Updated: Dec 7, 2020
*Originally appeared in Autoweek
I doubt the kid will ever know what he did for me.
While sitting on pre-grid waiting to take the track in SRO World Challenge TC America for the first time ever, a young boy stuck a plastic trim piece in my window and asked me to sign it. I immediately realized I needed stop freaking out about all the firsts I was about to tackle since this kid already thought enough of me to ask for my autograph before I ever turned a wheel.
This is the story of my journey from being that boy to the man who just completed his first weekend racing in World Challenge.
Like many racers, my start in motorsports is owed to my father. He owns a mechanic shop dedicated to race cars and has been speeding around tracks well before his child entered the picture. As a young boy, I was innately drawn to the sights and sounds of the racetrack and my parents noticed. I don’t know exactly what their conversation was, but by hopping in a kart at age three, my mother’s “no engines until age four” rule had been broken. My father helped me quench my need for speed through racing karts within the next few years and I eventually drove my way into cars as a teenager. We did everything to gain experience in circle track, autocross, and rallycross, but we had been building toward earning my road racing license at the same time as my street driving license. With a bit of luck and accrued skill, we found success at the top levels of amateur racing, winning a Regional Championship in 2013, placing 5th at my first SCCA National Championship Runoffs in 2015 and 10th in 2016.
I have and will always yearn to be a professional race car driver. With the push of my wife, Eryn, we decided that there was no time like the present to swan dive into my dreams. As part of this adventure, we exchanged sitting behind a wheel for a computer screen to survey opportunities and save money to fund the next step when it came along. In 2018, we committed to a professional Canadian series, the Nissan Micra Cup. Thanks to a wonderful partnership with Lombard Bros Gaming, we were given the chance to abuse the spec, miniature, slow #17 hatchback in front of hundreds of thousands of fans supporting weekends headlined by the NASCAR Truck Series and Pirelli World Challenge. I was delighted to finish 7th in points and proud of the wisdom we gathered along the way. The Nissan Micra Cup was and is a fantastic entry-level professional series, but we made the decision to fry bigger fish in 2019.
For those of us below the very top tiers of racing, we as drivers generally pay teams to race or, at best, are racing for free. It is very difficult to get to the point where a team is directly paying you to drive their car and that’s why I work as a design engineer at Nissan during the week. Many drivers afford their own opportunities, while others like me fervently pitch sponsors to offset costs or even turn a profit when possible.
Even though we had fantastic sponsor support, we operated the 2018 Micra Cup season as a budget-friendly family effort. Driving in a bigger series like World Challenge would necessitate a new approach and networking for opportunities to rent an open seat seemed like the logical first step to take. After finding teams willing to take a shot on a rookie, Eryn, with whom I co-own MO Motorsports, and I tirelessly approached potential partners; we had a sponsor onboard to race at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg event headlined by IndyCar’s season opener. It devastatingly fell through, but we humbled our minds and shifted our efforts to future events.
Exactly two weeks before cars would take the track, the owner of TechSport Racing offered me one of his brilliant championship-winning Subaru BRZs at a rate we couldn’t turn down. The TCA class was being added to the St. Petersburg event and he was looking to fill a seat. It was too late for a new pitch, so we reached out again to Lombard Bros Gaming and they shared our enthusiasm for this incredible opportunity. I have to take this occasion to thank the incredible people at Lombard Bros Gaming, an inclusive online gaming community for all ages and skill levels including those with special needs, for graciously allowing me to embrace my passions.
We had a deal in place by Monday which left us just over a week to make arrangements to get from Michigan to Florida and onto the track. In the span of a few days, we made travel arrangements, submitted licensing paperwork, and ordered upgraded, FIA certified safety gear. In preparation, I familiarized myself with the track through YouTube videos and with the car by turning a few laps in a BRZ in Forza 7. I was tremendously nervous and excited; I decided to set a meek goal of not finishing last. This would alleviate some pressure and help me treat the weekend as the learning experience I wanted it to be.
