Gustavo Yacamán enjoys racing for trophies and knowing he contributes to greater climate change awareness in his native Colombia.
It’s not everyday that one gets to talk trees and tree planting with a celebrity. But for Colombian-born Gustavo Yacamán, the release of carbon dust into the atmosphere when racing 200 miles down a speedway is as serious an issue as safety, and he wants as many people to know that the Indy Car Series and the Amazon are very connected.
Known as “Tigrillo” (‘Little Tiger’) – for his cunning and fast moves – he proudly wears a racing jacket as we sit down to talk “green” issues in the Andes. Gustavo is passing through Bogotá on his way to visit family in Cali, the city where he was born and which put him in the driver’s seat at age six.
Inspired by his father’s love of cars and rallies, Yacamán, at age 14, was already a five time national champion in karts and by the time his family moved to Madrid, a year later, he had earned the title of U.S East Coast Champion. From karts Yacamán’s future was guaranteed in professional racing.
The driver admits that his childhood in Colombia played an important role in the advancement of his career. “Colombians have to be good drivers. There are no five lane and perfectly-paved highways here.” But Colombia, as a source of pride and fond memories also became the emotional balance which allows him to embrace his fans, promote the auto sport in Colombia and work with a team of engineers, managers and publicists. “I try to read up as much as I can about my country. I need to feel connected to issues.”
From the American karts circuit, Yacamán, made a significant leap to the Spanish Formula 3 in 2006. The following year, the racer captured his first win and finished 8th in the championship. But a desire to be closer to Colombia took him to the U.S, where he set up his residence in Miami and joined the Firestone Indy Lights Series. The move stateside offered the pilot the freedom he desired and possibility to test some of the most challenging circuits in the world. As a kite surfing enthusiast, rock climber and triathlon athlete, Yacamán believes that he owes part of his success to being that “all-round” person: educated, polite and environmentally sensitive.
In 2009, “Little Tiger” began a journey that would take him the Colombian Amazon on many occasions. When not training or racing, he got into contact with environmentalist Fernando Trujillo of the Omacha Foundation. By looking at the conservation efforts of Omacha in the eastern Llanos, Gustavo knew that he could rise up to the climate challenge and push it to the highest levels of the Indy hierarchy. Compelled to protect his country’s biodiversity, Yacaman saw how each Indy race burns the equivalent of 27 trees in carbon emissions.
This was a message that moved fast with fellow drivers. Without reforestation, one season, could represent the disappearance of a small forest. Yacamán quickly became a spokesperson for environmental issues and still believes that the Indy will be a totally “green” sporting event (with zero footprint races) ahead of the Formula One. And he wants to be there, on the podium when more eco-friendly fuels are used and at the end of every race when hundreds – not dozens – of trees are planted.
In 2010, ‘El Tigrillo’ kicked into action and launched Admira La Vida, the Admire Life Foundation. The objective is to protect more than 70 endangered tree species on the Bojonawi nature reserve, near Puerto Carreño, Vichada. But for this to happen he needed to rally important corporate sponsors together and generate awareness in the U.S and Canada that his ‘Clean Race’ campaign is good for Indy, fans, the auto parts industry, and the 16,000 hectares of delicate rainforest he works hard to protect. Ironically, one of the species on the nation’s endangered species list, and which formed an essential part of the protection efforts by the Omacha ‘Admira La Vida’ alliance was the elusive Colombian jaguar.
Yacamán talks trees as easily as he talks about the competition. Like walking the rainforest, racing is pure adrenaline.“ I have had several crashes in my time,” reflects Yacamán on his racing friend Dan Wheldon who died from injuries at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
After joining the prestigious Indy Car Series in 2012, the Colombian driver has had important results with Michael Shank Racing (MSR). He achieved his best season in American motorsports with wins in Toronto and Detroit’s Belle Isle. He secured a pole position at the Indianapolis Freedom 100 and placed 3rd at the GRAND AM Series 24 Hours of Daytona: one of the toughest endurance races in the world. Yacamán was recently honored as the most successful sports profile of the continent at the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) meet in Panama.
As another racing season kicks in, Yacamán and MSR are a team to watch. When Colombians cheer this Vallecaucano on – one pole at a time – it’s an opportunity for us to take up initiatives which can help turn back time in our own critical race of saving our home from climate change.