Over relatively recent years several British drivers have taken a chance in moving their careers across the Atlantic Ocean to America. Some quickly return to Europe, successful or not, for their next career move but some – the big name likes of Dario Franchitti, Justin Wilson or Ryan Dalziel – make for permanent career and home in North America.
Glasgow-born Stevan McAleer is another who, after a chance opportunity to race in America has remained there making steady progress through the series the US has to offer to this year enter the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge with C.J. Wilson Racing.
When theCheckeredFlag.co.uk spoke to Stevan following the opening round of his 2013 season at Daytona International Speedway it is during his first return to the UK in three years, American corners to his Scottish accent a trait of a man who has raced in America since 2006 and now lives in New York City.
The path Stevan took to America – and so to the CTSCC grid – is an unusual one. After a successful karting career yielded multiple championships a quick move to cars eluded him. Stevan explains the opportune moment that would guide his future.
“I was looking through Autosport,” he explains, “and saw a scholarship for bearacingdriver.com run by Tim Sudgen. I entered it and was lucky enough to win the scholarship.” How that scholarship win came to bring him to America is another quirk of fate.
Stevan explains; “the guy from the year before had gone into the Formula Renault championship and from what I remember he caused a lot of damage that year and that led them to change the prize to the Skip Barber regional championship, which I’ll be honest I didn’t really know anything about. The trip to America was all paid for all the races were covered and that was the move the States and that was back in 2005. Like I said I didn’t really know much about it but it only took me about half a year to realise there was a massive opportunity for me and I decided to try and pursue the career over there.”
Ready to exploit the chance that had fallen to him McAleer’s first season was a success, finishing second in the Skip Barber Eastern Regional Championships despite a tally of seven wins and further four podiums in a 14 race season. That was enough for his step up to the Skip Barber National series, becoming a regular visitor to the podium during a three season stay in the series.
At that point the American racing adventure could have ended. However alongside his open-wheel exploits McAleer had contested a handful of GT and sportscar races “to keep his name out there” Steven relates.
One of the these rare GT races put him in a team run by Major League Baseball pitcher C.J. Wilson at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. As was becoming customary McAleer took full advantage of what was to be an – in hindsight – career turning point.
“That was my first real move from open wheel to sportscar racing,” says McAleer. “They were happy with me, we won our class and they let me finish the race. I probably I think did about nine hours out of the 25 which for me was an absolutely amazing experience. And talking to them through the winter I found out they had an MX5 Cup team and we worked as hard as we could to get the budget to compete in the first race [of 2012] at Sebring and we got in there, got on pole and won the first race.”
Just as in his first season of racing in America his first season in sportscars was to prove a success. After the opening weekend win – supporting the 12 Hours of Sebring – a further four poles and two wins followed in the one make series. The results propelled McAleer to the title and towards another quick progression up the series this time aided by Mazda, the manufacturer developing a ladder system through the sportscar ranks just as it has a well-publicised scheme to bring talent through the open-wheel series McAleer had then departed.
“There’s not a dedicated path yet for the sportscars yet,” McAleer admits, “but they have a lot of interest with the numbers going up and with people like myself in the Grand-Am and the ALMS probably next year they will have a proper ladder system. The MX5 Cup was the first step and they gave me a free season either in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Series or the Pirelli World Challenge. I looked at both options but I knew C.J. had cars in the Continental Tire Series and it was a no-brainer for me after the way they helped me out in the last year and I enjoyed working with the team.”
He admits that a move into the World Challenge would not necessarily have spelled an end to his connection with Wilson’s team, but that the CTSCC offered him a combination of more races and more competition.
The quest for more competition has put him in, arguably, one of the largest fields in racing. Over 70 cars – split evenly between two classes – took to the road course at Daytona International Speedway to start the season in support of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. The size of the field and the multi-class field was one change, racing with a co-driver for the first time in his career was another. However, the choice of Marc Miller, a man who ran the CTSCC the season before with the team as well as assisting Stevan in the MX-5 Cup has eased the transition as well as give Stevan an experienced head in the team in a series where, to use Stevan’s words, “there’s normally a bit of beating and banging”.
The continuity of remaining with C.J. Wilson Racing has kept Stevan behind a wheel of an MX-5, though now one with a roof among several other differences “the Grand-Am car revs to 8400rpm whereas the MX-5 Cup car we’re a couple of thousand rpm down,” he says. “At the first test at Daytona I was actually on the radio saying ‘do you actually want to rev this car’. It’s still an MX-5 so the platform is pretty similar but obviously the car’s a little higher spec, wide tyres and maybe 50 more horsepower. The car’s maybe 20-25mph faster than the MX-5 Cup car at top speed and a little better all round with the braking and stuff.”
He continues; “I think I adapted to it pretty quickly and we ended up running over two seconds quicker at Daytona this year than the car did last year so the team’s obviously made some improvements. Unfortunately we didn’t get the start we wanted at Daytona. We wanted to be running top-12, even top-15 but for this year we still think there’s a possibility to winning races, we didn’t get the best start but the championship is still on the line.”
The quest for more competition has put him in, arguably, one of the largest fields in racing. Over 70 cars – split evenly between two classes – took to the road course at Daytona International Speedway to start the season in support of the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Unfortunately it some of the aforementioned “beating and banging” that ultimately brought his debut in the series – and at Daytona to a premature end.
“Two Hondas made contact in front of me through the bus stop chicane,” he remembers. “They just went side-by-side as I called it on the radio they’d been doing it a couple of laps before hand and they were starting to get a bit out of control. The rear bumper came off one of the cars and unfortunately I had nowhere to go and I just ran over all of the debris. I went on the radio straight and said ‘guys just be ready I might have a flat tyre I just ran over a bunch of debris’ and within a lap all the lights on the dashboard were going crazy.”
The early retirement left he and Miller in second-last position in class. However, after a month long lay-off the championship returns to action at the new Grand Prix venue to the Circuit of the Americas this weekend, a track that suits the diminutive Mazda more than the Floridian high banks.
“Just looking at schedule for Grand-Am this year the two tracks that were going to hurt us the most were Daytona and Kansas with the two banking zones. Circuit of the Americas I think is going to be one of those tracks where we’re a little unsure until we get there. You’re trying really to compare it to Watkins Glen. There are obviously a lot of twisty sections in it but at the end of the day the straights are fairly long so we’ll lose all that advantage on the straights. I think we can be competitive, obviously taking that result at Daytona we’re out there to gain points. We’ll watch everyone drop out, make mistakes, have mechanical issues. I think we can run definitely top eight maybe even top five finishing position.”
While COTA remains a mystery McAleer is confident of a season ahead that includes several more tracks he will be racing at for the first time.
“There’s a bunch of tracks I’ve been too and a bunch of tracks I haven’t been to,” he says, “literally split right down the middle and there’s probably five or six tracks this year that should be really good for us in the MX-5. Certainly Barber Motorsports Park, Mazda Raceway and Lime Rock Park are places where we can be fighting for first place. We also have tracks like Road America and Road Atlanta where the straights a little longer.”
If McAleer can repeat the quick success and progression he has made so far then more awaits, with the 2014 US sportscar merger looming at the end of the season as a good relationship with both Mazda and C.J. Wilson Racing bigger things could await another British driver in the US.