Young Irish racer earned a ride in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda
Keith Donegan didn’t think he really stood a chance. Fresh off his first year of racing after a three-year hiatus to concentrate on his university studies, he was facing a tough field of young racers from all over the world. Every one of them competing to win a ride in the Cooper Tires USF2000 Championship Powered by Mazda for 2018. In the end there could be only one and the judging panel felt Keith had the right qualities and walked away the winner of the Mazda Road to Indy Shootout.
“My first reaction was probably disbelief. It took me a while to realize that it was me that won,” Donegan says. “All my family was celebrating before I realized it was me. Then it was just overwhelming. I couldn’t believe it, because there were 17 drivers there from nine different countries. They’re top-class drivers and to come out on top like I did…I didn’t really think it was going to happen.”
Donegan likely made a big impression when, after the field had been narrowed to five – Donegan; Team USA Scholarship winner Aaron Jeansonne; New Zealander Liam Lawson; California karter Jake Craig; and Brazilian karter Olin Galli – he set the quickest lap in “qualifying” for the final mock race in a Bob Bondurant school Formula Mazda that wasn’t at its best.
“I had the fastest lap all weekend in one of the cars that wasn’t handling great, it was understeering a good lot, but I drove around the problem,” he says. “I stayed out when all the other guys came in because they didn’t want to burn up their tires. All the judges, because I stayed out for so long, they all thought, ‘Is this guy crazy? Why is he burning up his tires?’ But then when I put in the quick lap, they were all shocked.
“It’s a combination of everything,” he adds of why he thinks he was the choice of the judges – the judges included Scott Goodyear, Jonathan Bomarito, Tom Long, Andrew Carbonell and the latest two MRTI champions working their way to the next rung, Oliver Askew and Victor Franzoni. “It’s consistency, keeping your head when things aren’t going your way and representing yourself and speaking well. You need to have everything. It wasn’t like you could stand out massively over this crowd of drivers. You just have to focus on the small things and, step by step, do everything right.”
Donegan started racing in Formula Ford this year, three years after finishing second in the Ginetta Junior championship in 2013. In the time in between, he studied business at Trinity College in Dublin. He didn’t really want to take time off from racing but knew his studies were most important. He picked it up again pretty quickly, though, and by the year’s end, he was finishing second at the legendary Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch.
“It took me a good while to get back in the zone and find the level I was at,” he admits. “We prepared our own car; I ran my car all year and worked on it myself, I thought that if I’m ever going to truly understand a race car and how it works and how to change things on the car, or what adjustments in the setup will do…I’m never going to be able to progress as a racing driver if I don’t understand those things. I thought Formula Ford was place to do it.”
Finishing well at the Formula Ford Festival earned him the right to attend the 2017 Mazda Road to Indy Shootout at Bondurant’s track at Wild Horse Motorsports Park in Chandler, Ariz.
Donegan studied business in school because there are some family businesses he thought he could help grow – but racing is his passion. “I live and breathe racing – it consumes your whole life,” he says. “And to illustrate that, Monday morning after winning the shootout, he was on the phone with race teams looking to get some testing time in. Later in the week, he was in Georgia doing just that. He felt it necessary if he wants to follow in the footsteps of Askew, who won the Shootout last year, then won the USF2000 title in 2017. As Donegan notes: “You need to take this championship seriously if you want to progress.”
Donegan will have his first official series test at Homestead in February before the season begins on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 9-11.