The past decade has been frustratingly difficult for the American Formula 1 fan. A much-hyped event at the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway dropped off the schedule after 2005's Michelin tire debacle, which saw only the six Bridgestone-shod competitors contest the race. American driver search winner Scott Speed flamed out with Scuderia Toro Rosso and now races stock cars.
Last year saw no North American races on the grid at all, and with two American-based teams unsuccessful in bids to join the sport, a period that started off with so much promise has led to a bleak present for the sport stateside.
Jonathan Summerton is aiming to change all that.
The 22-year-old Kissimmee, Florida native has been making quite a name for himself by winning races and contending for championships across the globe. Summerton took America's lone win in the national team-oriented A1 Grand Prix championship, winning the spring 2008 feature race at Shanghai.
He scored four wins in last year's Atlantic Championship, tying season champion John Edwards in points (Edwards took the tiebreaker with one more second-place), and posted strong finishes while moonlighting with Andersen Racing in the Firestone Indy Lights Series. These performances attracted the attention of both potential American-based F1 entrants, and he was working closely with the Cypher Group on an F1 program for next year.
Off track, Summerton connects with his fans better than most drivers. He frequents Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, giving his fans an inside look into the life of a professional race car driver.
While visiting Louisiana State University, Summerton took time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for us.
Let’s start with the basics. How did you first get into racing? When did you decide that you wanted to do it professionally?
JS: I started racing in Go Karts when I was 12 and well basically from day one I was set on being a World Champion and making a career out of it. I love racing it's my passion and life.
You've had experience racing in Formula BMW, Formula 3, and A1GP, traveling across the globe to do so. How did racing (and winning) in those three series shape you as a driver? Do the drivers, teams, and fans over in Europe treat racing differently than they do here in the States?
JS: Well of course over there, there are a lot more people who know and live for racing but the excitement in America is very similar. Driving all over the world in those series was amazing and was an experience of a lifetime. It has helped me learn to travel and depend on myself more and keep myself motivated while on the road. It also has helped me build a family with my teams. It is great and I really enjoy bringing the team together and having a family on the road.
Last year was one of the best of your career, with some strong Indy Lights finishes and almost winning the Atlantic title. Do you attribute last year's success to anything in particular? Looking back on it, does any one race in particular stand out?
JS: Well for me everything was great. I am determined to be the best and win in whatever I do. It was also great last year having so many people behind me supporting me and well of course just having my fans behind me and friends and family has always helped and motivated me more and more everyday. Without them I wouldn't be the person I am today. It was a great season and I really enjoyed it.
Unfortunately we haven't seen too much of you this year. What have you been doing to pass the time?
JS: Haha well been keeping busy training hard and working hard on finding sponsors. I have had a lot of deals come and go that many haven't heard of but as many know was working on a deal with Cypher Group for F1 and well we were almost there but decided we wanted to have everything ready to go when we do it. I know they will be back and well they are a great group of people and was great working with them. Now I am concentrating on finding funding for next year.
Have you had any luck on the sponsorship front? A lot of teams have been taking on pay drivers in recent years to pay the bills. Do you see that trend continuing in the near future, or do you think things are primed for a turn around?
JS: Well I think this is where racing needs to change up a little cause a few years ago teams were wanting the best drivers and had sponsors behind them now it seems they are struggling just like the drivers and well of course money is key now. I am working feverishly to find sponsors and it's just part of the job :)
You’ve worked with a number of the top teams in Atlantic and Indy Lights over the past couple of years, as well as some top teams in your time in Europe. Did you have a favorite team to work with, or a team that you felt you worked best with?
JS: Well all of them have been great. I would never say there was a best as they all had different qualities but I will say working with A1GP Team USA was a fun and exciting experience every time traveling the world together with them.
You’re also one of only a handful of drivers to have run in both the current Dallara Indy Lights chassis and the Swift Atlantic car. Was one of those cars easier to drive than the other? More fun to drive? More reliable?
JS: I would have to say they were both really fun. The Swift could have done with more power but they both had their own aspects that were fun. I must say I haven't found a car I didn't enjoy driving. They are all racecars and what can I say driving is fun!
Have you been keeping up with this year’s Formula 1 and IndyCar seasons? What do you think about the way things have been going this year?
JS:Yeah of course. Racing is what I live, breathe, and eat! Things are very exciting in both series. I gotta say the new Indy Car is looking great and what Randy is doing there is great. I hope sponsors come on board there and help the series become bigger again. F1 now that is just awesome to have 5 drivers as close as they are fighting for the title. Very exciting!
An American-based Formula 1 team, USF1, was supposed to join the grid this year, with no luck. Another entry (Cypher) wasn’t granted entry for 2011. Now there are rumblings that the new track in Austin is going to be behind schedule, and that traffic will be outrageous. Why do you think Formula 1 is having such a hard time stabilizing itself in the United States? As a driver with F1 aspirations, do you see this as a hindrance to your goals, or does it only motivate you more to make it to that level?
JS: Well with Cypher actually they withdrew their entry as we were wanted to have everything ready and well we didn't so to be fair to the others and FIA we withdrew. As for F1 it is a very hard gig to get into. High in cost and lots of work to do so. Of course not having any major things of F1 happening for America in teams, tracks, and drivers it is very hard to break in but it can be done and hopefully I will do it!
As far as drivers go, you have a pretty strong online presence - you use Twitter and YouTube a lot, and interact with your fans as much as possible. What's your favorite part of using social media as a driver? Do you think other drivers will come to embrace it as you do in the near future?
JS: Interacting with fans is fun and I love doing it. You get to hear outside stories, hear about their opinions and what they want to see and well of course build up a support group. I can't express enough how I enjoy bringing fans into my shoes and letting them tell me what they want to see cause I know there's lots of cool and interesting things in racing. I can't say it enough though I am always trying to get new fans and followers on Facebook, youtube, and twitter as I love filling people in on what they want to know about the sport and my life.
What's the best piece of advice a fellow competitor ever gave you about racing? And what advice would you offer young drivers looking to follow in your footsteps?
JS: Stay focused and never let any door close. Always stay grounded and remember where you came from! Never miss an opportunity! Go out there and do your best interact with everyone and enjoy every minute. You have to believe in yourself first before others will!
Anything else you'd like to tell your fans and readers?
JS: Thank you for all their support and feel free to chat to me on Facebook or twitter and send me any suggestions or things they would like to hear about or know more about for my future videos on youtube! My fans mean the world to me and are the ones who have believed in me and kept me pushing on towards my dreams and I want to say a big THANK YOU to them and everyone for their support.
Finally, what do you think the future holds for you? And what do you think the future holds for American open-wheel racing in general?
JS: Can't really say all I know is a world championship I am sure ;) As for American open wheel racing I am sure things will become strong again we all just have to come together.
We'd like to say a big THANK YOU to JS for taking the time to talk to us. You can check out his personal website at http://www.formulajon.com, his Twitter account at @JSummerton, and his YouTube channel jsummertonusa.