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Hunting down a dream: Jacob Douglas on the Road to Indy

By: Matthew Sampson
December 20, 2022

There’s no doubt that Jacob Douglas is a Kiwi on the rise. The teenager from Christchurch finished his rookie season in the USF2000 as the third best rookie and 12th overall in a hugely competitive field.

Next, he’ll go again, the 17-year-old confirmed to compete for Exclusive Autosport in 2023’s USF2000 Championship.

The signing comes as little surprise, Douglas showing great potential as he came up to speed with life in the United States.

Velocity News sat down with Douglas, his father Craig Douglas and manager Tiffany Chittenden to discuss his 2022 season, the challenges they’ve faced and what lays ahead.

2022 in Review

Testing at Homestead prior to the start of the season left no doubt Douglas would be quick. In four sessions the Kiwi finished inside the top seven on each occasion.

Then came the opening round: The Streets of St. Petersburg. And contact. Incidents in both testing and Race 2 putting a dampener on the campaign right as it began.

There were still bright spots, however, including an 11th-placed finish in the opener which was also the 17-year-old’s first ever race on a street circuit.

“St. Petersburg looked pretty bad but we still had a lot of positives,” said Douglas.

“We still qualified second rookie and were six tenths off pole.”

Race 2’s crash was unfortunate, a blind corner preventing four cars, including Douglas, from making contact with a spun Dylan Christie.

The Streets of St. Petersburg was a tough introduction to America for Douglas.

It wasn’t the warmest of welcomes for the Kiwi to the United States, but they could only look to improve into the second round, Douglas’s first time on an oval at Barber.

Improve they did, the youngster working his way from 15th to finish 12th in Race 1 before moving from 12th to 8th in Race 2.

Despite the improvements, Douglas recognises there was still plenty in the tank.

“Barber wasn’t horrendous, but we didn’t quite maximise qualifying which was hard because it’s such a hard track to pass on,” he said.

The next three rounds proved even more difficult, the top 10 eluding the Kiwi in all three races at the Indianapolis Grand Prix Circuit.

This was followed by a disappointing 16th in the sole Lucas Oil Raceway event before Race 1 at Road America offered some respite, and a return to the top 10, with 8th. Race 2, however, saw Douglas tumble down the order to finish 17th.

Next up, Mid-Ohio, which is where fortunes began to change.

“At about Mid-Ohio, Jacob was back,” says Craig Douglas.

“He’d regained his confidence and if you look at the last third of the season we’d been in the top 10 nearly every race we finished.”

Race 1 brought about the highest finishing position thus far for Douglas, a fifth place, backed up by seventh in Race 2 and 13th in Race 3, despite a minor crash.

Then came the Streets of Toronto, a massive qualifying seeing the Kiwi almost claim a shock pole.

“Jacob was so close to pole in Canada. He had predictive pole with two corners to go until he touched the wall. He still started P4,” Craig Douglas said.

He managed a massive fifth in Race 1 and backed that up with seventh in Race 2.

The Streets of Toronto was a favourite for the entire team.

Finally, Portland. The final round of the 2022 season. It was another fifth-placed finish in Race 1 and a sixth in Race 2.

Unfortunate contact on Lap 1 of Race 3 concluded the season in a manner similar to how things had begun.

Despite the disappointment of ending the season that way, it was clear Douglas had emerged on the scene.

“I think the last three rounds at Mid-Ohio, Toronto and Portland was how we should have been the whole season,” he said.

“Throughout pre-season testing we showed pace was good, if not better than those last three rounds. Even so, I feel we still didn’t quite piece together a perfect weekend even in those last three.

“In Ohio Race 3 we had a crash. In Toronto we didn’t quite maximise qualifying. At Portland we didn’t quite maximise qualifying and then we had a crash in Race 3,” he continued.

“I think that if you look at where we started or the middle of the season compared to where we ended, with easy top ten’s such as fifth’s and sixth’s without putting everything together, we came a long way for sure. We showed what we were capable of.

“After the tough start we weren’t in the championship or anywhere close to it, unfortunately. But I wanted to show we were a consistent top 10 fighting for top 5 driver. We were capable of that all year.”

The Challenges of a Dream

The thought of living alone in a foreign country at 17-years-old is a daunting one, yet has become a reality for Douglas in pursuit of his IndyCar dream.

Moving to the United States in a year plagued by Covid wasn’t easy, the support system surrounding Douglas impacted by our own lockdowns, MIQ situations and strict entry requirements.

The teenager was forced to depart on his own with his family and manager, Tiffany Chittenden, unable to join.

Early accommodation plans also quickly fell through leading to Douglas moving in with competitor Christian Brooks.

Brooks’ 2022 campaign ended early and saw him return home to California, leaving Douglas living alone in an apartment before eventually moving in with an Exclusive Autosport mechanic.

“Living on my own was different, it was cool and I learnt a lot for sure, having to do everything that mum would usually do, the cooking, the washing and the cleaning,” he laughs.

