Catching Up With 16-year-old Race Car Driver Rob Megennis

Rob Megennis started fencing because he wanted to fight with Star Wars light sabers. With eight years of practice, he became a nationally ranked Sabre fencer. He is also one of the youngest drivers to ever compete on the Mazda Road to Indy.

In 2016 Rob was named the USF2000 Rookie of the Year — at age 16! I met him on the Upper West Side of New York City at a fencing club founded by Olympic silver medalist Tim Morehouse. Before practice began, Rob discussed driving, fencing, and pranking.

What sports do you follow?
I follow a lot of sports.  I love watching soccer.  My dad was a professional soccer player on the Newcastle United team when it was in the Premier League.  I also enjoy the sports that I am involved with: racing and fencing.  And my brother plays tennis, so I end up watching that as well.  

Do you have a favorite team or athlete?
My favorite team is Newcastle United. My favorite athlete is [British Formula One driver] Louis Hamilton.  He is very motivational; he started very young and is a three-time world champion.   

How did you begin go-karting?
When I was 10 I went go-karting at Grand Prix New York, in Mt. Kisco. I found it really cool, so I kept doing it. It progressed from there and I ended up racing.

For someone who is not familiar with go-karting, how would you describe it?
The car is like a race car, but way smaller and slower.  No doors. No siding—all open.  Drivers wear racing gear, which consists of a suit, helmet, and gloves.

Who competes in go-karting?
There are lots of kids but usually younger kids. Go-karting is a starting point for future race car drivers.  A driver can learn all the basics before racing gets faster and more dangerous.

What is the maximum speed of a go-kart?
The fastest go-karts can go is 70 miles per hour.  But little kids drive at 40 to 50 miles per hour.

Do you have any advice for kids who enjoy go-karting?
I would suggest that you work on improving yourself and not focusing on what other people are doing or what results you get. Kids can spend various amounts of money and have very different equipment, which gives them an advantage. When you get to cars it doesn’t matter how you have done in go-karts. Just learn to be the best driver you can.

How did you transition to cars from go-karts?
The first time I drove a car I was 14.  It is actually extremely similar to go-karting; race car driving has all the same basics. There is still passing people, driving at different speeds, breaking, and accelerating. The main difference I found was getting used to a faster speed as well as having to shift gears.

How are you allowed to drive a car when you do not have a license?
You don’t have to pass a test, which I find slightly worrying. The minimum age to race cars is 14.You have to get a racing license, medical check, drug test, and I had to show that I had done some sort of go-karting.  

What are the steps to becoming a professional race car driver?
All the good IndyCar drivers start out with go-karting.  And then they move up to the Mazda Road to Indy. [This is a driver development program that provides a scholarship-funded path to reach the IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500.]  

Within the Mazda Road to Indy is a ladder system with steps. The bottom step is the USF2000, which is where I am now, then Pro Mazda, and then there is IndyCar. When a driver is the USF2000 champion they get paid to race in Pro Mazda, and if they win Pro Mazda they get to race in Indy Lights, [the final step on the Mazda Road to Indy].  All the best drivers move up through the steps on this ladder.  

How do you prepare for a race?
I do a lot of physical training. I fence, which is really difficult. I have a personal trainer with whom I meet twice a week. I also have a simulator, which has three TV screens that display any of the tracks I race on using my car. I use this to prepare myself for the tracks—learn where I am going to be breaking, accelerating, and where I can pass.

What do you do on the day of the race?
Racing is a weird sport because there are so many other classes that you end up waiting around for long periods of time. I will show up before my first race, and usually I will do what I do any normal day. I have breakfast, get dressed, and then go to the racetrack. I usually wait a long time because every race is half an hour to an hour, and I might have six classes before me. So I might have to wait six hours before I can drive. In that time, I will watch videos of other people driving the course, hang out with my friends, or listen to music to help me calm down.

Do you have any pre-race rituals?
I try not to get stuck on rituals because I believe that once you become superstitious and you don’t have your specific item and can’t do your ritual, you are not in your best state of mind to race. Despite my objection to rituals, my engineer does force me to always get in my car from the left side.

What do you do after a race?
Usually I will be given a sheet to fill out regarding the car for the engineer, like: How did it turn in? How did it brake? Were there any issues? How did it take bumps? Data is also collected from the car such as: When did I brake? How hard did I brake? I will go over this data with my teammates. Our driving coach will analyze the data with us so that I know areas for improvement. Additionally, I have on-board cameras that I watch for more information on my race. The analyzing process can take up to two hours! After it is over, I will usually rest. Then there might be interviews or a drivers meeting; it varies.  

What is your ultimate racing goal?
I would like to win an IndyCar championship.

Are you ever afraid while driving? How do you manage that fear?
I do not get afraid. People have called me No Fear before because nothing about racing scares me.

What does it feel like to be in a race car? How would you compare that feeling to something many other people experience?
It is very unique. Have you ever driven for a long period of time, and when you get out you are tired? That is because of all the forces acting on your body while you are traveling 60 miles per hour. Imagine that feeling, but multiplied by 10. There is no air conditioning, so the cockpit is roughly 120˚F. You are lying down so that you are more aerodynamic. It is almost like driving a car with the seat reclined all the way, in 120˚ while you are tremendously tired.

How did you decide you wanted to fence?
When I was eight or nine years old I was this chubby little kid and I needed a sport. I really enjoyed Star Wars, and I wondered, How close could I get to that? I found fencing. For me, it was like light saber fighting, but in a sport!

What is your favorite thing about fencing?
I think the fact that you are sword-fighting people is incredible!

Do you have a fencing goal?
As a competitive fencer, I would love to make the Olympics. My racing takes up so much of my time and it is my priority. I just want to become the best fencer that I can be.

Are any other members of Team Pelfrey, your racing team, fencers?
No. In fact, I do not know any other drivers who are fencers!

How has fencing helped you in driving and vice versa?
They are both very different sports. They help me improve my mental ability to focus after I make a mistake.

Do you prefer racing or fencing?
That is so hard! They are both so different! I probably enjoy racing more than fencing at this point just because of the level I have reached and everything I have accomplished.

How does being homeschooled affect your practices?
It definitely makes my schedule more flexible for practices and race weekends. Race weekends are not just two days long! I try and arrive on location by Tuesday because I may have to adjust to a time difference, I have to walk the track to check for potholes and other unexpected obstacles, and I may have a team meeting. If I wasn’t homeschooled I would end up missing so much school it would be very hard for me to stay with the group!

Have you ever played any practical jokes on teammates?
We prank each other a lot! It is a fun way to pass the time. We once had the mechanics rig the horn of some cars so that whenever our driving coach pressed the brakes, the horn would go off!

Photographs by (from top) Chris Jones/IMS-IndyCar Photo; Riley Neubauer

 

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