He may be only 15 years old, but when discussing his career plans, young Dutch racer Rick Bouthoorn speaks with a confidence that belies his tender age. This is a youngster that knows where he wants to go, and why. After six years spent on the European karting circuit, Rick and his father Patrick are ready for the next step: the Bouthoorns are gunning for America and the Road to Indy ladder in 2020.
By: Jeroen Demmendaal
One of the most promising prospects in Dutch racing right now, Rick Bouthoorn rose quickly through the ranks in European karting in recent years, racking up numerous wins and podiums. Since 2018 he has competed in the Rotax Max Senior class, both in European competition and in the regional Benelux championship, often against drivers who are several years older (and more experienced) than he is.
Graduating to the karting seniors was a decision almost forced upon him, given the fact that he is quite tall for his age and was running into weight limitations in the lower classes. A championship title has, however, eluded him so far. So the obvious question, for a 15-year old kid who is still in high school and also has exams and homework to worry about, is this one: why make the move to open-wheel racing already now?
“The sooner, the better,” answers Rick with confidence. “I don’t feel like I have much more to learn in terms of the basics: race craft, finding racing lines, giving feedback and improving. I feel this is the right time for me to step up from karting to formula racing.”
As they started mapping out their options for 2020 this fall, their sights quickly fell on the Road to Indy in the United States – the three-stage open-wheel ladder leading up to the NTT IndyCar Series. “The problem is, there is no real formula series in Holland anymore that gives young drivers their first step up into auto racing,” says Patrick.
So the Bouthoorns looked at a number of other options in Europe, but none seemed enticing. Meanwhile, they had been following their countryman Rinus “VeeKay” Van Kalmthout in recent years, as the newly coined ECR IndyCar driver made his way up the Road to Indy ladder: first USF 2000, then Pro Mazda (now Indy Pro 2000) and finally Indy Lights. “We used to run into him and his dad every once and a while at karting races,” explains Patrick. “Rinus is a few years older than Rick and ran seniors as we entered the Minimax series.”
A sit-down with the Van Kalmthouts this fall, to discuss their American experience, was the final nudge that father and son Bouthoorn needed: America would be their primary target for 2020. “After talking to them, we decided that the US was the best option for Rick to build a name for himself, especially if you want to make a career in open-wheel racing.” says Patrick. Not only does the Road to Indy run at the same weekends as the NTT IndyCar Series, it also has a good media and broadcast programme, making it a good podium for young drivers to boost their career. “Rinus’ success was a big factor in my decision to pursue the Road to Indy,” says Rick.
It also turns out that young Rick is a fan of the American racing culture. “I’ve always had an interest in America, I love the passion they have for motor racing there. It just seems like it is much more fun to drive there.” An important factor feeding that impression is the nature of American road courses, says Rick. “I like classic tracks like Watkins Glen, Laguna Seca, Sonoma. Here in Europe they adjust everything to F1 standards, so you get these long run-off areas and lots of asphalt. In the US, the tracks still have a more classic style: off the track, it is just grass, gravel and walls.”
Finally, the Road to Indy also offers young drivers a scholarship system, which Patrick deems very important as he tries to sort out the financial side of things to further his son’s career. “You get prize money for pole positions, for wins and for the championship,” he says. “In Europe, you lose your investment, regardless of how you perform. Of course you still need to perform well to win that prize money in the US, but at least there is the option.”
The best of weeks
The decision taken, Rick was soon enough able to see whether the Road to Indy would fit him. Given an invitation to the prestigious annual Chris Griffis Memorial testing week at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in October, he teamed up with leading USF 2000 outfit Pabst Racing to try out their machinery (in an intriguing twist of fate, it is Pabst Racing that took Rinus VeeKay to second place in the 2017 USF 2000 season). Asked about the experience, Rick doesn’t miss a beat: “It was simply the best week of my life.”
His American experience started at the Autobahn Country Club race track, just outside Chicago. Here he spent two days with the team, getting familiar with the car. “It’s a pretty tight track, but also with a lot of elevation. A good track to start,” says Rick. The USF 2000 cars offer drivers around 175hp and a top speed of approximately 240 kph, but those specs weren’t the thing that stuck with him. “I was amazed by the amount of downforce and grip, I never experienced something like that!” The session went well enough: according to Patrick, his son was only a few tenths off the fastest time ever set by a Pabst driver at Autobahn.
Then it was off to Indianapolis. “Just arriving there is fantastic,” says Rick, as he recalls his first meeting with the historical Speedway. “Those grandstands, they are enormous. And when you walk the track, the distance between Turn 4 and Turn 1 is so much bigger than it seems on TV.” Obviously, the experience got even better once Rick got behind the wheel. “Driving on the Speedway, it is indescribable. If you would have told me this at the beginning of my career, I wouldn’t have believed it. Both me and my dad were quite emotional.” Adds Patrick: “That first time he passed us while we were on the pit wall, I had tears in my eyes.”
A proud father had even more reason to be so once the timing sheets rolled off the printer. After six sessions, Rick was fourth fastest overall, less than two tenths behind relatively experienced Danish driver Christian Rasmussen, who finished third in the 2019 USF 2000 Championship. It was a great result, considering Rick’s rookie status and his less than perfect preparation. “My seat wasn’t a perfect fit, it was an old one used by another driver two years earlier. So I was sitting too high. And in the final sessions I got a bad blister on my hand. But all in all, it went very well.”
Needless to say, Pabst Racing were impressed with Rick’s performance, while his quick times were also noticed by several media outlets covering the Chris Griffis Memorial. Now Rick and his father are fully focused on securing a full-season budget for 2020. “Pabst are obviously really interested, they now know what Rick has to offer in terms of talent. And they are our first choice as well – we are not actively talking to other teams at this stage, even though there is more interest in him from some other leading teams,” says Patrick. “We still need some sponsor commitments, but we hope to seal the deal before Christmas.”
Which leaves us with one final question, on the assumption that he does make it to the grid in 2020: how will Rick deal with his homework, while trying to upset the apple cart in USF 2000? “I know how to plan my schoolwork around my racing by now,” he laughs. “When traveling, I make sure to bring some books so I can prepare for any tests that follow when I get back to school!” One thing is certain: if everything works out to plan, Rick’s geography lessons will soon focus on those fifty states across the Atlantic…