When Rich Hearn was 13 and already a four-year veteran of go-karting, he told his father, Richard, that someday he was going to be a racing driver. True to his word, seven years later the younger Hearn was the holder of seven International Karting Federation titles. Now, with a victory in France's most esteemed newcomer racing competition, Hearn, 20, has his objective even more clearly in focus. "My goal is to make it all the way to Formula One," he says.
For Hearn, reaching the Grand Prix circuit is not just a pipe dream. The Pasadena native is already something of a racing legend. "He's by far the best karter I've ever seen," says Mike Manning, who for six years, from 1985 to '91, had Hearn on his Southern California-based team. "When Richie is out on the track qualifying for a race, the fence is full. All the other drivers go and time him to see what the standard is going to be for the day. When he's off the track, the fence is empty again."
We are not talking lawn mowers here. Karts like those that Hearn drove have top speeds of 85 mph and are a training ground for road racing drivers—among them such Formula One stars as Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna. "I used to race karts myself, and I competed against several Europeans who have since gone into F/1," Manning says. "Richie is a better karter than they were. A lot better."
Hearn is candid, perhaps undiplomatically so, when assessing his considerable abilities. "I like to be the best," he says. "It's a good feeling when you show up at the track and all the other drivers get discouraged. Plus, I like the way I feel at the track—my personality is totally different there. I'm more confident in myself. I can go up to any girl and talk to her. Out in the real world, I can't do that. I'm too shy."
Last fall, realizing that he had done it all in karting, Hearn decided that the time had come to test himself in faster and more demanding cars. On the advice of a friend, he decided to attend the Winfield Racing School at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France. Winfield has schooled many of Grand Prix racing's most celebrated drivers, including three-time world driving champion Alain Prost. The school's alumni roster was not the only thing that attracted Hearn. Just as important was the lure of its annual award to the top student: a fully financed season of racing.
Before he could prove himself against the young and F/1-enamored Europeans, who account for most of the 600 students attending Winfield each year, Hearn had to overcome the hurdle that trips up so many aspiring racers: money. Counting lodging, food and tuition, Winfield would cost almost $4,000. "I told Richie I wasn't in a financial position to help him," says his father, a former racer himself. "He would have to pay for it on his own."
It was Hearn's reputation that turned the trick. "About 11 guys that I knew from the track, some of them guys I raced against, donated $400 to $500 each to help me go to France," he says. Hearn adds with a smile, "Of course, I think some of them were just trying to find a way to get me out of karting."
Hearn is paying back big on his friends' investment. Driving one of Winfield's single-seat Formula Renault racers, he had the quickest lap times during the school's weeklong introductory course last October. He then went on to become the only American to qualify for a spot in Win-field's 1990 student competition.
In the five-man final, held in late November before a jury of French journalists and Formula One drivers, Hearn had to face not only four determined opponents but also an obstacle he had never before encountered in his driving career—rain. In a contest in which victory is often measured in hundredths of a second, Hearn set an average pace almost a full second a lap faster than his nearest rival.
Simon de Lautour, director of the Winfield school at Paul Ricard for 18 years, said, "Because Richard was obviously the man to beat going in, we at Winfield weren't surprised that he won the final. But his total domination, driving for the first time on a wet track, was really impressive. That was the aspect most commented on by the members of the jury."
That display just confirmed Manning's opinion that Hearn has the right stuff to go all the way to Formula One, where there has not been an American presence since Eddie Cheever—who actually grew up in Italy—defected to Indy cars two seasons ago. "Richie will do it. No question," says Manning. "At five-six and 140 pounds, he's the perfect size for today's tiny and narrow Formula cars. He's good at dealing with pressure. And he has that god-given talent to turn in incredible lap times while driving so smoothly that he doesn't look like he's going very fast. And where are you going to find another kid who is only 20 years old and already has seven national championships and 11 years of racing experience?"
"As a parent, you're concerned," says Richard Hearn when discussing his son's career choice. "Every parent wants his kids to get an education and a good job. But I feel that if Richie wants to race, he should. I know he has the ability. Even his mother, Christy, who was never very supportive of his karting, is excited about his win at Winfield. She's delighted."
Rich Hearn's victory earned him a partial refund of his tuition along with sponsorship this season in the highly regarded French Formula Renault series—a first step on the way to the Grand Prix circuit. Hearn has made the most of his opportunity. After nine of 12 races—on tracks he has never seen, running in 50-car fields filled with veteran drivers—Hearn was second in points among rookies.
"Of course, I wish I was winning already," Hearn says, "but some of the guys I'm racing against have been in this series for three or four years. Besides, nobody wins in their first season—this is supposed to be a learning year for me. My team and my sponsors say that they're really happy with my performances so far."
But perhaps Hearn's biggest boost has come from French racer Erik Comas, himself a former Winfield competition winner and now a driver for the Ligier Formula One team. "I met Erik," Hearn recalls, "and I told him how I wasn't really satisfied with my finishes so far in the season. And he just smiled at me and said, 'Don't worry, Richie. Compared with how I started in Formula Renault, you are doing much better.' I felt pretty good when I heard that."
Arthur St. Antoine is a contributing editor for "Car and Driver" magazine.