Joe Gaffey remembers the first time he met Matt Powers, who had come into his performance shop in Northern California wearing a sport coat, jeans and a bowtie.
It was attire that Gaffey had rarely, if ever, seen in his Performance Technic shop, especially since Powers was in his early 20s.
“If you’re going to wear a bow tie, you have to really wear it and own it,” Gaffey said with a laugh. “I thought he was about six years older than he actually was just by the way he carried himself. His confidence – just personally and later in the car – all goes together.”
Gaffey would later recruit Powers to run racecars at special events and to coach some of the customers for the Dublin, Calif., BMW service and performance shop. It’s a decision that has paid dividends and helped showcase Powers’ skills in his quest to become a professional driver.
The 24-year-old took a big step in May when he won the inaugural Mazda Race of NASA Champions at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. Powers won it on the last lap, piloting his Mazda MX-5 past Corey Rueth of Manchaca, Texas, to become the first NASA Grand Champion. The victory earned him an invite to the Mazda Club Racer Shootout in November. Earning a full-time ride would be a dream come true for Powers, who has been racing since age 10.
“It’s kind of what I hoped and dreamed, but didn’t quite respect when I was younger,” said Powers who lives in San Rafael and races in NASA’s Northern California region. “Now I have a lot more respect for the process and understanding how big it really is.”
Few drivers chasing the dream are going to outwork Powers, who is a full-time engineer for a civil construction firm and simultaneously pursuing a college degree.
“It’s a good career if I didn’t want to keep pursuing racing,” Power said, later adding, “I think an engineering degree behind the driver is hugely beneficial.”
Powers credits his late father, Michael, for getting him into auto racing at a young age. They attended an auto show in San Francisco where his father found a flier for a kart racing school.
“I was like, ‘It’s not really for me, Dad. I like watching racing but I don’t think I really want to run a kart,’” Powers recalls.
Powers’ father surprised him with a kart for his birthday and he was quickly hooked. He spent those summers racing in the Bay Area and as Powers got older, he started competing at kart events around the country. Powers also raced some kart events in Europe, where the field of racers was much deeper.
The highlight came in 2009 at Daytona Kart Week in the middle of the Daytona Speedway, where he found himself competing against NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson and the late IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon. Powers, then 18, finished third and the strong showing was the confidence boost he needed.
“I felt like all of sudden I can get into anything and I can win,” he said. “I think that might have been a little soon, but it really gave me a lot of confidence to begin pushing.”
The father-and-son duo stepped it up the following year, self-funding a formula car ride on the USF2000 National Championship series. Powers’ first race was on the legendary street course in St. Petersburg, Fla., and competing on the same weekend as the IndyCars. His best finish was eighth place over the weekend, more than a minute off the leader.
Powers went on to race in other USF2000 races, netting a fourth-place finish at the Autobahn course in Joliet, Ill. It was an incredible learning experience for Powers, who had little trouble moving from 60-mph karts to a 115-mph formula car. Looking back on the experience, Powers did have one regret.
“I didn’t see how much I needed to network,” he said. “I didn’t understand. I was engulfed with the environment, not with the understanding how to keep pressing and making connections that could last.”
Just when the racing was on an upward trajectory for Powers, tragedy struck his family. The elder Powers was diagnosed with Stage 4 melanoma in 2011. Michael Powers died within a month.
“It was a bit of a shock,” Matt said. “We talked about it during the time he was diagnosed and what an awesome year we got to experience together.”
The death of his father hit Powers hard, but he also realized that he needed a college education in case his first career choice didn’t work out. Powers focused on getting a job and started college while car racing took a backseat for the next two years.
Kart racing kept his skills sharp, but Powers wanted to get back into a car. That’s when he approached Gaffey, founder and managing partner of Performance Technic, about possibly doing some coaching. Gaffey knew that Powers was a good driver but had not seen him in action.
Powers took Gaffey out on the track in one of Performance Technic’s cars and Gaffey was an instant fan. Gaffey says he looks for speed, talent and the ability to convey clearly what the car is doing to the tech and engineers in potential drivers.
“I was just amazed at how smooth he was for how fast he was going,” Gaffey said. “He almost had this raw, almost instinctive talent for driving.”
Powers moved into the lead driving/coaching role for Performance Technic and Powers dominated nearly every race they entered.
“He was like one of those kids when you are on the slopes skiing, and they go flying by you with no poles and all they’ve got is a helmet on,” Gaffey said. “That was Matt Powers. He had no fear at all. That’s what I think makes him so fast.”