My wife and I arrived in Tampa on Wednesday night and our rental car was upgraded to a new Mustang GT. Needless to say, it was a great start to the weekend. We rolled in to the paddock of the temporary track in downtown St. Petersburg and looked for the crew that would be, for the first time in my life, someone other than my family. Thankfully, the TechSport team would prove to be a friendly, welcoming bunch. We spent Thursday familiarizing ourselves with the new-to-us course, attending meetings, and filling out registration paperwork. We got word that a handful of expected competitors would not be participating due to damage sustained at the Circuit of the Americas season opener the previous weekend, leaving insufficient turnaround time to get back on track. With a smaller field, I began to doubt my ability to accomplish what I thought was a modest ambition.
Sidebar: The new race suit patches take forever to sew on because they are coated and just thick enough to impale your thumb when trying to push a needle through them. Is this only my experience? Cool. I only had a couple hours from when I was handed patches to when I needed to have a headshot taken. After spending thirty minutes sewing on one patch, I decided to bail and rolled duct tape on the back of the patches for a temporary solution. Shout out to the photographer for working with me to fluff my suit just right and quickly snap the required pictures while I held as still as possible.
I have that random child to thank for calming my nerves before my first practice session. After gingerly rolling out onto the track, I incrementally added speed and attempted to get some sense of the car’s limits. An unfamiliar street circuit is not the most inviting place to experiment; making it through FP1 without hitting anything and the car behaving well was considered a success. I was way off front-running pace, but felt confident that the gap would shrink with more seat time. Our second practice session was more of the same, but with a smaller delta between the front-runner and me. The trend continued and I wound up qualifying for my first race on the front row! The entire TechSport team qualified as hoped, with team driver coach and decorated World Challenge veteran, Eric Powell, on pole and team owner and seasoned World Challenge driver, Kevin Anderson, right behind your humble author.
The TCA class shares the track with the quicker TCR class, so I added another objective: do not hinder the TCR race whatsoever in my series debut. My heart raced as we prepared to lay down some actual rubber but when the green flag dropped it made all of the nerves and effort worthwhile. Powell quickly opened a gap while I had my hands full with Anderson on my tail. I tightened my apexes and earned an advantage of a couple seconds when Anderson lost 4th gear. This allowed me to really focus on getting a better feel for the car’s capabilities while managing to keep it off of the walls and stay out of the way of the other class’ battle around me. After 40 minutes, I crossed the line in 2nd place, got out of the car, climbed the podium, and held my trophy high! Some film and data review revealed a few places I could gain more time, so I suited up for Sunday’s race motivated to bring home another strong result.
From the start of the second race, I hung with Powell for a few laps and quickly opened a comfortable gap to 3rd. I drove a more confident and comfortable race than I had on Saturday, losing less time managing traffic and significantly trimming the gap to Powell’s blistering pace. A hard wreck from a TCR Alfa Romeo resulted in a two-lap shootout to end it. After being lapped by the other class’ frontrunners, I restarted 4th in line with a herd of TCR cars behind me ready to scratch and claw to the end. The green flag dropped and two hard laps later I crossed the stripe with a silver once again, unscathed!
The Grand Prix of St. Petersburg event was a tremendous experience. The weather hovered between a balmy 75 and 80 degrees, the hordes of fans were exceptional to interact with, and I felt the support from the family and friends that made the trip from my childhood hometown just an hour north of the city. After trying my best to absorb it all and appreciate the moments, I’m deeply driven to experience the magic again. I owe my sincerest gratitude to everyone at Lombard Bros Gaming for making this possible, the team at TechSport for providing me with a perfect BRZ that was a dream to drive, and all of the SRO organizers who were extremely welcoming to this newcomer.
Leaving the sunny skies and palm trees to go home to the tail end of Michigan winter was tough, but we’ve hit the ground running to take advantage of our momentum. We don’t yet have any plans in place for future races, but are frantically trying to bring sponsors on board for any and all World Challenge events on the calendar. If any businesses out there are looking for the dream team to work with, I just so happen to know of one! We will strive to put together a full season, but in the interim, I’m happy to keep learning and proving myself in any breaks that come my way.