the designated driver is going to be.
“I almost never drink, so when we
go out, everyone knows that I’m going to drive. They all trust me,” Day says,
adding that at the end of his FIA course last year, he was certified to be a
driver trainer and ambassador for road safety.
However, he has no
illusions about being able to change the Israeli driving culture – in the short
term, at least. Maybe he’ll concentrate on that after he retires from
For now, he admits he has no “plan B” if car racing doesn’t pan
out. Ever since he switched from karts to cars five years ago and began to win
races, he’s had a one-track mind, so to speak.
“At that point, I realized
that this was going to be my job, and not a hobby,” he says. “I realized that
it’s my life. And now, I want to go to the highest level.”