Powers quickly adapted to his new role as a coach, working with drivers who have race cars that are supported by Performance Technic. One of those students is Shaun Webster, who races a Spec E46 built by the performance shop. Webster said Powers taught him the capability of the car and the mental preparation needed to compete during a race weekend.
Working with Powers over the past year, Webster has shaved more than 4 seconds off his lap times, but notes that his coach is still 2 seconds faster.
“Matt has made me better as a driver and helped me realize the car is capable of more than I realized,” said Webster, a mechanical engineer. “He’s instilled a confidence that I can go through a corner at a certain speed.”
Webster and Powers have embraced data analysis, a tool Powers got a crash course in when racing a formula car on USF2000 National Championship circuit. Using the powerful software, Webster can compare laps to those run by his coach on the same track. Powers’ approach is to look at small sections of the track where Webster can reduce braking, take a better angle into a turn and improve acceleration.
“Matt’s very analytical like an engineer and I’m an engineer,” Webster said. “He’s also positive and very patient. His knowledge on cars and car setup is incredible.”
Powers applies the same analytical approach and preparedness to his own driving on the racecourse. Last year Powers won the 2014 NASA Western States Championship in GTS4 in his BMW M3, even though he hadn’t competed at the Sonoma Raceway in six years.
Practicing two hours a day on a simulator and studying video of other drivers running the Sonoma track, Powers said the race “turned out like I had run the track yesterday.” Powers credits the simulator time for helping him win the first NASA event he entered.
“It goes back to seat time. Any seat time is good seat time,” he said. “They aren’t equal all the time but simulator driving is … if you really focus on it, you can gain a lot.”
Powers also emphasizes physical fitness and the importance of being in shape for the heat and demands on the track. He wants to have enough energy for the last few laps, where he earned victories in the Western States Championships and the Mazda Race of NASA Champions.
Powers does bicycling and cross fit to maintain his endurance, paying special focus on his neck strength. Healthy eating also is a big part of his regimen, since his mother is a nutritionist.
“There is no sense spending all that time and money on being in a car when at the end of the race you can’t put it to use because your body is fatigued and your mind is no longer thinking about the task at hand,” he said.
Powers’ focus for now — in addition to a full-time job and college studies — is to qualify as a finalist for the Mazda Club Racer Shootout in December. As a semifinalist, he must submit a business proposal, which is judged by outside experts, to be selected for the Shootout. If he is picked for the Shootout, Powers will compete with a handful of other drivers at the single-day, winner-take-all event. The drivers are not only judged by their fastest lap speed, but they are rated in more than 10 categories including technical feedback, ability to analyze track data, PR skills and speed and consistency.
The purpose of the Mazda program is to provide drivers with the insight needed to develop business partners for a successful season in higher-level competition.
“My experiences after racing USF2000 gave me a real picture of what I need to do,” Powers said. “I realized what dedication really means to make something like this happen.”
Gaffey is among those who will be rooting for Powers in the Shootout, calling the 24-year-old driver the complete package on and off the racecourse. Gaffey said if he could afford to field a team, Powers would be at the top of the list as his driver.
“Because I don’t have the ability to fund a team, I try to expose him to as many people that are in the same hobby and keep him networking,” Gaffey said. “We want to keep him in the cars so he can stay sharp on his skills, but also meet a lot of people and any opportunity that might come from that.”
Webster will also be cheering on his coach in his quest to become a professional driver.
“Matt’s entire life is trying to become a pro racer. He’s more dedicated than most racers,” Webster said. “He’s the whole package. Hopefully this is the break that he needs.”
Matt Powers, winner of the Mazda Race of NASA Champions, serves as a coach for Performance Technic Inc., a shop in Northern California. These are some of his tips for maximum performance on race weekend.
Buy a simulator and spend at least an hour a day driving on the track where you’ll be racing. If a simulator isn’t in the budget, watch YouTube videos and pay special attention to the driver’s technique.
Races aren’t won on the first lap. That’s why endurance is important. Lots of cardio weekly with a mix of weights will keep the skills sharp, especially in the chase for the checkered flag.
Ready to Go
The car should be ready to run when you arrive at the track. Wrenching on the car (except for minor adjustments) can zap a driver of precious energy.
Food trucks at the track are tempting, but a healthy meal (chicken salad) and snacks should be on the menu during race weekend. Stay hydrated and limit sugary sport drinks (unless they are a sponsor, then drink away).
Trust the Data
Analyze the data and make adjustments after each trip on the track. Small changes can often be the difference between the podium and chasing the pack.
Even if you aren’t chasing the dream of professional racing, get out and meet company reps and the crew members from other teams. You might pick up a sponsor or pick up some major car knowledge.