The USA is known for its proud motorsport heritage from NASCAR to Indycar. Despite F1 not being as popular in the country as it is in other areas of the world, the lure of European racing is still strong for young drivers hoping to make it to the highest level of motorsport they can. Although W Series will be based around Europe, within the 60 qualifiers there are 8 Americans and 2 Canadians hoping to be one of the 18 to make the inaugural W Series grid.
Natalie Decker has had a passion for motorsport from a young age. After persistently asking her father to buy her a kart, at the age of 9 she finally got her chance. Decker quickly began to be noticed after winning 4 karting championships in 2 years around her native Wisconsin. Following this success, at the age of 12 she began racing stock cars. In 2011, she progressed to the Super Stock Class, going onto beat over 30 other drivers to win the championship a year later in 2012. She continued to impress in the Midwest Truck Series and Super Truck Series. This success meant she was signed to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program for several consecutive years, partnering with race-winning team, Rev Racing.
After stints in series around the country, Natalie competed in the ARCA Midwest Tour, taking pole in her first race before going onto become the first female driver to finish on the podium later in the season. As well as being an incredibly talented racer, as are all the 60 qualifiers, what is different about Decker is her huge and loyal fanbase. Natalie has over 90,000 followers on social media proving that she has the capability to attract supporters and build a brand.
credit: Sabre Cook
Sabre Cook’s father was involved in motorcycle racing and so for her, motorsport was part of family life. Speaking to me last year, she said: “he didn’t really want us racing motorcycles so we got into karting. I drove for the first time when I was 8 and from then on, I had an interest and a passion for racing, especially when I started having success.” The 24-year-old already has big plans for 2019, whether she secures a place in the series or not. She won the US round of the Infiniti Engineering Academy last year meaning she will spend a 6-month placement with Renault Sport F1 team and 6 months with the Infiniti Technical Centre Europe. The prestigious competition aims to identify the best engineering talent from around the world, and after several rounds and 2 days of tough tasks and challenges ahead of the US F1 Grand Prix, she was chosen as the American winner. However, this doesn’t mean she will take a step back from racing, especially with W Series being such a huge opportunity. Previously Sabre has driven in the Cooper Tires USF2000 series which runs alongside Indycar, raced in the US Formula 4 Championship, been part of the ‘Road to Indy’ scheme, as well as dominated many of the karting championships she took part in. She may not have as much single seater experience as others, having had financial difficulties through her career, however her understanding of the mechanical side of racing as well as her natural instincts have allowed her to hone her craft.
19-year-old Toni Breidinger is also hoping to be one of those to make it to the final W Series grid. The California-born racer started karting at the age of 9 alongside her twin sister when their father took them to a karting school. After falling in love with the sport, it wasn’t long before the twins were bought a kart to share, with a second having to be bought after both girls set their heart’s on driving. After karting success, Toni progressed to USAC Midget cars. During her time in the series, she achieved 15 victories and 1 championship win, meaning she has the most wins for a female driver in the championship’s history. Although more recently she has turned her attention to stock car racing. However, much like Natalie Decker, when the opportunity to apply for W Series arose, it seemed like a great challenge. “I just thought it was such an amazing opportunity…so, when it came up it wasn’t something I could turn down. I think it’s really unique and exciting,” she told ESPN.
Courtney Crone is one of the youngest qualifiers at only 17 years old. Despite this, she still has over a decade of experience having started karting at the age of 4. 2017 and 2018 were spent racing in the FormulaSPEED 2.0 class which falls within the Formula Car Challenge Series. Not only did Courtney win the championship this year, but she also won 9 out of the 14 rounds, dominating the field. Off-track she has received support from legendry Indycar driver Lyn St. James who is one of only 9 female drivers to qualify for the Indy500 and was the first woman to win Indy500 Rookie of the Year. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, Crone was selected to be a recipient of the Women’s Motorsports Foundation Project Podium scholarship. Although she may be younger than most of the others, Courtney should not be underestimated with her aim to continuing learning and developing her skill, she will surely be able to adapt to the new car she will drive later this month.
Hanna Zellers’s aim in her racing career is to be the first woman to win the Indy 500. Growing up, her father had a passion for motorsport and so racing was always on the TV. At the age of 6 she began karting, but racing didn’t come until the following year. Hanna spent many years competing in karting championships taking huge numbers of wins and podiums during this time. In 2009, she achieved 20 pole positions, 26 wins and 43 podiums, followed by over 20 wins and 25 podiums in each of 2010, 2011 and 2012. Zellers’s transition from karting to cars came at the age of 16 and since then has been racing in a range of series. 2018 saw Hanna driving in the LMP3 series in IMSA, with much success. Throughout the season she was at the front of the field, battling for podiums. This was a huge turning point for Zellers, having spent the previous 2 seasons without a drive. However, after hard work to find adequate funds, she was finally able to race and show her true potential. Hanna has many accolades to her name and so will go into the selection process with over one hundred wins behind her. Although she may not have the profile that other qualifiers do, she has a lot of essential competitive racing experience.
