Israeli Race Car Drivers Stuck in Neutral

Promising young Israeli drivers are crashing head-first into a lack of awareness and interest in car racing, despite the financial benefit the sport can bring. No wonder our chances of producing a Formula 1 champ are so slim.

In October 2010, Sebastian Vettel of Germany became the youngest champion in the history of Formula 1, the world's premier car-racing event. He was 23. Two years earlier he had become the youngest driver ever to have won one of the races.

Not so for his one-time peer, Erez Liven, 26 - of Ashdod. Eight years ago, in 2003, they both were accepted to a course for young talent, sponsored by the BMW automobile company in Germany. The two shared a room, competed against each other and became friends. At the end of the course they were both among the eight people chosen as BMW's official representatives in the BMW Formula competition that year. The Israeli knew he would need support from sponsors: The 2003 racing season cost him 150,000 euros, and BMW covered only 50,000.

"I was sure the fact I had been chosen to represent BMW would encourage sponsors to support me," recalls Liven, who now works as the manager of a clothing shop in Ashdod. "I approached companies and tried to get sponsors, but no one responded. This country lacks awareness of the sport and the state doesn't consider it worth an investment. Many drivers quit because they can't afford the large outlays. Without sponsors, you have no chance of succeeding - and here it's nearly impossible to enlist them. Sebastian, for example, had it a lot easier because Red Bull has supported him since he was very young."

Liven was impeded not only by a lack of sponsors: The Israel Defense Forces did not recognize him as an outstanding sportsman and did not take his professional needs into account. "Everyone in my family pulled together because they saw my potential, but I reached a point where I couldn't continue [racing]. It was tremendously discouraging. Luckily for us, we didn't crash financially because we knew how to set limits."

"The moment the second automobile came off the first assembly line, car racing began," veteran Israeli motor-sport commentator and Formula 1 fan Boaz Korpel once observed.

In Israel, however, car races were legalized only in February 2011, after an exhausting campaign that began in 2005 when former MK Ehud Rassabi of Shinui began to promote the Motor Sport Law.

"It's like passing a law that allows tennis matches," says Korpel. "Car racing is a sport in every respect, but someone decided it's dangerous. The delay was partly due to religious opposition, because the races were supposed to be held on Saturdays. In addition, people don't understand the potential in this sport so they don't invest in race tracks and appropriate facilities."

Israel is just about as likely to get a Formula 1 track - at an investment of more than 50 million euros - as it is to see snow in July.

"Formula races are unlikely to be held in Israel," says Dr. Uri Sheffer, head of the Sports Authority at the Culture and Sports Ministry. "Billions would need to be invested in infrastructure, because it's not just a matter of building a track."

Israel doesn't even have an outdoor karting track. Says Muki Adiv, a member of an Israeli Karting Association and the owner of a karting track in Petah Tikva: "There were two attempts to build an outdoor track, but bureaucracy got in the way. We did indeed have an outdoor track in 2006, but it was shut down due to problems with the local authorities, which didn't grant permits. You can't promote this sport without building infrastructure. The moment they start building outdoor tracks, it will blossom. The state is simply in no hurry to allocate land. I'll be the first to jump at the opportunity if they do."

There are currently four local motor sport associations. "We very much wanted to unite them into one organization rather than four," says Uri Nissan, head of the sports driving authority at the ministry's Sports Authority, "but we haven't succeeded yet. In the end, common sense will win out and they will all join forces. About 100 people have sports driving licenses here. The demand exists and many people are interested in promoting the sport."

1 million euros

The Formula races attract a huge audience globally, so many powerful companies are glad to pour vast sums into them. Israel, however, lacks the resources and the infrastructure for the sport; it is nearly impossible to make the leap from karting tracks to the splendid Formula courses.

Alon Day, 20, has been facing this situation for years. "What haven't we done to enlist sponsors for Alon?" says his father, Avi Day, who owns a geological-engineering company. "We've been everywhere. We prepared a portfolio with Alon's resume, we lobbied marketers and tried to persuade them that the support would pay off. We contacted dozens of companies and all said no."

Alon Day says he's always been interested in racing. "I grew up in a family with a strong interest in vehicles and played with remote-controlled race cars," he recalls. At age 10, he drove on a karting track for the first time. For his bar mitzvah, his father gave him a NIS 20,000 karting vehicle. He won local races and began competing internationally at age 15, burning rubber on tracks in Britain, Holland and Germany.

"When you get to Europe, the dream of competing in Formula starts to take shape," he says.

In 2008 businessman Eitan Zidkilov offered to underwrite a trip to China for Day, so that he could try out for Formula Renault competitions. Day spent that entire year on test trips, exhausting training, and becoming acquainted with tracks and the car.

