tampabay.com

A student driver

Chris Festa is a rarity, taking classes at FSU while pursuing a career on the track.

By MEYLA HOOKER
Published April 1, 2005


Chris Festa chose the road less traveled.

The 19-year-old Infiniti Pro Series driver has been racing since age 12.

Many drivers under 25 were home-schooled before dropping out to pursue their dream of racing at the highest levels.

Most forgo college.

But Festa's parents made sure he had a regular childhood.

Festa was 5 when he started following his father, John, to his amateur sports car racing events. His parents insisted he go to school and participate in team sports if he wanted to race.

"It gave him a balanced perspective," John Festa said. "A lot of young drivers can't separate driving from who they are. He did basketball, football and baseball just like every other little boy."

As a junior in high school, Festa had to choose between baseball and racing.

He told his father he played baseball with his head and raced with his heart.

The debate was over.

Festa found time in his busy schedule to visit 14 colleges during his senior year. He chose Florida State, which allowed him to race and go to school. Festa is completing his second semester at FSU, where he is majoring in marketing.

"I have so much support from FSU," he said. "They've given me athletic status, which lets me work out in the athletic facilities and register early like the other athletes."

The Atlanta native is so proud to be a Seminole he wears the school logo on his helmet and has a "Go Noles" slogan on his Web site.

"FSU has been nothing short of absolutely phenomenal," John Festa said. "We are grateful to the school and we are proud of what it has done for Chris."

In only seven years, Festa has won 62 times in 249 races. He has been a member of several high-profile teams, including Paul Tracy Kart Racing and Rahal Letterman Racing. He is now with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.

The days of dragging a trailer around the country for 30 weekends out of the year, leaving school at 2:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and making it back just in time for classes on Monday morning, seem to have paid off.

Festa will pilot the No.19 Pro Series car at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. He raced here in 2003 with the Fran-Am 2000 series but was taken out at the start.

His team has worked diligently to get ready.

Festa hopes to join the IndyCar Series next year. He doesn't have any plans to join NASCAR until he wins the biggest open wheel championships.

"I always hated losing," he said. "Once I started winning, I just kept going and built up my confidence to perform at the same level. I developed a bit of an ego, but who doesn't?"