My Mazda Road to Indy: Parker Thompson
 December 8, 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. – If the list of Parker Thompson’s accomplishments on and off the racetrack is any indication, great things should be expected from this young Canadian. He set records as the youngest competitor and first North American to finish on the podium in the karting World Finals, taught his Italian billet family how to speak English and has launched a campaign against distracted driving in schools across Canada; all before the age of 18.

Thompson, 17, grew up in Red Deer, Alb., the son of a world champion jet boat racer. A self-described “typical hockey-playing Canadian kid” whose grades were “pretty average” Thompson’s unorthodox first experience in a kart was not only a harbinger of things to come, but serves as an example of the youngster’s work ethic.

“My dad took me down to the karting track in Calgary when I was 8 years old and let me race,” said Thompson. “No practice, just straight into a race! I loved it from the very beginning. But my dad put the kart into the shop and told me I couldn’t race until my grades were above 80 percent. Since grade three, I haven’t had a grade below 90 percent. I think that as long as you work hard at something and you study hard enough, you can be good at anything, which applies to racing as well as school.”

Winning a Calgary club karting championship at age 10 and taking five victories in regional races the following year, Thompson accepted an offer from IndyCar veteran Buddy Rice to come to the United States to join his karting team. Thompson made good on that opportunity by sweeping the final weekend of the season in Phoenix, Rice’s hometown. Thompson moved up early to the Junior karting ranks and made the record books in successive years: the youngest ever to compete in the World Finals in Dubai and the first North American to stand on the podium. At the banquet that night in Portugal, the Thompsons were approached by the owner of Energy Corse karts, who was looking for a North American for his team. Thompson went home, signed the contract, and the next week was on a plane to Italy for an immersion in karting and culture.

“They found me a billet family with three kids, but the family didn’t speak any English. So they offered to put me up for free if I would teach the children English. I would spend an hour or two every day teaching them English and I learned pretty good Italian. I was completely immersed in Italian culture.”

After a successful season in Italy, Thompson decided it was time to move into cars. In typically methodical fashion, he made the somewhat unprecedented decision to take a season off so that he would make the right choice on this important next step. With Rice as his mentor, Thompson signed with JDC MotorSports in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda. Despite his lack of prior race car experience, Thompson earned seven top-five finishes on his way to fifth in the championship.

“I didn’t know what to expect, since I’d been in karts for eight years,” said Thompson. “My first priority was to compete for wins but there were a couple drivers who were pretty locked in every race. But that just shows how great the competition is – we worked day in and day out as hard as we could to grind out fifth in the championship. I had a lot to learn. Most of the other rookies had car experience, but we really got rolling by the end of the season so I think it was a successful season. I’m glad we went with the Mazda Road to Indy: the spec series gives everyone a level playing field and the ladder system gives drivers a chance to earn scholarships to eventually get into IndyCar racing. For so many drivers, that’s the decision maker.”

But racing isn’t all that drives Thompson. An early decision to make a difference in his home province has put the young Canadian at the forefront of the campaign against distracted driving.    

“I was looking for a way to give back to the Province of Alberta, because they’ve really gotten me to where I am. One of the emerging problems in my age group is texting and driving, so since April of 2014 I’ve been campaigning against distracted driving, first in the province and now across Canada. It’s grown to a national campaign with national sponsors, including Global Traffic Group.

“I sat through so many boring presentations when I was in school,” continued Thompson, “so I wanted to make this as fun as possible – and if the teens are having fun, they’re learning! I can tie it into racing, because in a race car, a split second can change your life forever and the same thing applies on the road. I’ve had great feedback from the schools and the kids. By the second semester of 2016, we’ll have gone to 70 schools. It’s making an impact so to know that this is saving lives is an amazing feeling.”

So how is Thompson currently faring in his own quest for education? Graduating from online school next spring, he naturally is at the forefront in developing an online bachelor’s degree course with his local college. 

“Red Deer College is developing an online program, because a lot of students own businesses and can’t be at every class. I’m working with the dean of the college, so I guess you could say I’ll be the guinea pig for that! Hopefully it will be set as soon as I graduate from high school and I can go right into getting my business degree.”  
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