Every time I interview young Canadian go-kart racers, and I ask about their dreams and aspirations, they all say that someday they want to drive in Formula One.
So imagine my surprise, when talking to 13-year-old Devlin DeFrancesco, to get this reply:
“My ambition is to be a NASCAR driver. I love the speed of NASCAR and I like the way they drive on ovals and the road courses.”
We had this conversation during the Honda Indy Toronto in July. We’d left his father’s trackside suite and gone into the Direct Energy Centre to get away from the noise so we could talk.
His father, through one of his companies (Hydroxycut, a weight-loss supplement), sponsors Tony Kanaan in IZOD IndyCar Series races, including the Indianapolis 500, which he won this year.
And Devlin is talking about NASCAR?
It shouldn’t be all that surprising, according to his dad, Andy DeFrancesco, CEO of Delavaco Group of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
“NASCAR is huge,” he said. “With more than 35 races a year, companies really get a lot of exposure. From a marketing point of view, you can’t beat it.”
Devlin, already a champion in Europe, North America and Brazil, will be among several-hundred kart racers competing next weekend in the 15th annual Canadian National Karting Championships, being held at Goodwood Kartways in Whitchurch-Stouffville.
He’s optimistic about doing well. “I won two championships last year; hopefully I’ll win more this year.”
His biggest fan is his father, a self-made man who grew up in Etobicoke, graduated from the University of Western Ontario (economics and politics) and initially went to work as a broker in Toronto — until, one day, he got smart.
“You sit there and you watch all the guys you’re doing all the work for make all the money,” said Andy. “So I said: ‘Enough’s enough, I gotta go out there and do this on my own.’.”
He was 29 at the time and about to be married.
He started a company, Delavaco Energy Inc., in 2006 (Colombian oil and gas exploration) and sold it in 2009. He’s gone on from there and, today, his Delavaco Group is a holding company for several businesses, particularly real estate, consumer products and retail (American Apparel).
“You have to stay ahead of the competition because everybody’s after the same dollar,” said DeFrancesco, who’s 43 now and the father of three others in addition to Devlin: Lachlan, 10, Ava, 9, and Summer, 5.
Andy, his wife Cathy and the children now live in Fort Lauderdale, in a house that once belonged to Canadian racing icon Paul Tracy.
And what’s in the garage?
“I drive a Masarati to work. And I have a Ferrari 458 Spider. Those are my two daily drivers.”
And your dream car?
“I think I’ve got ’em.”
So where did the family’s love of racing come from?
“One of my mentors growing up was (investment counsellor) Jim O’Donnell, who sponsored young Canadian racers,” DeFrancesco said. “I spent a lot of time with his family and we would go out to watch Scott Goodyear and Ron Fellows, and I was just fascinated by the whole thing.
“My dad wasn’t a big car guy, but some of his friends were, and you fall in love with the Porsches and the Ferraris and, like every little boy, you have pictures of the Lamborghinis up on the wall beside Farrah Fawcett. It was something I was always enamored with.
“I love the technology and the speed, and I was always interested in what was going through those drivers’ heads at that speed. I could see a relationship between that and entrepreneurship.”
Taking a cue from O’Donnell, DeFranceso has stepped up to sponsor several professional race drivers, some of whom are involved with his son’s karting career.
“We are in the second year of our sponsorship with Tony Kanaan,” he said. “We were karting in Florida and Tony and his management company approached us about working with Devlin. We expanded the relationship into a bit of a sponsorship deal with Tony, and we also have a small deal with Nelson Piquet Jr. in the Nationwide Series. He’s also become a great friend and a great mentor for Devlin.
“Look, we wanted involvements with drivers who have real personalities. Some professional drivers look upon sponsor relations as a job but Tony and Nelson have become real friends. Both of them will say, ‘Hey, we’re going be here and maybe there’s some people you might want to meet.’ With some of the brands we have now in the U.S., it’s a business-to-business arrangement.
“The demographic works. IndyCar is coming back, it’s on an upswing. Formula One is on a bit of a downswing; most of the guys are paying for rides now. You don’t get access to those drivers anyway. In North America, particularly in the financial world, all the guys are car fanatics. There’s good value in auto racing sponsorship.”
“I started karting when I was 661/27,” he said. “I loved it right from the start. I remember one Christmas morning, my dad said to look outside, and we went outside and there were two go-karts in the driveway. We went to an indoor track — Formula Kartways in Brampton — and it went from there.
“I got into competitive karting about a year later when I was 7-1/2. Since then, I’ve gotten better and better. Probably at the end of next year, when I’m at the end of 14, turning 15, that’s when I’d like to go from karts to a car.”
But there’s a little matter called the Nationals first. Can Devlin win another championship in karts?
With the help of Tony Kanaan, Nelson Piquet Jr. and his father, Andy, I wouldn’t bet against it.
- NORRIS McDONALD