It has been five years since I last profiled Carson City's Nick Halen, a young racer on the move.
At that time Nick had abandoned Fuji Park's dirt oval for asphalt road racing at Desert Park Raceway in Reno. Now in his 10th racing season at the ripe old age of 16, Nick has burst on the national karting scene, scoring a win and a second place finish in the prestigious and ultra-competitive Stars of Tomorrow series. Nick has followed a progression from local club racing (where he was a consistent winner) to Regional events, winning the California International Karting Federation (IKF) championship in 2001 and finishing second in 2002. At the same time he was dipping his toes into yet higher-level competition, running some races in the touring Superkarts USA series in an 80cc shifter kart.
Wide-open engine rules and extensive travel proved too expensive, but he found he could be competitive even at that level. This led to Nick's foray into the Stars of Tomorrow series this season, where stringent carburetor arnd exhaust system rules maintain a level playing field in the technology department, allowing drivers to showcase their talents better.
Indy car star Brian Herta was the original impetus behind the Stars of Tomorrow concept, and was soon joined by Bobby Rahal, Memo Gidley, and other motorsports luminaries who want to make the series the first rung on the ladder to top-level open wheel competition in America. After missing the first race, Nick plans to run the remainder of the series, which consists of four east coast and four west coast rounds. Competitors run two complete race sequences (practice, qualifying, race) each weekend, one on Sarturday and one on Sunday. Races are typically 50 kilometers (about 32 miles) in length, and over 50 karts vie for 36 starting positions.
Nick runs his own equipment in the west coast races, but has rented an "arrive and drive" kart for the eastern races. The cost is about the same, but the logistics are much easier as he and father Steve can fly to the east coast events. How competitive are the fields in the Stars of Tomorrow series? So far there have been no repeat winners in the ICC division for shifter rkarts. Nick was on his way to his second victory at Infineon Raceway when a last-lap incident put him out. Readers who get the Speed channel will be able to see the telecast of that race in September.
So what's in the future for the straight-A Carson High student? "Personally, I just love racing go-karts. It's very competitive and lots of fun," said Halen. But what about the "ladder" progression to Formula Atlantic and on to CART Champ cars or IRL Indy cars? Unfortunately, these days more than talent is required to progress to the upper levels of open-wheel racing. "Most of the guys in Atlantic have to bring personal sponsorship to a team in order to get a ride," says Nick's father Steve. The Halens havre some excellent help from local business supporters, notably NAPA Auto Parts on Highway 50 East, Carson City Towing, Jim Farcello at Kustom Kreations, and Dr. Kent Gabriel. But it takes large amounts of cash in addition to considerable driving talent to land a Formula Atlantic ride. For a Champ car ride, just add a few zeroes and even more talent. Either one requires a regional or national sponsor with a big budget and a realization of the marketing benefits of sponsoring a race team. And who knows, a strong finish in the Stars of Tomorrow series could attract the right kind of sponsor or interest from one of the Atlantic, Champ car, or IRL teams.
The final race of the 2003 season will take place in conjunction with the IRL race at California Speedway in Fontana, which will be great exposure for Halen. And although only two of the races this season will be seen on TV, the entire 2004 season will be televised. The only potential fly in the ointment is the recently announced merger betwreen the Stars of Tomorrow series and Superkarts USA. If engine cost escalation again becomes an issue, the expense could make Halen uncompetitive with the teams that have cubic dollars.
Even if he goes no farther in motorsports, Nick has already achieved far more than many drivers will in a lifetime. A look at his trophy room boggles the mind, with trophies stacked wall-to-wall and overflowing into another room. There are trophies from his Outlaw kart days, club racing, and series from as far away as Canada. But he's also paying attention to his education, so if racing doesn't pan out as a career he'll have something to fall back on.
"Nick has to get straight A's or he doesn't race," saidr proud father Steve, displaying Nick's report card from last semester at Carson High.
Nick reminds one of a young Memo Gidley, who also came up through the west coast karting ranks and ran a season with the Ganassi team in the Champ Car series. But just in case Nick doesn't get the right breaks to move into a top-rank ride in motorsports, he and father Steve have plans for a local asphalt road-racing facility right here in Carson City. They have identified three suitable locations, and feel that there's enough interest and support in the area for such a venture. They envision the course as ran enhancement rather than competition with Desert Park Raceway in Reno.
And if things work out, you may see Nick in a Midget racer on dirt at Reno-Fernley Raceway this season or next, and maybe even on asphalt somewhere in a Supermodified. Stay tuned for another update, because this young man is going places . . . fast!