Sheena Monk’s involvement in motorsport began at a young age with her father having been a motorcycle racer. After being gifted a go-kart at the age of 5 as a Christmas present and then a dirt bike when she was 7, it was clear she was passionate about any kind of racing. Despite this love of ‘anything with an engine’, Sheena didn’t start racing competitively until relatively recently after taking part and completing the Lamborghini Corso Pilota scheme in 2017. The course is designed to prepare drivers for real racing situations pushing both them and their skills to the limit. After finishing the program, Monk entered the final round of the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Series at Italy’s prestigious former-F1 track Imola. In her debut race, Sheena finished 3rd in her class despite this being her first ever race. Both surprising and delighting fans and members of staff, this result made those involved in the series take note. In 2018, she returned to the series for the full season competing in the LB Cup. She took her first win of the season at Virginia International Raceway before a horror crash later in the year. However, she is now looking forward to the new season and hopefully racing in W Series.
Along with Sheena Monk competing in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Series is Shea Holbrook. Growing up, Shea was a thrill-seeker competing in water-skiing nationally and even learning to fly her father’s plane. Although she loved these activities, it wasn’t until she experienced the world of motorsport that it became clear what it was that she wanted to do. Aged 16, Holbrook was involved in an experience event at the Daytona International Speedway in which she was driven around the track in the passenger seat. With little previous knowledge of racing, Shea decided that it was the sport for her. Knowing the time and practice it would take to get to the standard she wanted, Holbrook began driving, going onto obtain her racing license from the Sports Car Club of America. Keen to continue improving, she attended many driver development schemes and in 2010 decided then was the time to enter into a professional racing event. Entering the SCCA Pro Racing World Challenge Touring Car Championship, Shea had a best finish of 6th, before going on to win a race the following year at the Long Beach Grand Prix, becoming the first woman to win a Touring Car race at the venue. After several years in the World Challenge Series, she continues to race in the competition and has become a 7-time winner, 5 of which were in the 2014 season in which she also finished on the podium 10 times. In 2015, she also raced in the IHRA Nitro Jet Jam Drag Racing Class with a best finish of 4th, despite this being her first time drag racing. Most recently, she has been racing in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo North America Series with much success.
Megan Gilkes is one of the youngest qualifiers at the age of only 17. Having started racing aged 9, only 2 years later she won the 2011 Barbados Easykart 60-cc half-season championship. In the same year, she raced at the World Finals in Italy, however a devastating crash left her with a broken arm and concussion. From 2012 to 2014, Gilkes took a break from racing after she moved to Canada, although she did take part in various testing events. In 2015 she returned to racing in the Ottawa Challenge Karting Series as well as completing the Skip Barber Racing School. The following year, she graduated from karting to cars in the F1200 Canada and after a successful year, she returned to the series finishing 3rd in the standings, winning 2 races and multiple podiums. She improved on this result in 2018 when she ended the year 2nd in the championship. Despite having less experience than many of the other drivers, it is clear Megan is a quick-learner which will be a benefit to her if she is to race in the W Series this year.
Cassie Gannis wanted to race from a very young age, however it took a lot of persuading before it was something her family took seriously. She attended a local kart race with her father in the aim of showing him her passion, but in the event they watched one driver crashed, breaking their arm, meaning he decided it was too dangerous for Cassie. Her father did have a good knowledge of motorsport though and knew that quarter midget vehicles would be the safer option. With the quarter midget having a full cage for protection around the driver, in comparison to the exposed kart, it provided more security. Gannis raced in this vehicle for 3 years until she was 13 and transitioned to Bandelero cars (miniature stock cars in which drivers have to climb through the roof to enter the car). This series is often a feeder to the Legends Series which is a competition where replicas of 1930s American cars with Yamaha motorbike engines are raced and in which Cassie raced aged 15. However, after suffering with a back problem, Gannis had to take a year out of racing to have surgery. After her year off, she returned to racing in Super Late Models before becoming one of 13 drivers to be selected for the PEAK Stock Car Dream, a 3-day racing event. The following year, Cassie received approval to allow her to race in the ARCA Racing Series and from there series such as NASCAR. She has since competed in several NASCAR categories.
Canadian Taegen Poles has had an interest in motorsport since she began watching F1 on TV. Her family had no background in the sport and so her passion came purely from what she saw on television and went on to see when she began attending races. After witnessing the 2003 Toronto Indy race from the stands, she began speaking to drivers and asking them how she could start in the sport. Their answer was karting, and so Taegen decided that was what she wanted to do. 3 years later and she started racing in the Canadian Rookie Karting Championship finishing 5th overall in the driver standings, recording her first pole position at the age of only 7. The following year she returned to the championship, winning and becoming the youngest woman to do so. From the 2009 season to 2011, Taegen raced in the Rotax Micro-Max and Mini-Max categories as well as the Brian Stewart Racing Karting Championship in which she was crowned Vice-Champion. She also finished 6th in the standings at the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship and 10th in the Canadian Nationals. 2012 was her first full season racing as she drove in the Rotax Junior series, however one of her most dominant seasons was in 2014 when she won the Mosport International Karting Association Championship finishing 90% of the races on the podium. In 2017 she began racing in the Rotax DD2 Class in which she finished in 3rd as well as driving part-time in the Senior Rotax Championship. Last year, Poles competed in the ROK engine program and also achieved her best result at the Canadian Nationals of 8th.