Through The Esses - Ryan Phinny Wants You To Know His Name
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© Andrew S. Hartwell

Ryan Phinny's name probably isn't as well known as he would like it to be. Not that he seeks notoriety or to become the star of a future episode of the TV show America's Most Wanted', you understand. He doesn't. But he would like to see his name appearing on the future entry lists of major North American auto racing events. And in order to achieve that goal, he has elected to start with this weekend's Laguna Seca round of the Grand-Am Rolex Series.

Phinny, a young man of 18 with many years of successful kart racing - and a single year of Formula BMW - to his credit, will be co-driving the Matt Connolly Motorsports Pontiac GTO-R with Diego Alessi. This will mark his first race with MCM, his first time behind the wheel of the #21 Pontiac, and the first time his name will appear in the sometimes glaring light of a very competitive Rolex Series entry list..

But there was a time just last year when no one knew if they would ever see Phinny's name on any competitive entry list again. But, they call it a list of competitors because the people on the list just don't quit. In Phinny's case, his competitive nature combined with his youthful state managed to steer him out of a painful point in time towards what he hopes will be a bright future in racing sportscars.

We talked with Phinny a few days before the Laguna Seca race and learned quite a bit about him, his racing background and aspirations, and about a racing incident that could have bounced him out of the sport for good. It was an accident that happened on purpose.

I was born in Southern California and my family later moved up to the San Francisco area only to later come back to Carmel, where they opened a restaurant. They own the Baja Cantina restaurant here - and they have a second one located in Marina Del Ray. If you come into the restaurants you will see that my family is definitely into racing. The restaurants have become something of a racer's hangout. My father, Patrick, ran in Indy Lights and Super Vees and worked his way up through the SCCA ranks. He runs in vintage cars now with his buddies.

My dad was involved in racing for a long time and when I was just five years old I was given an opportunity to drive a quarter-midget. Jimmy Vassar's father owned a track and my dad used to race with Jimmy in Super Vees. Jimmy gave him the idea to put me in a quarter-midget to see if I might enjoy the experience. Everything went well, and I ran in those cars for a short while, but I soon found I wasn't enjoying ovals. My dad then decided we should try karting.

I wanted to stay in racing because, even at a very early age, I knew that I wanted to be a Formula One driver. Karting is where everyone starts so at six years old I started there too and I did it until I was 16. My parents were very supportive. In fact, they were both involved in local racing. 

Phinny's accomplishments in karting are many and they include being Salinas Valley Karter's Club Champion two years in a row; International Karting Federation National Champion twice; collecting several wins and high season-end placing's, driving for Emmick Enterprises as a factory driver, and being a finalist in the Red Bull Driver Search competition in 2005. That led to a season in Formula BMW.

I was offered a ride in Formula BMW by Ritchie Hearn. I ran with him in the 2006-2007 season and we ended up 9th in the championship. It was disappointing because we suffered a number of mechanical failures throughout the season. We did pull down two top five and seven top ten finishes that year, and finished second at the Denver GP.

Phinny was on his way to what looked like a path to future opportunities in road racing when one off-road opportunity put him in an inopportune position. And it happened so fast.

I also ran a few hit and miss races along the way, besides the BMW Series, but then I was offered a great opportunity to ride a dir