Thursday, April 13, 2006
The family is phast. Ryan Phinny, a 15-year-old junior at
Carmel High, was going 100mph in a go-kart before he was 14.
His brother Brandon is already doing 80 at age 11. Both have
won International Karting Federation Championships twice.
Dad’s life has also progressed at a brisk clip: Baja Cantina
entrepreneur Patrick Phinny hustled in the not-so-slow
hospitality industry to put together enough money to race
Formula Ford and other sport cars on weekends. And as their
team manager, their mom Gina Phinny steers their lives at
breakneck velocity, arranging everything from mechanic
contracts to dinner plans.
Ryan Phinny knows what he wants: to be a pro racecar driver. He’s enjoyed driving since the moment his dad took him to Marina’s go-kart track at age 6. When he hit the then-minimum race age of 8, he jumped right into the junior circuit of kart racing, where all the best pro drivers in the world, from Jeff Gordon to Michael Schumacher, got their start. Since the beginning, says Sean Buur of Go Racing Magazine, Ryan’s been competitive. “Every single race,” Buur says, “Ryan was always in the hunt.”
Buur credits the Phinny work ethic for his success. “The more you can sit in the go-kart, the better you’re gonna be,” he says. “Growing up they put in a lot of time on the track.”
Despite being one of the youngest entrants in each event, Ryan had a way of getting to the podium.
“In Karting, he won at every level,” says Gina. “He started locally with clubs, then won regionally, then won nationally.”
For the best racers, Kart racing is a means to an end. In November 2005, with years of eligibility left, he traded in the security and sponsors of karts for the challenge and speed of cars. At last year’s prestigious invite-only Red Bull Junior team tryout he was pushed to the brink. “At the fitness testing week in Portugal we had to spend hours on a stationary bike,” he says, “I fell off the bike after an hour and 34 minutes.”
Phinny was the last American standing, but was still sent
home with an assignment to train. Now he’s added constant
weight and cardio training to his track work (and homework)
and is racing for Formula BMW USA, the premier junior car
series in the country.
Brandon Phinny wanted to race before he hit the new 5-year-old minimum race age for Kid Karts so desperately that his team tinkered with his birth certificate.
At that point, Ryan says, Brandon “looked like a helmet on wheels.” Now 11, Brandon humbly admits he wouldn’t be here without his brother’s pioneering—testing all the best motors and strategies.
“Everywhere I’ve been is pretty much because of him,” says Brandon, who’s known on the track as “Mini” Phinny.
“Mini” is so light that when racing he’s required to weight down his car. He says his 15-year-old competitors like to tease him. “They say, ‘You can barely reach the wheel and the pedals—you won’t beat me.’ When I beat them it’s kinda rewarding.”
“He’s one of the best there is,” boasts his mom.
When any of Laguna Seca’s races or car show weekends arrive, Patrick transforms Baja Cantina into a social epicenter of car buffs and racers. Both the Cantina he built in Marina Del Rey in 1975 and Carmel Valley’s 1995 sequel are blanketed with racecar parts and memorabilia. His first date with Gina was the Long Beach Grand Prix.
So it’s not hard to believe him when he says, “I worked all week in hospitality to race all weekend.”
His race résumé includes Formula Ford, Super V, Indy Light and, now, historic cars he repairs and races.
Not much has changed. As he prepares to take Brandon to
Sacramento for a regional race—while Gina flies with Ryan to
Virginia for a test run—Patrick says, “I don’t know what a
weekend off is,” he says. “You’d have to define that for
Not many a slim redheaded mom describes herself as a “track rat.”
“Gina’s a great wrench,” says Go Racing’s Buur. “At the local club track she’s changing tires and seat angles.”
Her myriad manager duties also include everything from buying the right tires to taking pains to keep her kids’ school absences down.
The ultimate prize for her is two-fold: One, she sees her boys truly grow from the competitive experience. “They’ve grown so mature, having to deal with the highest highs and the lowest lows. And they’ve learned great focus. I wish it was the same with homework.”
Two, she dreams of professional success, which Buur contends is very realistic. She points to the dominant Formula One racers Ralf and Michael Shumaker, and back to her sons. “Best-case scenario,” Gina says. “They’ll be like the Shumaker brothers.”