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Whether it’s the late Dale Earnhardt or loudmouth Tony Stewart, auto racers tend to be larger-than-life characters especially at the racetrack.
Occasionally there are unassuming racers like Jonathan Davis who prefer to blend into the crowd and let the results speak for themselves.
“He’s one of the quietest individuals at the track,” said Chris Williams, the series director for Spec Miata in NASA’s Great Lakes region. “He’s certainly not your stereotypical racer.”
Quiet suits Davis well, who is one of the top drivers in the competitive Spec Miata class. He’s racked up more race wins in the Great Lakes region than he can count and finished second place last year in the Eastern Championships.
Davis’ success is even more remarkable when you consider he’s a self-taught racer who does his own mechanical work on his racecar.
“If I could have afforded to have a coach, I think it would have sped up the learning process,” Davis said. “I figured I was probably better off just spending as much money … getting as much track time as I could. I’m not sure I would give that exact same advice to someone starting out now after seeing how good some of the coaches are.”
Davis got this first taste of auto racing in high school. Each year he received a track day at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Garrettsville, Ohio, as a birthday gift from his family. After getting his degree in information technology, Davis would do HPDE events and Time Trials as his budget could afford it.
Davis realized after a couple of years doing Time Trials in his street car, he needed to buy a dedicated race car.
“At some point toward the end I had actually crashed the (street) car once and had done some pretty decent amount of damage to it,” Davis said. “I always wanted to go wheel-to-wheel racing but that finally gave me the push I needed.”
Davis decided to join Spec Miata after looking at the affordability and competition in the class. Having found success in Time Trials, Davis figured with his 1990 Spec Miata race car he would be competitive in short order.
“Spec Miata can be very humbling. You don’t realize how good some of those guys are until you actually get out there with them,” said the 35-year-old Davis. “I was a pretty fast driver, but yeah, I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was when I finally got into Spec Miata.”
To afford the cost of racing, Davis does all of the maintenance himself. He used Rossini Racing Products to build the engines for the two Miatas that he owns. His big splurge this past year was buying a house with a three-car garage in Wadsworth, Ohio, that had a lift. The days of changing tires and brakes pad on the ground were over.
At last year’s NASA Eastern Championships he was required to tear down his engine for inspection after finishing on the podium. There was Davis on the ground taking the engine apart in the rain and a fellow racer nicknamed him the “Happy Dirty Kid.”
“Jonathan competes at the higher levels of Spec Miata, which contrary to popular opinion, is not cheap,” Williams said. “He does it probably on the lowest budget of most anybody, largely due to the fact he does his own work.”
Davis says he adheres to a regular maintenance schedule and credits that regimen for some of his success on the track. He’s only had one mechanical failure in more than five years of racing Spec Miatas.
Davis’ on-track personality couldn’t be further from the guy in the paddock, said teammate and fellow Spec Miata racer Missy Davis (no relation).
“He’s one of the fiercest competitors but he’s not the one involved in incidents,” said Missy, who races the backup Spec Miata for the team. “He’s not the one that everyone knows his name for the things he did wrong. He’s just that humble, understated guy. He’s such a good competitor and he’s such a good driver that it stands on its own.”
Jonathan Davis says his approach on the track is to be aggressive but pick spots wisely.
“I am a lot more aggressive on the track than you would think I would be just talking to me in person,” Davis said. “I’m a relatively cautious driver. I don’t make any low percentage moves because I can’t really afford to be tearing up cars and fixing major crash damage.
“If I see a good opening, I always go for it but I don’t try to force an issue that doesn’t look good. I’ll just hang back and follow somebody for a while if I don’t see a good opportunity to pass.”
Williams knows firsthand what it’s like to race alongside Davis at NASA events. Calling him a “very fair and clean racer,” Williams rarely sees Davis make a mistake.
“This year I didn’t have much of an answer for him,” said Williams, noting that Davis easily won the points race in Spec Miata for the Great Lakes region. “Whether it was my car, whether it was my driving, I have no idea. All I know is that he beat me this year. This year has been a very good year for him in many respects.”
Davis would have been a favorite at the NASA Eastern Championships last month but a conflict kept him away from Watkins Glen International. He still manages to log at least a race a month with NASA or a competing series.
Having raced with Davis for nearly a decade, Missy Davis has seen Jonathan Davis’ growth from car setup to on-track performance.
“I think he’s grown as a driver and personally at the same time,” Missy Davis said. “He was this shy, really quiet kid and he’s grown into someone that is confident on the track and makes his presence known.”