“It’s been a learning curve, going from being in New Zealand and living with my family then moving all the way to the US. I think i dealt with it well. I didn’t struggle.”

Craig Douglas offers his fatherly insight on the move, recognising a number of challenges the youngster faces due to his age.

“Jacob’s done this entire season on his own at 16,” he said.

“He lived in America by himself, in his own apartment. He travelled 36 states in one year all by himself.”

“There’s a lot of things you can’t do at 16. You can’t hire a car or even book into a motel so there’s a lot of challenges we have everyday moving him around America that we just have to overcome.

“It’s all about just chasing your dream.”

One thing that has made things easier, however, was having the support of compatriot Billy Frazer.

“We knew it had to be a family environment for Jacob. Having Billy there was amazing and Billy’s been a massive support for Jacob,” says Chittenden.

The team were also forced into a tough decision when Douglas was selected for the Ferrari Driver Academy.

A lot of careful thought and consideration was done before they ultimately turned down the opportunity, instead opting to remain focussed on their North American pathway which was quickly building into something special.

With international travel and normality almost back to pre-pandemic levels, 2023 will be a much easier ride for the team t0 travel to events and support from pit lane.

Going Big

The decision to tackle USF2000 was not one made lightly, a highly competitive American field staring the Kiwi in the face come season start.

“We know we went big and hard at the decision,” says Chittenden.

“With everything we learnt we knew USF was a two year program. We knew it would be a learning year.

“We knew it would be hard, we knew that the decision to go USF2000 with Jacob’s experience at the time would be a big step.

The improvements have been significant both on and off track, Douglas returning to New Zealand mid-season and taking to the tracks in former cars.

“Jacob came for a five week break and hopped into his FT-50 in Christchurch,” says Craig Douglas. “He went faster than Robert Schwartzman did when he qualified it on pole.

“He then hopped into his KZ2 [kart] which he hadn’t been in for 9 months and broke the lap record at Carrs Road.”

It was a TRS run at Hampton Downs that truly showed his evolution, setting an unofficial lap record in the FT-60 on the International Circuit.

Douglas jumped in the TRS FT-60 on a trip to New Zealand, breaking a Hampton Downs lap record.

“That showed us what he’d learnt. It showed us that, despite the tough season, how much he’d grown in one year. It’s phenomenal,” says Craig Douglas.

Off-track development has also been fast-tracked, Douglas recognising the highly professional American style as helping him to quickly establish a routine.

“It’s been a massive learning curve. I was quite laid back and chill, like New Zealand is, and went straight into Road to Indy. Running alongside Indycar is a pretty big step,” says Douglas.

“[The biggest changes are] everything off-track, [such as] preparation and drivers briefings.

“Racing used to be an on the day thing. You wouldn’t stress or worry about it until you were at the track. But now there’s so much preparation and so much more you’ve got to do to be your best,” he continued.

“At the end of the season I found what was working for me, what I did and didn’t like and how I prepared mentally and physically heading into a weekend feeling better. Everything just clicked at the end of the season.”

And that definitely showed.

A title-contending 2023

Douglas only has eyes on one thing in 2023: The USF2000 title.

“We have the potential to fight for the championship,” he says.

“That’s my goal and that’s the teams goal. Everyone in Exclusive has been great this year, and we can be even be better next year.

“We’ll do a lot of preparation at the end of this year and start of next year before next season, and having a year under my belt having done a lot of stuff I hadn’t this year, like the ovals and street tracks, now I can go into that and know what to expect.”

It begins year two of a seven year plan for Douglas to reach IndyCar on the Road to Indy Pathway.

That pathway is made up of five tiers, beginning with the USF Juniors and ending with the pinnacle of North American open-wheel racing, IndyCar. In between you have USF2000, USF Pro 2000 (IndyPro 2000 before 2023) and Indy NXT (Indy Lights before 2023).

Douglas was able to skip USF Juniors due to his New Zealand Formula Ford experience.

“IndyCar is the end goal following the Road to Indy pathway,” says Douglas.

“Ideally we’ll do two years in each [class]. In the perfect world we’d win the championship every year but I think realistically one year learning and the next year in contention if not winning the championship.

“The Road to Indy [pathway] is the perfect place to be. They race on the tracks the IndyCars race on. It’s the best place to be for IndyCar.”

Henceforth, all going to plan this year, a strong showing will see the Kiwi competing in USF Pro 2000 in 2024.

From here, only time will tell how things play out. Racing throws up surprises, and plans change. But for now, the Douglas remains committed to the ultimate goal of being one of New Zealand’s next great IndyCar drivers.

“I have complete faith we will one day drive in IndyCar,” says Craig Douglas.

The 2023 USF2000 season begins on March 4-5 and covers eight race weekend, six of which are in support of IndyCar.

2023 USF2000 Calendar

March 4-5 Streets of St. Petersburg
March 25-26 Sebring International Raceway
May 12-13 Indianapolis Motor Speedway (road course)
May 26 Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park (Oval)
June 17-18 Road America
July 1-2 Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course
July 15-16 Streets of Toronto
September 2-3 Portland International Raceway
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