When Daniel Formal slaps on his racing helmet, nobody can tell he’s only 14 years old.
For his opponents on the racetrack, it’s difficult to gauge anything about Formal, as they’re often chasing him just trying to keep up. If they’re lucky, competitors can catch a glimpse of the Costa Rican flag imprinted on the back of his helmet. But usually they never catch Formal. It’s a struggle to overtake one of the most proficient go-kart drivers in the world, tender age notwithstanding.
Formal is ranked the No. 1 go-kart driver in the United States for his class, according to the latest rankings from go-karter website ekartingnews.com. The San José native races in the senior class for drivers 15 and older. His success at the lower levels convinced officials to let Formal skip ahead to the premier class. Formal is now one of the best go-kart racers in the world.
“I got started in 2003. My dad used to race,” Formal told The Tico Times. “He took me to the track and rented a go-kart, and I kind of fell in love with it.”
His parents both raced in Costa Rica (Formal’s younger sister also races, making it a racing family set). When Formal turned 6, his father, Donald Formal, let him take a test drive for the first time. The young Formal drove like a natural. On Dec. 24 – as both a birthday and Christmas gift – he received his first kart. He was hooked.
Formal won multiple kart-racing national titles in Costa Rica before his family decided to move to the United States in 2003. Donald Formal had the opportunity to open a motorsports shop, Advanced Karting, in Wellington, on the southeast coast of Florida. The family moved near the end of 2004 to its new home, knowing Florida is a go-karting hotbed.
Once adjusted to the different karts, racing styles, courses and larger fields of U.S. racing competitions, Formal rose to the top of the pack again.
In his first year of competition in the United States, he finished third overall in the national championships.
“He was a real natural since the first time he drove a go-kart,” Donald Formal said. “He did very well. From the beginning, he was real fast.”
In 2006, Daniel Formal finished eighth in the world. He won the junior class national championships in 2008. Formal ascended to the senior class the following year.
As a preteen in Costa Rica, Formal learned to race at an indoor track in San Francisco de Dos Ríos, southeast of San José, and at the large racetrack in La Guácima de Alajuela, northwest of the capital. He received instructions from his dad and a coach named Charlie Fonseca. Since the beginning of their practice sessions, Formal stood out among the 20 to 25 other kids who trained with Fonseca. The coach praised Formal for his fierce driving, even as a 7-year-old fledgling kart racer.
“He is a very aggressive driver,” said Fonseca, who recently visited the Formals in Florida. “And what he has best is the intelligence of when to pass someone in a race. He knows he must pass the best karts to win, and he times it to wait until the last couple of turns to make a pass. He studies very well. He manages the races very well. He’s not necessarily the fastest, but he manages the best.”
Formal’s father handles most of the maintenance work, while Daniel Formal works as the assistant. When it comes to talking about courses and strategies, Formal is an expert. He dwells on the nuances of each track.
He doesn’t like the run-of-the-mill courses where drivers are forced to turn only left. He prefers ambi-turners, courses that swoop and swerve to the left and to the right, forcing drivers to react fast as they careen around hairpin turns. He likes hills. He likes fast tracks.
Formal can pick out his preferred tracks with little hesitation. His favorite is a winding 1.3-mile course in Newcastle, Indiana, that contains both elevation changes and narrow lanes.
These fancy courses are not what most people have in mind when they think of go-karting. Formal resents the idea of riding on those popular amusement park go-kart tracks.
He enjoys zooming around tight turns and up straightaways at 70 to 100 miles per hour in a 4.5-foot-long, 3.5-foot-wide vehicle that weights 365 pounds – including the driver – and rides three to four inches off the ground.
“They don’t know what go-karting is,” Formal said of recreational go-kart riders.
Formal has endured some aches and bruises as a result of his competitiveness. His worst accident came in 2007 at a course in Ocala, Florida. His kart slipped off the track and into a tree. The car was totaled, but Formal walked away mainly unscathed. He was well enough to hop into his family’s backup kart and power to a second-place finish.
The wins have paid big dividends for Formal. Finishing in the winner’s circle earns racers hefty cash prizes, prestige and opportunities to travel. Formal has raced all over the United States, and earned worldwide recognition from the kart-racing community. Donald Formal’s proudest moment came after one race, when the top-ranked driver in the world, Canadian Pierre-Luc Ouellette, approached him and said, “The way your son drives, it’s fantastic.”
This year, Formal finished third in the United States in the senior class and qualified for the U.S. national team. He will participate in the world championships in Italy Nov. 10 to 23. Formal eventually hopes to earn sponsors and move up to doing Formula One racing, the most recognized motorsport internationally.
He’s satisfied with go-karting right now. Even though these mini-race cars don’t have the same prominent stature as Formula One or NASCAR, Formal believes the go-karting skills he learned growing up in Costa Rica gave him the opportunity to experience the most rigorous type of racing of all.
“It’s probably the hardest sport in four-wheel motorsports,” the 14-year-old said.