INTERVIEW: TA2 rookie contender Rhett Barkau

The youth movement in TA2 continues to attract a growing number of drivers looking to springboard their NASCAR careers, including 19-year-old rookie Rhett Barkau.

Barkau has proved to be a tough competitor in the Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli TA2 class. After winning the FE2 championship in SCCA Road Racing competition in 2019, Barkau entered the SCCA GT2 class to prepare for his entry into professional racing. After a successful year of preparation, Barkau moved into the TA2 class this season, averaging four top-10 finishes in the No. 01 BarkauCars.com/BarkauCDJR Dodge Challenger. The Illinois native now leads (after eight rounds) the Wilwood Rookie of the Year standings, 28 points ahead of his former SCCA GT2 rival Franklin Futrelle and 46 points ahead of Michael Self.

As the only consistent Dodge Challenger TA2 entrant, Barkau has gained quite the Trans Am fan following. Find out whose championship winning TA2 car Barkau drives, how SCCA Road Racing shaped his professional career and what racing in front of 110,000 fans in Nashville was like in this edition of Trans Am Corner.

Q: How did you get into racing?

Barkau: It all started on our ranch that we live on in Illinois. As a kid, I grew up on a four-wheeler and was fearless. When I was 11, I got into go kart racing at the local track. I raced at Sugar River Raceway for four years and won a track championship. The track is the same place Danica Patrick started.

When I first started out in karting, I would spend three days a week at the track practicing. Then when I turned 15, my dad bought a formula enterprise car and raced it all that year. That year I never placed below seventh.

In 2018 we upgraded the car to the Formula Enterprise 2 class in SCCA and was very successful, winning many races. One week prior to the first race in 2019, I hurt my left ankle on a motocross track, I went ahead and raced that weekend in FE2 and won!

My ankle felt a bit worse on Monday so I went to the doctor. My ankle ended up being and put me out for most of the season. After it healed, I raced the minimum amount of races to make it into the SCCA National Runoffs in Virginia. I qualified second and led for half the race. I got passed halfway through the race on the last lap in the Roller Coaster. I made an over under move in the final moments for the win. That off season, we made the decision to go TA2 racing. In 2020, we ran the car in SCCA Road Racing events in the GT2 class so I could get valuable seat time and my team can learn the car to prepare for my rookie season in 2021. My ultimate goal is to make it to NASCAR.

Q: How did SCCA Road Course racing prepare you for Trans Am/professional racing?

Rhett Barkau: It prepared me because FE2 was a fully spec class just like Trans Am and it all came down to the person behind the wheel. The Competition in FE2 was very similar to the TA2 class because there was the season veterans that have been doing it for ever and a lot of young kids like myself. Also we raced at a lot of the same tracks. The weekend format was a little different, in TA2 we have a lot less practice time.

Q: Your Rookie season is going well. What’s been the highlight so far?

My highlight of the year was qualifying ninth at Road America. There were a lot of big names and to qualify in front of or close to them showed a lot. The race would have been much better but a burnt fuse kept shutting off the car during the 100-mile race.

Q: What challenges have you faced in your rookie season in TA2?

Our biggest problem we have faced is with the car, learning the beast that these TA2 cars are. With it being our first season, we have had a lot of little mechanical problems in the races that we had to overcome. The length of the races has also been a huge challenge, but as the season has progressed, I am learning to preserve the car during the race.

Q: What do you like most about Trans Am racing and what made you join the class?

The Trans Am are the cars are so fun to drive and are a true American muscle car. TA2 is one the most competitive classes in racing, and my ultimate goal is to race in NASCAR. TA2 is the closest class in the nation that can prepare me to move up through the NASCAR ladder. I am hoping Trans Am will open doors into the NASCAR world.

Q: As a 19-year-old-rookie, is there anyone in the Trans Am paddock who has really impressed you or gave you some solid advice this year?

The Challenger that I drive is the one Marc Miller won the Championship with in 2019 and we had Marc help us a lot this year on and off the track.

Q: Watkins Glen is our first double-header of the season. What are you looking forward to most about the weekend and will your strategy be any different since it is a combined class for both Saturday and Sunday?

It is my first double header weekend and my first time on that track. My strategy will be the same as every other week. Drive conservative and finish the race.

Q: How does it feel to be part of a rookie class (that you’re leading) that includes so many big name like Ty Gibbs, Joey Hand, Michael Self, Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Riley Herbst, Christopher Bell, Harrison Burton, Daniel Suarez?

It feels good and exciting to have such a large rookie class. It is a large test for me racing against professionals doing the same thing I am and being able to compete with them. It has given me a baseline of what to expect when I enter NASCAR.

Q: How does it feel to know you were part of the biggest field in Trans Am history and a race of such historical importance for Trans Am?

I was honored that I took part in it. Also it was my first street race. It was very cool because my car was one of the most popular cars there. I got out of my car on Sunday after the race and there was huge crowd of people at my trailer waiting for me. When I got out and started taking off my helmet the crowd was cheering for me. I have never took part in an event with that many people before and the attention the Challenger got was pretty crazy. I took lots of pictures with fans.

Q: What do you do when you’re not racing?

I am 19 years old and work six days a week, selling cars at our family car dealerships when I am not racing.

Q: As a young driver, what advice do you have for other drivers pursuing their racing dreams at a young age?

My advice would be follow your dreams and what you love to do. The biggest thing in racing and getting sponsorships is focus on what makes you different from everyone else.

Q: What are your goals for the balance of the season?

My goal for the season is to earn the Rookie of the Year title and to get a couple top-five finishes before the end of the season.

Trans Am returns to action for a double-header weekend at Watkins Glen International Sept. 10-12 as part of a SpeedTour event. The full event will be live-streamed on the Trans Am Series by Pirelli Racing App. Download and subscribe here: https://bit.ly/34qQfCG