"Every two months I'd go to China for two or three weeks," relates Day. "I'd train from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M., to get prepared for the official competition."

He chose to test his mettle in China rather than in Europe, which is considered classier, due to financial considerations, since his family was funding him.

"A day of training in Europe costs 4,000 euros, whereas in China it's only $1,000," says his father. "This doesn't include flights, hotels and living expenses. After you reach a certain level, teams start chasing after you but this happens only when you reach the really highest levels, Formula 1. Until then you need to cover the expenses yourself, and not everyone can afford it. I go with what my children want. I give everything I have, I travel to every competition and I enjoy it very much. This isn't easy but it is what Alon wants. I think we've spent about 1 million euros on Alon so far."

Before the Formula Renault competitions in 2009, the British March 3 group [that competes at the lower levels of the Formula] offered Day a one-year sponsorship to represent it in the Asian Championship Competitions. March 3 funded 50 percent of his costs, and Day covered the remaining $100,000. That year he was named Asian Formula Renault Champion. His family hoped the prize would help him win more sponsorships. He left China for Europe.

"The options were limited due to finances," recalls Avi Day. The British performance team at March 3 wanted Day to represent it in the Formula 3 season, which cost him 300,000 euros.

"There are joint interests here," says Day. "You pay for the right to use their car in the competition and to compete for them, but you also advance your reputation by doing well in those competitions. The greater your personal achievements, the more you will advance and the more you'll be courted."

Day's performances on the track won him IDF recognition as an outstanding sportsman, making him the only Israeli to have been accorded this status for participating in a Formula sport. "I was accepted to the pilots' training course, but I gave it up because of my career," he explains.

At the end of 2010 the international Formula organization launched an academy for young gifted drivers. Day and 11 others beat out thousands of candidates. Two months ago, he completed the year-long program and earned the title of professional driving trainer. The studies were funded by Formula. In parallel, Day competed in Formula 3 races for the H5 Engineers group, paying 100,000 euros for the privilege after receiving a 250,000-euro discount.

"I still don't know where I will be next season, which begins in April," says Day. "I have had offers, but this business is beginning to get too expensive."

Day's father says his son will compete despite the difficulties.

"We are continuing to look for sponsors for him but this is no simple task. Alon is now one stage before entering Formula 1 and I hope someone will understand the financial potential in this. Unfortunately, Formula isn't popular in Israel and doesn't appeal to companies," he says.

Wanted: Sponsors

Roy Nissany, now 17, was discovered at age 11 by Frank Thamas, the owner of G1 Sports Management, a company that identifies and manages gifted drivers. He was signed for 10 years and the company has seen to all his professional and financial needs: training, schooling and practice, and has partnered him with teams. For the past two years Nissany has been representing German Mucke Motorsport under manager Frank Lucke (who raised Sebastian Vettel ) in Master Formula competitions, which is considered the most prestigious racing framework for adolescent drivers. At the end of the last season the team decided to extend his contract for another season.

"My dream is to get to Formula 1," says Nissany, who doesn't even have a regular Israeli driver's license yet. "My aim is to be the world champion, and not just once. This depends on luck, persistence, self-discipline, hard work and determination. It's realistic."

His father, Chanoch Nissany, is a pioneer in the Israeli Formula world, being the first Israeli to enter Formula 1 as a test driver.

"Roy's case is unusual," says his father. "He was discovered when he was very young and they decided to invest in him because they saw his potential. Israel has many talented drivers with great potential, but there is no one to help them financially. My dream is that we'll produce a Formula team that will bring honor to the country. If we have F-16 pilots who are among the best in the world, there is no reason we can't have excellent drivers. We just need to develop the sport here and invest in infrastructures. This is not cheap, but it could have tremendous financial potential."

Next month the first outdoor karting race will be held in Eilat, at the initiative of Boaz Meiri, owner of the Formula Israel company. The Culture and Sports Ministry and corporations have given considerable financial and bureaucratic help. The Eilat municipality allotted a place to paint a track along the port, for one-time use. Of the 2,400 people who registered, 30 drivers were sent to France to be tested. The top 16 will be the ones competing in Eilat.

"This is a historic, first-time event in Israel," notes Meiri. "This is a landmark in building motor sport culture. The sport is developing step by step - it doesn't all happen in an instant. We still have somewhere to aspire to and to advance, but this will take time."

Barring unexpected hitches - and there probably will be some - Israel will get its first permanent outdoor karting track in 2013, at Sde Teiman in the south. A plot of land has been zoned for it, and developer Zion Ofri has received a franchise.