Stefan Rzadzinski takes “Steve Rad” on the Road to Indy
by Tony Johns
Stefan Rzadzinski is not a guy who gets spooked easily.
He’s a race car driver and he’s from Edmonton, Alberta – home of the NHL’s storied Edmonton Oilers franchise and one of the coldest cities in North America. Wilting daisies do not survive either one, much less both.
But a few days ago Rzadzinski was fighting some serious butterflies… and it was because of exams. Stefan is studying for his Bachelor of Commerce degree at Edmonton’s Grant MacEwan University, and the prospect of facing the tests affects him like any other college student.
At the same time, Rzadzinski has an ace up his sleeve that his classmates do not. It’s not a cheat sheet per se – certainly not a cleverly hidden page of answers – but it is a bit of what Mark Donohue called an “unfair advantage.”
“I’ve really changed my mentality on the way I approach school and exams,” Stefan explains. “I was always pretty successful in school, but I’m using the challenges of balancing exams and assignments, physical and mental fitness, as well as the never-ending business side of motorsports to really intensify my ability to focus on tasks.”
Being a racer with a clear goal for his future, in other words, has done wonders for his ability to compartmentalize the challenges he faces. Thus, he can apply the same mental calculus, regardless of whether he is trying to find the quick way around a street circuit or surviving a tough set of midterm exams.
“It’s impossible to get it all done at one time, so being efficient and having specific goals have become really important to continue being productive,” he says. “I think when you lay things out this way, it really takes away a lot of the nervousness in the process. You know what you’ve prepared for, you know there is a challenge ahead of you, and you just need to deal with it.
“It is similar to racing in terms of having a plan or strategy, but also being able to adapt and maintain focus when things aren’t going your way.”
It’s a mature attitude, particularly for someone Stefan’s age. If you look at him outside of the cockpit, it’s easy to see him as the teenager he still is. But the Canadian youngster with the Polish name and ancestry displays the guise of a much older and more experienced person, thanks to his burgeoning motorsports career.
He’s been into racing since he was three years old – the age at which he first sat in a kart. His father, Andy, passed along his passion for motorsports to his son. For the Rzadzinskis, racing passion meant IndyCar and Formula 1, the two categories which tend to dominate the True North’s motorsports zeitgeist. Stefan leaned towards the former because of the examples of two of his Canadian heroes – Paul Tracy and the late Greg Moore.
Today, Stefan – who is known colloquially by a handful of nicknames including “Razzle Dazzle,” “Babar,” “R-Zad,” and the cheeky epithet “Steve Rad” – is following in his idols’ footsteps and taking steps on the Mazda Road to Indy. He’s parlayed a three-year stretch of success in the Ontario Formula Ford Championships and the Skip Barber Race Series into drives in the Star Mazda Championship and the Firestone Indy Lights Series.
So what makes this kid from Edmonton stand out from all of the other young hopefuls in the INDYCAR ladder system? Certainly, there is no shortage of aspiring junior-level racers who are looking for their big break into top-level professional motorsports, and “Steve Rad” could easily get lost in the shuffle just like many others who have shared his aspirations.
But Stefan Rzadzinski is not just a kid trying to blaze his own trail in the racing biz. He has received overwhelming support from his home province of Alberta and Edmonton in particular, notably from CanTorque, an Edmonton-based company specializing in industrial tool and equipment sales that will be one of Stefan’s major backers for the 2013 racing season. No matter where his racing career takes him, he is keen to bring them along for the ride.
“There is one main reason I have a strong civic and provincial pride,” Rzadzinski says, “and that is that this is the city, and these are the people, who have helped me reach the point I’m at today. Without their support, I wouldn’t have made it outside of my local go-kart track. These are primarily Alberta- and Edmonton-based businesses that have been willing to get behind me, so I’m very proud to represent my supporters as a Canadian and Edmontonian on the Mazda Road to Indy.”
Although his favorite color is blue, the blood flowing through Rzadzinski’s veins is pure red – red for the maple leaf of his nation’s flag, and red for Greg Moore’s famed racing gloves. The highly-talented, well-regarded Canadian racer who tragically perished in 1999 in a Champ Car race in Fontana, California, left a deep impression on everyone who knew him. But for a generation of young Canadians, Moore was more than just a future superstar cut down in his prime – he was, and remains to this day, a homegrown inspiration to follow and achieve their dreams.
Greg Moore was the first driver to whom young Stefan could relate. His dad’s favorite was “The Thrill from West Hill,” Paul Tracy, but the younger Rzadzinski naturally gravitated towards the dynamic young star who easily bore the weight of Canadian pride on his shoulders.
