My Mazda Road to Indy: Garth Rickards
 November 17, 2015| 
  • Series News
A weekly series providing an inside look at drivers involved in the Mazda Road to Indy, the only driver development program of its type in the world.

PALMETTO, Fla. – There are many paths that lead to the Mazda Road to Indy. Some drivers start karting at a very young age, while others jump right into the formula car ranks. Such was the case for Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda rookie Garth Rickards, who started racing at the relatively late age of 19.

Rickards was raised in Mechanicsburg, Pa. His father, John, was a longtime associate of Verizon IndyCar Series team owner Bobby Rahal and is currently president and Harrisburg area manager of the Bobby Rahal Auto Group. The young Rickards, growing up with the racing bug, honored a promise to his mother not to pursue being a race car driver and instead, funneled his energy into a burgeoning hockey career. But racing remained a family passion.

“Nazareth Speedway was only about an hour from our house,” says Rickards. “Every year, the families from the auto group would go down there. We have a lot of great memories and I still am a huge race fan. 

“Hockey is almost bigger than high school football up here. I always wanted to race – my dad built me a kart that we ran at home in the summertime and he raced karts when he was younger. But my mom wouldn’t let me race, so I picked hockey. I played up through high school at the national level for my age group, at center and right wing.” 

Rickards might have continued on the hockey path but for two life-changing events; an injury ending his chances for a pro career and his mother’s four-year battle with cancer meant a change of heart.

“I had the chance to go to a prep school and play hockey, but my mom was diagnosed with cancer when I was 16 so I decided to stay home with the family. I was going to play in the junior leagues but I got injured. Then, in the last year before she passed, she sat me down and told me she’d known I’d always wanted to race, that it was one of my passions. So she wanted me to go try it and if I did well at it, I should try to go all the way with it and never give up on my dream. And that’s what I’m doing.”

Rickards skipped the typical karting ranks and headed straight for formula cars, completing several Skip Barber Schools at Homestead alongside his father. The elder Rickards suggested the pair compete in a club race to see how the younger would handle the racing action. Rickards managed just fine in a race populated with some faces that were about to become very familiar.

“There were a bunch of Mazda Road to Indy drivers there, guys like Aaron Telitz and Adrian Starrantino. I qualified fourth and finished fifth or sixth. I wasn’t expecting to do that well so I decided to do the national series. We had some success there and I decided I wanted to move past the school atmosphere and into some real racing, working with a team and an engineer.”

With a win and six podium finishes in the Skip Barber National Series, Rickards looked for the next logical step. Enter former Mazda Road to Indy competitor and co-owner of driver development company CoForce International, Anders Krohn. As the driver coach for Team Pelfrey, Krohn suggested Rickards join the team’s F1600 lineup. 

“Going into the season I really had no expectations, so there really was no pressure. I wanted to learn and improve every weekend - and I stuck it on pole at the first race. The championship came down to a couple of points in the last race between (Team Pelfrey teammate) Ayla Agren and I.”

Finishing second in the F1600 championship with a victory, nine podium finishes, Rookie of the Year honors and a Team USA Scholarship nomination, the decision to continue moving up was an easy one. With advice from Krohn and Rahal, whose son Graham had run the 2005 Star Mazda series (now the Pro Mazda Championship Presented by Cooper Tires), Rickards graduated to USF2000. He and F1600 teammates Agren and Nikita Lastochkin, along with Skip Barber Shootout winner Luke Gabin, formed Team Pelfrey’s new USF2000 squad, allowing Rickards to achieve his goal: racing in the Mazda Road to Indy.

“Bobby has helped me a great deal with advice and direction. He thought I should do USF2000 for two years no matter what, to learn the tracks, the car and the series, with the plan to go for the championship the second year. When I started racing, I had always really looked up to the Mazda Road to Indy. Racing here was my personal goal. It was awesome to see Mazda supporting drivers and to have a clear path to my dream – the Verizon IndyCar Series – and that was what really drew me here.”

The rookies and the team meshed well in their first USF2000 season with Rickards finishing eighth in the championship with 11 top-10 finishes.

“This was a first-year program for Team Pelfrey and all four of us were rookies as well. It really helped to have four cars instead of just two. We could overlay the data from all four of us. Add to that our engineer, Dave McMillan, and (team principal) Nigel Tuckey, who have been around forever… just being able to draw knowledge and experience from them – for on and off the track stuff – was really helpful.” 

Rickards appreciates the advice and assistance Rahal has given him over the years. Not many drivers have an Indy 500 winner and longtime team owner as a mentor. 

“Bobby was my childhood hero and now, I’ll go back to his motorhome and look at my video and he’ll tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing. He’s a really good family friend, but my dad thinks it’s funny that sometimes, I’ll listen to a family friend and not to him.”

Advice is one thing, but job training is another. When it came time for the young Rickards to find a job, Rahal and his father started the teenager at the bottom of the dealership duty roster. He’s worked his way up the ranks from handling landscaping duties to working in parts and service, so Rickards definitely understands the “ladder” system.

Rickards will graduate from nearby Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in December with a degree in business management. The knowledge will serve him well as he moves forward with his career – a career that requires a substantial amount of business acumen. 

“All of my sponsorship is business-to-business. Especially in the junior open-wheel ranking, the B2B opportunities can justify the amount of sponsorship required. For example, the value created between Snap21 and the Rahal dealerships has meant Snap21 has made money. It’s important to create those relationships, otherwise you’re looking for new companies to sponsor you every year. Keeping the main sponsors with you helps you as you move up the ladder.”
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