“I want to go home.”
It’s a demand most parents are familiar with as they tote children around to restaurants, events or visits to distant cities. In this case, however, the complaint came on a strip of asphalt.
Phillippe Denes was 11 or 12 at the time. He and his father – Zoltan Denes, a Monterey-based surgeon – had been playing around with karts for a year, racing each other for fun at impromptu tracks like the airstrip in Marina. But one day they turned up only to find about two dozen others ready to compete. The young Denes wanted none of it.
“It’s funny,” he recalls. “I was terrified of racing.” It’s also ironic, considering that Denes – now 20 – drives in the Indy Pro 2000 series, a proving ground for future IndyCar and sports car drivers, and has three professional wins since moving up from kart racing in 2016.
Since that day the Carmel resident has lived in race cars. Denes quit swimming despite earning a spot on the Olympic junior team. He finished high school online after losing too many school days to the professional kart tour. He missed the fall semester enrollment deadline at Monterey Peninsula College. And when not on the track, he gets behind the wheel of a race simulator installed at home.
“When I climb into a race car, that’s my happy place,” Denes explains. “My brain shuts off. It’s just me and the race track.” Racing other equally composed cars means operating in traffic – often wheel to wheel – and making quick decisions. “When you’re in a race car, things slow down,” he says. “That’s what if feels like – everything slows down. Maybe it’s because you are so focused.”
Denes will strap into a Mazda-powered Tatuus PM-18 open wheel race car operated by Exclusive Autosport Sept. 21 and 22 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca for the final two events of the Indy Pro 2000 season. He considers the track a second home, but getting there – and reaching his happy place – has not been easy.
Denes found a love of motorsports through his father, an avid fan who often volunteered as a doctor for events at Laguna Seca and would bring his son along. He sharpened his driving skills through four years of successful kart racing and constant practice. And since there are no permanent facilities in Monterey County, that meant trips back and forth to tracks several hours away.
“My dad went through thick and thin to get me where I am,” Denes observes.
Denes was quick enough to catch the attention of a USF2000 team owner, who put him behind the wheel of a car at Laguna Seca in 2016. USF2000 is the bottom class in what is called the Road to Indy, a way for teams to find talented drivers, who can progress through Indy Pro 2000 and Indy Lights for a chance at an open IndyCar ride.
“Each rung of the Road to Indy ladder is designed to be a seamless step up in horsepower, aerodynamics and engineering,” explains Diane Swintal, Road to Indy’s public relations coordinator.
Current IndyCar points leader Josef Newgarden came through Road to Indy, as did Scott Dixon, Spencer Pigot and others. All told, 22 of the 33 starters in this year’s Indianapolis 500 earned are Road to Indy alums. The names make it sound like a sure thing. However, there are 27 young men and women who have appeared in races on the bottom rung so far this season. Only two will likely reach Indy Lights.
One of the reasons for this attrition is money. In 2016 – the same season he drove in USF2000 for the first time – Denes drove in an entry-level series, winning two races and finishing third in overall points. But drivers are expected to bring a certain amount of sponsorship funding to a team.
“The next year I didn’t have any money,” Denes says. He came up with enough for a few rides – one for a race win – before the account drained. “Some people get lucky and have a clear-cut path,” he says. “We’ve always struggled to come up with the money.”
He estimates that a for a strong car at the Indy Pro 2000 level, the driver needs to bring around $500,000 to the table. Road to Indy lists Denes’ sponsors as Zoltan Denes, Denes Realty – owned by his mother and Susanna Denes (“We’d be well off if I wasn’t a race car driver,” Denes says with a laugh). When PR Energy also came on board at the end of 2018, Denes was able to catch a ride with an underdog team. But he points out that good equipment and a team committed to winning are also critical. “A good driver in a bad car – you go around kicking yourself because you’re in sixth place and nothing you do makes it any better.”
Now he is looking to show the worth of that time for a new team with a history of success. “There’s nothing in the world like racing,” Denes says. “I would do anything to be in a race car for the rest of my life.”