“He was the young up-and-coming star of the sport who was always incredibly exciting to watch,” Stefan remembers. “I think his persona on and off the track really made me a huge fan of his.
“I was still very young, but Greg was larger than life to me. He was a hero I looked up to. I believe a lot of drivers, especially Canadians, see him in a very similar light. He seemed like a very happy and enthusiastic guy off the track, but one of the toughest racers on it. Having that balance in this sport is pretty unique, and as a young driver, I think it’s very important.
“In a way, he epitomized the stereotype of being Canadian… a hard-nosed tough competitor, but an easy-going, kind, and relaxed guy overall.”
Meanwhile, his dad’s hero, Tracy, the enigmatic and brash veteran of CART, Champ Car, and IndyCar racing, has gone from being a guy to cheer for on TV to a guide for the young racer as he chases his dream to make it to Indianapolis. Tracy stepped in to give Stefan pointers at his races last season; taped to the steering wheel of Rzadzinski’s JDC Motorsports Star Mazda car was a small strip of paper reading simply, “WWPTD” (What Would Paul Tracy Do?).
For Stefan, it’s about the same experience as a young basketball player in the United States getting private tutoring from Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. “If you played word association with most Canadians, IndyCar would have been tied with Paul Tracy for a long time,” he says. “’PT’ has arguably been the biggest Canadian racing star over the past two decades, and there are many reasons he stuck around for as long as he did. It’s still pretty surreal to be able to chat with him as he was one of the guys I looked up to growing up.”
Tracy’s influence has helped sharpen Rzadzinski’s focus. In a sport where so many outside distractions and byzantine maneuverings can make an athlete’s life convoluted and knotty, the veteran’s no-BS personality was a breath of fresh air. “Paul has been a great help to me since I jumped straight into the fire from a Skip Barber car to my first Indy Lights start in 2011. He calls things like he sees them, and that’s nice to hear when you might start to overcomplicate simple things.”
Tracy’s bulldog example fits right in with the mindset of Stefan’s other passion, NHL hockey. A die-hard Oilers fan even in a lockout season, he believes in the carefully-cultivated image that professional hockey players enjoy in the sport’s heartland – hard-working, hard-hitting, blue-collar, lunch-pail drive with fealty to the logo on the front of the sweater instead of the name on the back. Whether those traits are more illusion than reality in the big business of pro hockey, they still represent a unique code of conduct that young Canadian racers like Stefan emulate in their own careers.
“In Canada, hockey is king without any doubt,” he says. “I think that ‘lunch-pail’ image is something that resonates with a lot of Canadians. Although I’m not out there throwing my body around and delivering hip checks, I think I have my own way of ‘grinding it out.’ I knew from a young age that I would need to put in a lot more work to have any hope of success, and that’s probably the most similar association I can draw.
“I admire that ‘never quit’ attitude you really see come out in the playoffs where players are willing to sacrifice anything to win. When it comes to motorsports and a career in racing, approaching it with that same intensity is the only hope I’ve got.”
At the moment, that intensity and persistence are the most valuable weapons in Stefan’s arsenal. Making one’s way up the Mazda Road to Indy is marginally easier than it has been in the past decade, but make no mistake – in a down economy and a ride-buyer’s paradise, honest effort, talent, and determination are often not enough to help wedge one’s foot in the door to the next level. Sometimes, it requires years of hockey-style grinding in order to be ready when a lucky break or two manifests itself.
“That’s a challenge I’m trying to figure out myself as well,” he agrees. “There are a few steps on the ladder, and you just want to put yourself in the best situation wherever you go. I don’t think there’s a magic formula to it all, but I do think it’s important to be in an environment you’re comfortable with. Sometimes it will throw curve balls at you, but you just have to do your best to adapt.”
If those breaks come his way, “Steve Rad” could end up following in Greg Moore’s footsteps as a standard-bearer for his Canadian family in top-level motorsports. Modesty aside, it is a role he would cherish.
“I believe the biggest thing when it comes to a career in this sport is that you just can’t give up. I don’t know what my future holds, but I know that if I keep working at things diligently, I keep giving myself a shot, wherever that may be. If it gets to the point where young Canadian racers are looking up to me, that would be my biggest word of advice.
“It would be great to continue to grow the sport in Canada, as everyone knows it’s in need of revitalization. Right now we have a fresh face in James Hinchcliffe, who is doing a great job representing us on the big stage. I’d love to join him one day. Canada needs a next generation of Paul Tracys, Alex Taglianis, and Greg Moores to capture the audience again. I’m looking forward to the day where I could get a chance to be a part of that next wave.”
Much of that, of course, lies in the future. Right now, “Steve Rad” just hopes that he scored well on his accounting exams. He will get back to business behind the wheel soon enough.