Racers routinely agonize over lost time, with the deficit in question routinely measured in divisions of a second. But what if the time lost was considerably longer than a tenth here or a second there? For brothers Chris Caruso and Jeff Filipkowski, this is the case, with their lost time coming in metrics of decades.
Brothers by blood, Chris and Jeff both raced open-wheel racecars, but for nearly 50 years they didn’t know the other one existed. They don’t even share a last name – Jeff was adopted.
“My adoptive parents told me when I was about 10-years old,” says Jeff, now 50 and residing in northeast Pennsylvania. That was back in 1980, about the same time he discovered Formula 1 racing on television. “I stumbled on the Brazilian Grand Prix, and I immediately became a big race fan. It looked thrilling and difficult.”
From that day on, he watched every F1 race he could. “I rooted for Ferrari even though I didn’t yet know I was Italian,” he says.
The open-wheel racing adventure comes with an equally vivid memory for Chris who, at age 13, found himself sitting with his family sitting in Turn 2 at the 1975 Indy 500: His dad’s business client provided a handful of free tickets.
“I had no particular interest in racing before then, but when those motors fired up, I got a knot in my stomach,” Chris recalls. On the pace lap he saw the two DayGlo red cars of Wally Dallenbach and Gordon Johncock and said, “I’m rooting for them!”
More than four decades later, Caruso Brothers Racing would field two DayGlo red Formula Vees (photo above), running numbers 40 and 60 in honor of the Patrick Racing teammates.
Life, indeed, is a long, strange trip.
Science is amazing. Not too long ago, connecting with a long-lost brother would be near impossible. “I didn’t think all that much about it,” says Jeff. “I had a wonderful family that raised me. As a kid, when they tell you [you’re adopted], you just think, ‘Oh, OK.’”
He began thinking more about his roots, though, after his son, Derek, was born in 2003. “I’d find myself wondering, ‘Where are my real folks?’” he says. But it wasn’t until his wife, Petra, gave him a DNA test kit as a Christmas gift in 2017 that the trail heated up.
That gift turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving, as the results indicated that not only was Jeff 60 percent Italian, but that he likely had a half-brother. “I didn’t know exactly how to proceed, so I just sent him an e-mail setting out my age, where I was born, and that I was adopted.”
As luck would have it, Jim, the half-brother who Jeff had contacted, had a burning interest in genealogy. Jim was the oldest of the siblings and had also been adopted. By playing astute detective and following up on the 2010 obituary of their natural dad, Pasquale Caruso, Jim had already managed to connect with Chris Caruso and Chris’ two sisters. Then, to confirm the connection, Jim and Chris had submitted their own DNA tests and the results confirmed it: they were brothers.
Not long after, Jeff contacted Jim and they were able to close the loop on the family tree. A reunion took place and Chris and his two sisters, Cindy and Cheryl, welcomed their two long-lost brothers, Jim and Jeff, into the fold — along with 10 cousins.
“It was great, but it was also overwhelming,” Jeff remembers. “It was like getting hit with a wave.
As you might imagine, they had a lot of ground to cover.
The Unspoken Bond
“I’d participated in a lot of track days in a first-gen Toyota MR2 back in the ’90s, and I raced a Formula Vee between 2002 and 2009, mostly in Regionals and a few Nationals,” says Jeff. “I loved it, but money was tight, and I had to sell the Vee.”
He worked as a journeyman cabinetmaker in his adopted father’s company, but that business folded in the 2008 economic crunch. Jeff was soon hired by a similar shop performing high-end installations in New York City. “I work with very demanding customers and architects, [and] it can be quite stressful,” Jeff admits. But he never forgot about racing.
For nearly 10 years, Jeff fell asleep each night running laps in his head. He was determined to return to the track, but by the time of the unexpected family reunion, that magic moment had yet to happen.
Chris, meanwhile, had been so intrigued by his Indy 500 experience that he persuaded the family to go back in ’76 and ’77. “Our family next went to the 1979 Trenton IndyCar race, and my mom and older sister ended up working in Timing and Scoring,” Chris says. “Later that year, at Pocono, they got me an introduction, and I ended up working in tech.”
By that time, Chris was an engineering student at the General Motors Institute, eventually moving into a successful career at GM. A few years later, he finally got to try his hand at racing. In 1988, he attended a Skip Barber School and competed in Formula Fords in the Barber Competition Series in ’89 and ’90.
“I was always kind of a thrill seeker,” he says. “I did sky diving, bungee jumping, parasailing — I loved it all.”
Yet, neither Jeff nor Chris knew this about each other. It turns out, even at the first family reunion, their love of racing simply never came up.
The Ah-Ha Moment
A few months after the big family reunion, Jeff saw a 15-year-old Formula Vee for sale on Facebook that was both nearby and inexpensive. “My wife said, ‘We must buy it,’” he remembers. Jeff had also been looking into the Challenge Cup FV Series where a set of street tires lasts more than a season. “I thought that with the low purchase price and this new affordable series, we could do a few races, which was way better than nothing,” he explains.
The big bang came when he posted a photo of the car on Facebook. Across the country in Las Vegas, Chris perked up – he couldn’t believe his eyes. What was his newfound brother doing with a racecar? He called Jeff and they finally brought each other up to speed on their mutual sporting interest.
When Chris learned that Jeff was going to Watkins Glen for an end-of-the-2018-season race, he hatched a plan. Chris flew in for the Glen race and surprised Jeff with an in-person offer to crew.
That was just the beginning…
At the end of the weekend, Chris revealed his proposal: He would sponsor Jeff to run a full season of Formula Vee in 2019, including attending the National Championship Runoffs. A few weeks later, Jeff returned with his own version of the plan. His old Vee had just come up for sale – he could buy it and they could run the 2019 season together.
Chris was quick to attend a pro racing school to see if he could still handle a racecar; then he called to say he was in. The brothers were off to the races, and they didn’t hold back, doing 13 race weekends leading up to the Runoffs at VIRginia International Raceway. They ran U.S. Major Tour races in the Northeast, Challenge Cup FV races, and several Northeast FV Regional events.
“We say it’s like a made-for-TV story,” says Chris. “You can’t go back, [but] we are determined to make up for lost time.”
The story of Chris Caruso and Jeff Filipkowski is far from over – in fact, it’s primed to get better. All along, the 2020 racing season was a planned development year before going full-bore in 2021, where the duo will take a serious crack at the 2021 Runoffs at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“I can’t wait to get there and run over that yard of bricks,” Chris concludes. “And now I can show my brother Indy — he’s never been there.”
This story originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of SportsCar magazine, the official publication of the Sports Car Club of America. A print and digital subscription is just one of the many benefits of SCCA membership.