Had the world not drastically changed, Devlin DeFrancesco would still be in Italy and chasing his dreams on the FIA Formula 3 circuit.
It’s the global pandemic that has put him back at home and in an Indy Car, where he was destined to wind up eventually. The coronavirus has essentially pushed the fast forward button on DeFrancesco’s life to this new and exciting chapter.
“Maybe, yeah,” the 20-year old Toronto native said with slight hesitation Monday from Miami, where he is once again living with his family. “But I think everything happens for a reason. I think I have a great future ahead of me, and now it’s time to enjoy and go execute and go win some races.”
DeFrancesco’s future officially starts this week in Elkhart Lake, Wisc., where he will be racing in Road America, Rounds 1/2 (Thursday-Friday) of his inaugural Indy Pro 2000 season. Adding to the excitement is the fact he has joined forces with a couple of heavy hitters — Andretti Autosport, which is owned by former CART series champion Michael Andretti, and Steinbrenner Racing, whose owner is George Michael Steinbrenner IV, the 23-year old grandson of the legendary, late New York Yankees boss.
The Andretti-Steinbrenner partnership turned its attention to Indy Pro 2000 when COVID-19 cancelled the Indy Lights Series. Conversations with DeFrancesco, however, have been going on for more than a year.
“We felt that Indy Pro 2000 is a great opportunity to keep our up-and-coming drivers inside the cockpit,” Andretti told Peter Allen of Formula Scout. “We had our eye on Devlin for a while and excited to have him join Andretti Autosport. With his European experience and natural talent, we are confident in what he can do behind the wheel of his Indy Pro 2000 car.”
For DeFrancesco, it was like being a free agent signed by the best team in the league.
“I’ve always wanted to race in IndyCar, and do the Indy 500 and everything,” he said. “I just think here, I have a much better fit. Andretti and Steinbrenner, these guys have taken me under their wing. You don’t find a better pairing, I think, anywhere in the world.”
Indeed, Andretti Autosport has won the Indianapolis 500 five times, the IndyCar Series four times and Indy Lights championship four times.
Steinbrenner is becoming a big player in the game with which he fell in love as a child. His cousin, Tony Renna, was an IndyCar driver in the early 2000s, while his uncle, Chris Simmons, is a engineer for Scott Dixon, the 2008 Indy 500 champ.
His first racing gig was working for Bryan Herta in the Global Rallycross series.
“In the shop, I answered phones, mopped floors, filled coolers and filled fridges,” Steinbrenner told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “I grew up around racing, with it being a family atmosphere, going to the paddock and all. And growing up, my heroes were always sports management figures. I always looked up to the guys in the pit stand. To choose racing as a branching-off point for me was a no-brainer.”
With barely three years’ difference in ages between DeFrancesco and Steinbrenner, this could be the start of a long and very fruitful relationship indeed.
“He’s young and ambitious, as I am,” said DeFrancesco. “I think we both have everything we need to succeed. I’m lucky to have him with me. I think he’s obviously a very influential person. He’s ambitious, he’s driven, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity he’s given me.”
The two also share a commitment to being the best.
“George loves motor racing and he really wants to succeed in Indy Car,” said DeFrancesco. “That’s where I want my future to be. I’m ready to fight my way to the top.”
DeFrancesco’s past began Jan. 17, 2000, when he was born 15 weeks prematurely to mother Cathy and father Andy at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. Weighing one pound upon arrival, he literally battled his way into the world, surviving collapsed lungs and severe brain bleeding and swelling.
The miracle baby turned into a daring young boy, who first became interested in racing at the age of six and has been on the move ever since. The family left Toronto for Florida when he was eight, and then moved on to Italy as Devlin continued to improve his karting skills.
The results showed in 2013, when DeFrancesco returned to Canada to win the national junior championship.
Back in Italy, DeFrancesco continued to build on his highlight reel. In 2017, he was the Spanish Formula 3 champion and finished third in Euro F3. But then his career hit a bump in the road.
With the help of a new team, Trident, DeFrancesco was getting things back on track at the end of the 2018 season.
“Trident took me under their wing, after going through a really hard year-and-a-half, and I am grateful to them, because they built me back up,” he said. “They took me back to a high level.
“If you look at the end of last year, we were always sort of quick enough to be in the top five. Even if you look at the pre-season tests this year, barring Day 1 going P1 with them, this year was going to be a very strong year with them, I think.
“They’re great guys at Trident. They’re an amazing team. I have nothing but good things to say about them.”
