Over the next week, I’m going to highlight some of the drivers pushing to make the finals of the W Series.
To kick off the proceedings, I spoke to Canadian racer Taegen Poles to find out what inspired her to begin racing, and how she’s preparing for the all-important assessments in Austria.
“Some of my earliest memories come from watching Formula 1 on TV,” Taegen says. “Since it was the only sport on Sunday mornings in Toronto, it became a part of our household routine to watch racing.”
From there, she quickly fell in love with motorsport. She was hooked, and in awe of the cars, the drivers, and the people who gave everything to the sport. Motorsport had captivated her at such a young age and she knew that she wanted to be a Formula 1 driver at the age of five.
At a race in 2003, she approached Katherine Legge and asked her for advice on how to start racing. Legge recommended karting, and that’s where Taegen’s story begins with the pair still in contact with each other today.
She began racing when she was seven and, from there, there was no going back for Taegen.
“For much of my karting career, I’ve raced in single speed karts and found success on a national level,” she says. “As I got older, I found myself wanting to push myself on track. Two years ago, I was able to have that experience by transitioning into a Rotax DD2. It required adapting, between driving styles, racing lines, and shifting gears. I was happy that I was still able to perform well (finishing 3rd in the Eastern Canadian Karting Championship that year), but what mattered most was the experience gained from having to relearn everything.
“Last year brought a similar learning experience of racing in the ROK Shifter category as it became more prevalent nationwide. Much like the DD2, there was so much to learn, and I loved every moment of it. “
In her early days of karting, Taegen spent time with Robert Wickens – someone whom she looks up to.
“In my first few years of karting, I raced on his brother’s team,” she says. “Robbie would be there to help coach all of us, take us out on track walks, and while he wasn’t an IndyCar driver just yet, we all knew he had a special talent. There was one Canadian National where I’d been in a crash and had some bent parts making the kart near impossible to drive – when I came off track after the chequered and went back to the tent, he was there to cheer me up saying that it was incredible I’d muscled it around for so long. He is kind, has an incredible sense of humour, and is also just one of the best drivers I’ve ever seen behind the wheel.”
Reflecting on her time spent in the kart, Taegen is very thankful for what it’s taught her. She describes it as the “purest form of motorsport” and insists that it’s a fantastic way to compete against very talented drivers.
“The time you get at a kart track will show whenever you hop into a car,” she says. “It teaches you the basic skills you need to succeed in a race like adapting to track conditions, passing techniques, mental strength, giving feedback to your team, coping with changing the weather. It really is just you and the kart.”
From a young age, she’s found that racing in the rain allows her to push her skills one step further. It makes sense that her favourite kart race was in wet conditions, where a podium was earnt.
“It was the final round of the 2016 Eastern Canadian Karting Championship series,” she recalls. “It’d been dry, with about a 20% chance of precipitation before my race. The skies opened up as we were about to head out and it started to pour. I made the decision to go out on dry tyres, purely because I thought it’d completely stop raining. I’m pretty sure everyone thought I was crazy, but they trusted my instinct and there wasn’t time to go back.
“After a few laps, we all started picking up the pace as the track dried, picking off the drivers on rain tyres one by one. Soon, four of us had a breakaway which led to one of the most fun races I can remember. Everyone had a chance to lead, and we were going three-wide into corners left, right and centre. It was amazing.”
From karting to cars, Taegen has a lot of experience out on the track and she sees finishing her first ever Formula 1600 race as a big achievement.
“I didn’t have the funds to run an entire season, so I had signed on with Brian Graham Racing as a development driver under the agreement that I would do one race weekend, along with several days of practice,” she says. “But would it be Canada if it wasn’t almost snowing the first chance I had to race? The conditions were tricky and cold, I was battling food poisoning, and had a lot less experience than everyone who had been on track the entire season. When I jumped out of the cockpit at the end of my race, my family was there and seeing their reaction meant the world to me. That day, the seventh place I had really felt like a win.”
Alongside racing, Taegen is studying at university towards a degree in engineering. In addition, she’s also busy preparing for the W Series assessment tests later this month. She’s been heading to the gym late at night after classes to ensure she’s physically prepared.
“I’ve always enjoyed science and mathematics, and engineering was the perfect middle ground to explore that further,” she says. “Racing would not be what it is without engineers and studying engineering has allowed me to further my appreciation for the cars and for the work the mechanics and engineers do. Having spoken to Paul ‘Ziggy’ Harcus, one of the Andretti Motorsport crew chiefs, he’d also recommended that I look into engineering because of the racing applications; it would teach me things I could apply on track, which obviously appealed to me.”
Taegen sees the W Series as an immense opportunity for her. She admitted to never having had the funds before to be able to race overseas in Europe. With the W Series giving her the chance to do this, she hopes that she’ll inspire more girls in her own country to head to the kart track.
“The W Series is providing me with opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined having otherwise,” she says. “It’s enabling me to be a role model for young girls looking to be the next generation of racers on the grid while showing the world that women do belong on the track and can compete at the highest level. It means the world.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to race against any of the other qualifiers, so I don’t have any direct knowledge of their racing styles. They come from different backgrounds, have different experiences, but certainly are all incredibly talented and it would be ridiculous to not recognise that.”
With the qualifying happening just round the corner Taegen isn’t shying away from the competition.
“The only thing that I can control in this competition is my commitment and effort,” she says. “I cannot change my age, experience, or my competitors, but since it’s a level playing field for the selection process, I am confident that giving it my all will let me hold my own.”
You can follow Taegen on Twitter here.