While there were 17 drivers on hand this weekend for the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout, only one of them was destined for victory in the tense, compelling and authentic competition. For Keith Donegan, a driver from Dublin, Ireland, to be that driver was almost as astonishing to himself as it were the rest of those following the event.
Forming one of the more unique stories out of the group of competitors, Donegan is an unusual case. With wins at Silverstone and other noted circuits in Europe, the Irish driver was a fine prospect as a teenager. In the midst of budding success, he decided to take a three-year hiatus from motorsport to focus on his academic studies. Noting a decreasing opportunity for advancement and a joint decision with family, the choice was simple to make for the young talent.
“It was a combined decision with my parents where we decided to take three years off to focus on college, but at that stage I had just finished 2nd in the Ginetta Junior Championship. There was very little room for progression,” said Donegan.
Normally, a driver falls out of the spotlight during this time of absence and falls behind competition he was racing with as a teen, effectively ending a career. While the time off may have left his driving skills with a touch of rust, the maturity and vision absorbed by time spent at university became much more valuable.
“Because I did three years of business in Trinity College Dublin it gave me time to mature and see the racing world from the outside-in,” Donegan explained. “Motorsport is a big business and when you get your head around that, you can understand how to progress up the ladder. Ultimately I think it was the right decision at the time but I’m more than happy to be back racing.”
Donegan returned to competition this past April, racing in Formula Ford events across Europe in a car built by his and his father’s own hands. Just weeks before this year’s Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, the 20-year-old finished runner-up at the prestigious Formula Ford Festival and punched his ticket to the December competition.
In the course of five weeks, the driving prospect went from a “dad and lad” entry to a legitimate contender for the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout scholarship.
The Mazda Road to Indy Scholarship Shootout is a competition held annually that gives approximately 20 developing drivers the shot at a $200,000 ticket to the USF2000 championship the following year. USF2000 is the entry level series on the Mazda Road to Indy ladder that provides open-wheel drivers a clear path to the Verizon IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.
This year’s competition featured drivers from nine countries, and driving series from karting to Formula Ford and many different disciplines in between. Outlasting the 16 other participants over the course of a two-day, five session gauntlet, Donegan was the one left standing with the big check and even larger smile.
“Racing in the states was my dreams,” Donegan told Open-Wheels. “With this scholarship they help make dreams a reality.”
Speaking to the intense competition provided by his peers and the fine job the event organizers did in preparing the 2017 Shootout, Dublin’s favorite driver was incredibly impressed with the entire production.
“The MRTI was an amazing experience, and competing against 17 champions from around the world was insane,” Donegan offered. “Mazda Motorsports does a fantastic job putting together a scholarship that can really boost a young drivers career and help them take it to the next step! I have to thank them, Cooper Tire, Bondurant Racing School and Andersen Promotions for providing me with this surreal opportunity.”
Making Waves in Two Days
To win the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, a driver must demonstrate their driving ability in a distinct and authoritative manner in which the panel of respected judges take note. Working with a level and composed mindset can make an incredibly important difference when separating a driver from the rest of the pack, and that was a trait possessed by Donegan that the panel valued.
“Overall it was a fun weekend but I just focused on doing all the simple things right and it paid off,” the 20-year-old said. “I kept my cool and did what I usually do and here we are. It was so good meeting all those judges and working with them. They have so much experience and we really learnt from them.”
Expanding on his high praise for this year’s judging panel (composed of Oliver Askew, Jonathan Bomarito, Andrew Carbonell, Scott Goodyear, Victor Franzoni and Tom Long), Donegan made the most of expert critiques and the opportunity to showcase himself as a polished racing prospect.
“It’s not so much vast differences that the judges told me that made the difference,” said Donegan. “It is more just small things to consider and keep an eye on. All these small things add up and it’s fine margins at the end of the day so it makes the difference.”
When Plans Change
While each driver accepts an invitation to the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout with an ambition to win the $200,000 prize to USF2000, drivers are generally very realistic individuals and it is common for them to temper expectations. In winning the scholarship to next season’s USF2000 championship, Donegan exceeded the expectations that many had set for him – and possibly even his own. What makes this young talent unique is his willingness to adapt and continue moving forward, and that is exactly what he is doing following this weekend’s breakthrough.
Speaking to Open-Wheels this morning, Keith is already on the path to find a team. Working with $200,000 in the bank makes that much more enjoyable than the situation most young drivers face this time of year, and Donegan is not taking that for granted.
“I’m on the case today to get teams sorted! Hopefully I’ll get a test in a USF2000 car before I head home,” he says. “I need to put together a preseason testing plan to give myself every shot at the championship! My aim is to win the championship, so I need to find the best fit for that! Also I’m moving to the states so will need to organize places to stay and things like that.”
A lot to take in for a man who was facing hazy offseason prospects back in early October.
If Donegan needs any blueprint for success following his MRTI Shootout triumph, he should look no further than the efforts of Oliver Askew, the 2017 USF2000 champion. Askew used his victory in the 2016 Shootout to join the USF2000 ranks this past season, and duly dominated the competition with Cape Motorsports. He will benefit once again from a Mazda scholarship by racing in the Pro Mazda division in 2018.
Wisely, Donegan recognizes the fast track to success has been set by Askew and will try to imitate a similar USF2000 debut.
“I’m so excited to get into the USF2000 and hopefully I can follow in the footsteps of last years champion, Oliver Askew,” he states.
In doing that, we would get to see Keith Donegan as one of the judges for the 2018 Mazda Road to Indy Shootout, helping decide the fate of another lucky young talent. Even more than that, he would be well on his way to adding another chapter in his book of incredible racing adventures.
Images courtesy of Mazda Motorsports