DeFrancesco re-signed with Trident and jumped out to a strong start in the Asian Formula 3 winter series with a double podium and one pole position. But because of coronavirus and a weakened immune system as a result of being a “super preemie,” he regretfully decided to sit out the final two rounds.
“It was only before those last two rounds where everyone sort of realized, wow this is pretty serious,” said DeFrancesco, who doesn’t walk around in fear of contracting the virus.
“I think you have to live your life. But, also, you need to take all the precautions you can. You need to wash your hands regularly, wear masks, stuff like that. You need to stay on top of it. I think as long as you stay on top of it, that’s the maximum you can do. I don’t think there’s a point worrying about it when you wake up and go to sleep every night. You just need to go out and get on with it.”
For DeFrancesco, that means chasing the prize with the support of family members who went to his races in Europe when able, but will now have an easier time following him around the U.S.
“It’s nice to be home with my family, see my dad,” said DeFrancesco, who will have Andy in attendance in Wisconsin while Cathy is stuck at the family cottage in the Muskokas.
“My dad’s been so busy with work and everything, it’s going to be nice to spend a lot more time with him and my mom and siblings and everyone.”
As for expectations in his debut on the Indy Pro 2000 circuit, DeFrancesco is optimistic.
“That’s always a hard question to say, but I think if we get our things right we’re definitely going to be fighting at the front, that’s for sure,” he said. “But I have a really good feeling for this weekend. I definitely want to be in the top-two for sure. Fighting for wins and podiums. That’s our plan.”
The blueprint is a similar one for his rookie season.
“Honestly, I have a great team of people around me, a great team working on the car,” said DeFrancesco. “I think we have all the ingredients we need to go fight for race wins and podiums. I think we’re honestly going to have a really successful year together. It’s now about going and executing it.
“Fight for wins.”
READY FOR ACTION
Just because Devlin DeFrancesco has never raced an Indy Car around the Road America track in Wisconsin doesn’t mean he’ll be going blind into his debut.
He’s done “hundreds” of laps on a simulator and is therefore quite comfortable with the layout.
“It definitely stops me from being dropped into the deep end, for sure,” said DeFrancesco. “Preparation is key. That’s what I learned in Europe. The better-prepared you are, the better you’re going to go. It’s going to be my first time there but I’ve done enough simulator prep with the guys, so I’m really looking forward to it. I think we can definitely get some good results.”
Call it common practice in the racing game these days. In an attempt to drive down costs, the governing bodies have put a “testing” ban in place. In turn, teams have bought simulators to get familiar with the various tracks.
“You can drive exactly the same track, with the same car, in a virtual world, and it gives you sort of the closest thing possible to real life,” said DeFrancesco. “You can do as many laps as you want. I’d say it’s as good as a tester.”
The protocol for races now has obviously been adjusted for coronavirus precautions.
“To follow the COVID-guidelines for sports, so there is not too many people in the paddock at one time, I think us and the series below us race Thursday and Friday, and then Indy Car comes Friday night, Saturday and Sunday,” said DeFrancesco. “I think we have to leave straight after our race and everything has to get cleaned and disinfected. It’s a real weird world we’re living in.”
But an exciting one, nonetheless.
“I’m over the moon,” said DeFrancesco. “I’m honestly over the moon because as I said I have a great team around me and I think we have a competitive car to fight for wins and podiums every weekend.”
INDY PRO 2000 SCHEDULE
Here’s the schedule for the Indy Pro 2000 season:
Rounds 1/2 (July 9-10), Elkhart Lake, Wisc.
4.014-Mile, 14-Turn Road Course
Rounds 3/4/5 (July 29-30) Lexington, Ohio
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
2.258-Mile, 13-Turn Road Course
Rounds 6/7 (Aug. 7-9) Lexington, Ohio
Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
2.258-Mile, 13-Turn Road Course
Round 8 (Aug. 21) Indianapolis, Ind.
Lucas Oil Raceway
Round 9 (Aug. 28-29) Madison, Ill.
World Wide Technology Raceway
Rounds 10/11/12 (Sept. 3-4) Indianapolis, Ind.
Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit
2.439-Mile, 14-Turn Road Course
Rounds 13/14 (Sept. 11-13) Portland, Ore.
Portland International Raceway
1.964-Mile, 12-Turn Road Course
Rounds 15/16 (Sept. 18-20) Monterey, Calif.
WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca
2.238-Mile, 11-Turn Road Course
Rounds 17/18 (Oct. 23-25) St. Petersburg, Fla.
Streets of St. Petersburg
1.8-Mile, 14-Turn Street Circuit