When Andre Castro, AB’22, was growing up in New York City, his family didn’t own a car. There was simply no need for one, given the accessibility of the subway. In fact, he didn’t even obtain his road license until the age of 21.
Despite this, the recent graduate of the College now an accomplished racecar driver at the USF Juniors and United States Formula 4 championship level. He has previously competed in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, IndyCar’s driver development program and at various circuits around the world.
Castro’s love of racing began when his family, originally from Colombia, rallied around Colombian Formula 1 driver Juan Pablo Montoya. When Castro was seven, his parents took him to beginner driving classes at Oakland Valley Race Park, a go-kart track two hours upstate, where he eventually competed in races. Racing came naturally, even though he doesn’t consider himself an ‘adrenaline junkie.’
“Maybe the bright colored cars on screen caught my eyes,” Castro said. “Once I got into it, I realized it's just about pushing yourself to the limit, which I’ve always loved.”
Since the track was so far from home, Castro needed to find another way to practice. So he learned most of his basic driving skills from a NASCAR video game, and a driving simulator that he operated with a steering wheel bolted to his desk, which he still uses to this day.
As his skills improved, Castro linked up with Michael Ramirez, a mechanic, seasoned driver coach and family friend who helped him take the next steps in his career. He started racing go-karts at the national level in high school under Ramirez’s tutelage and made the transition to cars at the age of 16.
“The simulator really helped me when I made the transition from karts to cars, since I already kind of knew the basics of how to drive a race car fast,” he said. “There are big differences, but you have the wheel and pedals, and when you race online against real people, they're competing at a very high level. You really have to practice your race craft and your maneuverability around other cars.”
His body of work as a first-generation student and a dedicated racecar driver stood out to the UChicago admissions department.
“I was lucky because UChicago recognized my story, and they liked what they saw,” he said.
In the College, Castro studied economics with a specialization in business. He took part in three University Theater shows and was able to continue to race during his first-year on campus, before running out of funding and taking two years off.
For many young racers like Castro, the cycle of taking time away to raise money, using it to fund the exorbitant costs of maintaining a high-performance racecar, competing, then raising money again, is a way of life.
“Because I’m always looking for funding, I've never actually done a full season of any racing series, but I've been learning on the fly and trying my best to finish well with less practice than all of my competitors, many of whom are funded by family money,” he said. “It's just about being the best driver that I can be on a given day.”
Castro received support from four students in the College, paid with startup support stipends from UChicago’s Office of Career Advancement, who worked with him to build up his personal brand and expand his reach in the racing industry. That included building a website and reinventing his social media presence, all of which he still uses.
“It was a time when I really felt kind of like a leader because I feel my passion rubbed off on the students I was working with,” he said. “I met one of my best friends from college because they were working on this project with me, so I’m very grateful we all got together. They all still root for me to succeed today, which is nice.”
In fall 2021, he earned the opportunity to race in England through the prestigious Team USA Scholarship, a decades-old program which puts 12 of the best young drivers in the nation through a rigorous selection process.
Each year, two of these drivers are chosen to compete in the legendary Formula Ford Festival in England, where Castro won third place out of 97 entrants.
In 2022, he has been supported financially by Future Star Racing and the Wings & Wheels Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting young talent without funding; the team is led and coached by Al Unser Jr., a two-time Indianapolis 500 winner, two-time IndyCar champion, and one of the all-time greats of American open-wheel racing.
“Andre has been doing a great job for Future Star Racing,” Unser said. “Off the racetrack, too, he’s done great work with our foundation. 2023 looks very exciting for him.”
The pandemic also offered him a chance for greater exposure, as eSports racing competitions grew in popularity. Castro put his desk steering wheel in his parents’ home to use, keeping his skills sharp and competing at a high level with racers around the world, ultimately winning the European NASCAR eSports championship.
But since it costs millions of dollars to simply break into top level racing (like Formula 1 or NASCAR), much less stay there, it’s finding consistent footing and advancing to higher racing circuits that remains Castro’s challenge. For now, he continues to nurture his connections and await his next opportunity to demonstrate value to future sponsors from the junior IndyCar circuits.
“Chasing perfection and coming out on top, those are the things that motivate me,” he said. “I'm never going to achieve perfection. I mean, no one ever does. I just chase being the best I can. To exceed my own expectations and beat guys who have more resources and experience than I do, it’s a great feeling.”