In the driver’s seat

Award-winning racer Alon Day is the first Israeli race car driver to join an American team.

By
February 19, 2012 11:14
Alon Day

Alon Day 521. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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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.

While that 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.

For 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 races.

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 brothers.

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’ hearts.

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.

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“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 more.

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 kph.

“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 lane.

“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 Europe.

“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 France.

Supporting her son has been a mixed blessing for Maggi, who walks the tightrope between fear and pride when talking about his racing career.

“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 competition.

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.”

He had 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 year.

“I was good, but I was a rookie. I knew I needed to be better,” he says.

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.

“We trained together at camps throughout Europe, always under the guidance of a Formula 1 driver. It was an invaluable experience for me,” he says.

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, Florida.

“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.”

Unlike 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.

“I 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.”

Harfield has great expectations.

“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 circuit.

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 too dangerous.

“Everyone is pack racing really close together, and if somebody touches your car, no matter how slightly, you’ll go flying.

When 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 limits.

“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 Ayalon Highway.

“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 racing.

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.”

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