JULY 11, 2005


Stock cars might seem 'natural' fit

But FSU student Festa focused on Indy cars


ATLANTA - For most living in the southeastern United States, "road racing" is what Junior Johnson did when speeding away from federal officers during his "moonshining" days in the North Carolina mountains . . . or what stock cars do twice a year in the wine countries of Sonoma, Calif., and Watkins Glen, N.Y.


"I wouldn't refer to myself as 'one of the wine-and-cheese boys' like you sometimes hear," laughs race car driver Chris Festa, "but my career goals are focused on open-wheel cars and the IRL."


Festa, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Florida State University, is something of an anomaly for a race car driver who grew up in Atlanta. While he won't discount the possibilities of a stock car racing career at some point, his thoughts are squarely set on the IRL. Currently, he drives the #19 SpacePak/CareCentric entry for Sam Schmidt Motorsports in the IRL's Menards Infiniti Pro Series, and is currently fourth in the standings.


"I probably get asked more than anything else - why not stock cars?" Festa laughed. "I really took a lot of heat from my friends in high school. They just couldn't figure it out. About every day they'd ask why I didn't want to race stock cars."


John Festa, Chris' father, is a native of the northeastern U.S., and sparked his son's interest in open-wheel racing and road courses. Once Chris' obvious talent began shining, the two realized the IRL was the obvious direction.


"My dad raced sports cars on road courses. That's where it all started for me.  I've raced in the Toyota Atlantic Championship Series, and I've made the move to the Pro Series because I'm really focused on making a career of driving in the IndyCar Series," said Festa. 


The teenager has had the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of a NASCAR stock car, and though he recognizes that it takes plenty of talent to handle a stock car, he, respectfully, isn't interested in them.


"The cars are just really bulky and clumsy compared to an IndyCar.  To put it in plain terms, it'd be the difference between driving a sports car or a school bus.  The cars just aren't as responsive as IndyCars and, to me, they just aren't as fun as the open wheel cars," explained Festa.  "I have a ton of respect for those guys that can pull those cars around the track and make them look smooth. I don't know, I just like the feel of the open wheel cars better."


Festa's favorite racing situation is running an open wheel car on a road course, a situation with which he is very familiar.  During his podium celebration at Indianapolis, where he finished third in the Liberty Challenge race on the road course, his comfort and joy radiated.  He never said it − he didn't have to − but Festa was obviously very at home with his surroundings.


"The Liberty Challenge in Indy was just a great day for me.  I had a lot of fun racing with Wade Cunningham (who finished second), and I didn't even realize until I got out of the car that I really shouldn't have been able to see let alone race throughout the second half of the race," said Festa, referring to the blackened oil and debris caked on his car, helmet and visor for the last half of the race following the expiration of a competitor's motor.  "I guess that's as good an example as I can give as to how much I enjoy racing these cars, and how much fun I have on the road course. I finished that race, challenging for second place, and I shouldn't even have been able to see at all, but I could.  It was a really fun race."


Festa has over 60 wins to his credit in his seven years behind the wheel of a variety of go-karts and race cars.  He's as studious in his approach to racing as he is in his scholastic work, and he looks forward to continuing to develop his racing skills.


"There's a lot to learn about racing - from setting up the cars, to the attitudes of different race tracks, to knowing actually how to race your competitors - then you have to factor in how your competitors like to race - there's a lot to learn.  I'm working everyday to take in more and improve my driving skills," said Festa.


While Festa continues developing his IndyCar racing career, he'll continue studying at Florida State University and continue answering the question of why he drives open wheel cars.  He doesn't mind the question because each time he gets to answer, he gets to revisit all the great things about his favorite style of racing.