Motorsports fans in Israel are getting psyched about reports of the country’s first full-size auto racing track coming down the road in several months in the southern city of Arad.

While there is a 1.5-kilometer Formula 3 racetrack in the north, and an annual Formula 1 race through the streets of Jerusalem since 2013, Israel’s handful of racecar drivers have had to hone their sport abroad.

The trailblazer of this group, 25-year-old professional driver Alon Day, was the first Israeli to drive in each of America’s hugely popular motorsports events — IndyCar and NASCAR — and to win an international auto race.

Day spoke with ISRAEL21c while visiting family and friends on winter break in Israel, long enough to accept his trophy as the Ministry of Culture and Sports’ 2016 Athlete of the Year in motorsports, the first time that category has been included in the annual competition.

“During 2016 I spent more than six months away from Israel because I was chosen to NASCAR Next — a pretty big deal, aiming for the NASCAR Spring Cup, the top level. I mostly was staying in Charlotte, North Carolina, and sometimes in Sarasota, Florida.”

After two seasons in the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, he made his Xfinity Series debut in August last year at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, a major NASCAR touring series. He was sponsored by US attorney David Levin, who is promoting Jewish and Israeli drivers to bring diversity to NASCAR. Day is the first driver from outside North America to be selected for  NASCAR Next.

Day’s passion for motorsports began on his 10th birthday, when his parents gave him kart-racing lessons. Karting is a beginners’ open-wheel motorsport with small four-wheeled go-karts. Soon he was competing in Israeli, British and German kart races – and winning – even though many boys in Europe start as young as six years old.

Alon Day at NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day, January 21, 2017. Photo via Facebook
Alon Day at NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day, January 21, 2017. Photo via Facebook

“When I was around 14 or 15, I started to realize that this was going to be my life,” Day tells ISRAEL21c.

A native of Ashdod who has an apartment in Ramat Gan for his visits home, Day flew back to the United States in time to appear at NASCAR Fan Appreciation Day on January 21 at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in North Carolina.

“I had 56 flights in 2016, let’s see what 2017 will bring,” he posted on Facebook on an airplane from Israel.

Outstanding athletes

Alon Day was the first Israeli ever to receive Outstanding Athlete status for motorsports from the Israel Defense Forces. This distinction allows serious athletes to complete mandatory military service with leeway to put in as much time as they need to train in their chosen sport.

The second Israeli racecar driver to receive Outstanding Athlete status was Bar Baruch, 20, of Karmiel, who has been racing nine years.

Like Day, Baruch started with karting in Israel and Europe and then graduated to Formula cars in Europe.

Israeli racecar driver Bar Baruch. Photo via Facebook
Israeli racecar driver Bar Baruch. Photo via Facebook

“I was one of 11 people chosen for the BMW Talent Cup Academy in 2013 out of 300 drivers tested around Europe for a year,” Baruch tells ISRAEL21c. The academy preps future professional racecar drivers in everything from fitness to speaking with the media.

In 2014, Baruch’s father acquired a floundering Italian FIA Formula 4 team, renamed it Israel F4, and decked out the cars and mechanics in blue and white. “After the season was over I was able to keep the car. I have license #1 from the Israeli government,” says Baruch.

Last year, Lamborghini invited Baruch to a test race in the Italian Super GT Cup. He finished second and first in two races, earning the thrill of hearing Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, playing as he stood on the podium.

Israeli racecar driver Bar Baruch at the Italian Super GT Cup in 2016. Photo via http://www.acisportitalia.it/
Israeli racecar driver Bar Baruch at the Italian Super GT Cup in 2016. Photo via http://www.acisportitalia.it/

“They called me to the Lamborghini factory and signed me for a young development program so now I’m an official racecar driver for Lamborghini,” says Baruch, who serves on a base in the north that trains volunteer soldiers from foreign countries.

“I have to fly a lot and it’s difficult for me to do test days and practices but the army gives me a lot of support. They like that I am representing Israel. After I finish the army this year, my plan is to do a worldwide season focusing on Asia, where all the big teams and budget are going.”