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."