Kevin Schwantz’s road to becoming a legend began with leaving the US at age 21 to race in Europe. American Damian Jigalov is following the steps of his hero but with a difference: Jigalov is just 13 years old and 5 feet tall. At 77 pounds, he has to carry the maximum ballast required in the Italian championship, struggling to keep the pace on tracks that are completely new to him. Why is an American teenager with roadracing aspirations racing so far from home? He is 100 percent focused on making his dream of racing for a world championship come true. But he is too young to race in MotoAmerica on a national level. And with US roadracing primarily production-motorcycle based, many feel that Americans are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the more pure-racebike-based European championships.

Damian still races WERA on a Yamaha YZF-R3 but is putting in his time in Italy with hopes of one day racing in MotoGP. Damian's father, Adrian, a Chicago policeman, has raised more than $130,000 for the 2017 season to help pay for Damian's racing here and abroad. A seventh-grader, Damian studies online to make up school days missed during required racing travel.

Last year, at age 12, he rode three Italian championship events as a wild card in the entry-level class—PreMoto3 250cc four-stroke. This year, he became a member of the professional team chosen by Valentino Rossi to grow young talent—the RMU VR46 Racing Academy. (Title sponsor, RMU, is a chassis constructor.)

damian jigalov race day on racebike
FOCUS FIRST: Jigalov works with a riding coach to be as focused and prepared for a race weekend as possible.Antonio Inglese

How does racing in Italy compare with racing in the US?
The biggest difference is that everyone in Europe takes roadracing so seriously. Even in free practice, you see riders going for crazy passes. Their riding style is much more aggressive. And young riders have more opportunities to ride. In the US it's hard to find a racetrack close by. The closest one to our house in Chicago is a four-hour drive. But in Italy, Imola is a famous Formula 1 and MotoGP circuit in the middle of a city and just an hour away is Misano, plus there are karting courses, so it's easy to ride.

You win races in the US, but in Italy you face stronger competition. How do you deal with that?
Last year before coming to Italy I expected everyone to be really fast, so when I came it wasn't really a surprise. What I found most difficult was getting up to speed fast: These guys reach their pace in a couple of sessions, but it takes me a bit more time. Plus, all the tracks are new to me. In a way, riding new tracks is nice because all the European tracks are very smooth and they have a history of great MotoGP and World Superbike battles. But it's hard to learn them quickly because all the Italian riders are so fast, and this means extra pressure on me. Plus, I switch from the heavier Yamaha YZF-R3 I race at home to a light RMU 250cc four-stroke here. I need time to adapt, especially with the jet lag. Usually I adjust to European time the last day before we return home.

damian jigalov and valentino rossi
Damian with Valentino RossiAntonio Inglese

How do you handle the language barrier?
The team owner Ramona speaks good English, same with my data engineer and suspension guy. My riding coach Gianluca Nannelli really knows how to explain things because he's a former superbike rider, so I'm happy. But besides these guys, not so many people speak English. It's hard to communicate with my teammates. I see them playing, talking, and giving each other tips. That makes me feel isolated.

RMU is the team supported by Valentino Rossi's academy. Have you had a chance to meet him and ride with him?
We had a test day with Valentino and all the guys from the academy who are racing in GPs like [Franco] Morbidelli, [Nicolò] Bulega, [Andrea] Migno, and the young talents of the Italian Motor­cycle Federation. Rossi was training so hard for Argentina that we didn't really have much chance to ride together. Watching his riding was really useful anyway: I watched his lines, his braking points. It's so cool that he can be so fast on every machine he rides.

Who is your hero?
I have always admired Kevin Schwantz because he was pushing the limit every time he was on a bike.

damian jigalov and kevin schwantz
A moment with hero Kevin SchwantzAntonio Inglese

Have you talked with Schwantz?
I saw him recently in New Orleans during an endurance race and we spent a lot of time together. He gave me tips about things he did when he went overseas. I asked him how he handled the pressure, and he said he'd started riding at a later age and went racing in Europe soon after that and did really well, so he didn't have that kind of stress. He also told me that being nervous before a race is normal. So that reassured me.

Would you want someone like Schwantz to be your coach?
Right now I have Gianluca Nannelli, a former superbike rider, as coach. I really learn a lot, but it would be great to have him or someone like Schwantz as I progress.

Just racing in America would be much easier. How do you cope with the pressure?
I'm really focused because I want my passion to become my profession. The target is to race in the GPs one day, and I chose the Italian championship CIV [Campionato Italiano Velocità] because the talent level is really high.

I have always admired Kevin Schwantz because he was pushing the limit every time he was on a bike.

In the paddock you are known as the most focused rider. What kind of work do you do with your coach?
It [focus] comes naturally but I also work with a coach. We do a lot of visual training. We also prepare for race weekends with sequences and routines. The more natural these sequences become, the more I can focus on what really counts on the track.

What is your relationship with fear?
I don't think on the dangerous side because if you focus on something negative, it usually happens.