Meet the 16-Year-Old Racer Who Doesn't Have His Driver's Licence
Up-and-coming race car driver Robert Megennis, who's homeschooled by an English father and Korean mother in New York City, has developed a passion for a sport as unique as he is.
Photo by Daily VICE
Every year the streets of downtown Toronto are transformed into a racetrack and turned into the home of the Honda Indy. Away from the roaring engines, scrambling fans, and hot sun, is the Enercare Centre, where a large cement room filled with rows of team-decorated trailer trucks acts as the temporary home for touring drivers.
The room is quiet compared to the madness outside, and besides the sound of occasional power drills tweaking race cars in between trailers, the room is filled with a sense of calmness and serenity. Amidst the rows of trailers, drivers and their teams can be found working on cars, going over strategy, hanging out with friends and family, eating, and pretty much everything else someone might do in a home without privacy. Team Pelfrey's black and yellow trailer truck stands near the middle of the pack, where 16-year-old driver Robert Megennis can be found sitting amongst his family, nonchalantly playing Pokémon Go on his iPhone.
Mere hours after crashing into a wall on his first practice run of the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship in Toronto, Megennis remains inexplicably calm, waiting for his next chance to get on the racetrack while his engineers put together his broken race car in the background.
Despite the crash, nerves never enter his system before a race. After all, a little crash into the wall isn't going to disturb a kid who's gone through much worse and come out on the other side. Last year at Road Atlanta, in his first race in a real race car in the F1600 series, a then 15-year-old Megennis went to overtake the car beside him and ended up running it over in a freak accident.
"People laugh about it because I got out, literally after rolling seven times at 130 miles per hour," said Megennis, who got out of the car and threw his hands in the air to signal that he was more than OK.
How Megennis handled that crash is telling of how mature and brave he is, because although it was admittedly a freak accident, one that forced his mother to stop watching his races for good, it never made him question the path he was on.
"Everyone has a bad accident in their career and I just felt like I can't let this bother me, I want to keep driving," he explained. "So I went out the next time and completely forgot about it, it never happened, and I was still fast. I think I actually went faster after that accident."
Megennis first discovered his passion for driving when he drove a go-kart at his father's birthday in 2009. After a couple years of successful competitive go-karting, he joined Team Pelfrey and started racing cars in the F1600 Championship Series where he had an impressive first year, finishing No. 8 overall. Megennis' strong first season racing cars allowed him to move up to the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda at just 16 years of age, making him the youngest driver in the first level of the Mazda Road to Indy, a three-rung driver development program providing a scholarship-funded path to the IndyCar Series.
Despite being the youngest in the competition, and one who doesn't even have his driver's licence, Megennis ranks No. 1 in rookie standings and No. 7 overall in the USF2000 over halfway through the season. While most young drivers struggle with the pressure and high stakes of USF2000 competition, Megennis embraces it and thrives off it.
"I love all of it," he said about his passion for race car driving. "I love the thrill. I love the adventure. I love the speed. I'm living the dream here."
It doesn't take very long to understand that Megennis is unlike most 16-year-olds. Aside from his hectic schedule and unconventional lifestyle, his calm and selfless demeanor are unique for someone his age, resembling that of an experienced professional, despite a lack of experience being his biggest weakness.
For Megennis, it's his maturity that allows him to live a lifestyle most other teens simply could not.
"I mean you look at me and I'm enjoying myself here," Megennis explained. "I'm racing, but I still have to keep up with school and do all my homework, so I'm working extremely hard and my life is non-stop. I just love it. I just embrace it. It's what I've always done."
It's fitting that Megennis, a one-of-a-kind 16-year-old homeschooled by an English father and Korean mother in New York City, has developed a passion for a sport as unique as he is. Race car driving is different, an extreme sport that tests drivers both mentally and physically.
"Mentally you have to go at such extreme speeds for so long, half-hour to an hour, you have to be able to keep focused. You have to mentally be able to cope with all the fans, all the pressure," Megennis said, adding that it's a skill he honed from his experience as a nationally ranked sabre fencer.
"Racing is [also] very unique on your body. You have weird parts of your body that need to be strong. Your neck, your shoulders, your forearms, I think my forearms are bigger than my biceps at this point. It's a very weird sport."
The uniqueness of race car driving is obvious, but there is a lot more to the sport than what meets the eye. Racing is incredibly complex, and the operation behind Megennis is enormous. Mechanics, engineers, and driving coaches work with him to keep the car in top shape and use data collected from his car's sensors to develop unique strategies and techniques. On top of strategy sessions, Megennis prepares for races by spending countless hours practicing on a complex three-screen simulator, working with a personal trainer several times a week, studying video of past races, and doing just about anything else he can.
"Racing is way more of a team effort than people think," he said. "I'm very fortunate to have such a great team, Team Pelfrey and Turo, they supported me so much and I wouldn't be here without them, to be honest."
Team Pelfrey is an American racing team established in 1998. The team scouted Robert at a young age, and now provides money, resources, and personnel to help develop him into a star driver.
Turo, meanwhile, is a peer-to-peer carsharing marketplace and Megennis' major sponsor. The 2009 startup saw potential in Megennis' racing abilities and admired his character, noting that he's fun and adventurous, and that his personality embodied everything Turo is about, pushing them to take a chance on him as their one and only sponsorship.
"I think investing in a young driver was something really important to us," said Cedric Mathieu, director of Turo. "It was a way to show people we are ready to make bets, as a startup you have to do that every day, and this was a way for us to put our money where our mouth is. So far Robert has been a winning bet."
Toronto's race was Megennis' second street course ever, and as a very technical and difficult track, he had low expectations for the weekend. After an engine failure in qualification forced him into a poor 18th starting position, he surpassed all expectations, passing 12 drivers en route to an impressive fifth-place finish.
His goal for the season is to win the Rookie of the Year, which he currently leads by 74 points, and to finish top five in the championship, where he currently ranks seventh. Although it would be no easy feat for the youngest driver in the competition to finish in the top five, he's used to surpassing people's expectations.
His ultimate goal, however, is to one day be a professional Formula 1 or IndyCar driver.
"Unless I get some weird personal injury and I physically can't do it, I don't think I'm ever going to stop racing," he said. "Even if I don't make the F1 or IndyCar dream, I'll drive sports cars, I'll drive go-karts, I'll drive whatever I'm given.
"It's just such a rush. It has become my life."
While Megennis might appear to be an average 16-year-old sitting amongst his family playing the newest Pokémon game to hit the market, he's far from it. Former F1 driver Derek Daly put it best when he ran into Megennis in Toronto, "You are a Legend," he said.