When NASA Texas racer Josh Sooknanan stood atop the podium at the NASA Championships Presented by Toyo Tires last year in Daytona, Fla., it was the culmination of a year-long plan.
Sooknanan ran a short 2021 race schedule in the NASA Texas Region solely to dial in his 1990 Ford Mustang to win the Camaro-Mustang Challenge at the Championships. He knew his Mustang wouldn’t be competitive on the Daytona track, so he used each race as a testbed. It was the perfect project for the robotics engineer from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
Racing with limited resources, Sooknanan spent his money on swapping the transmission and a relentless focus on reliability.
“I was going through and changing things that normally I would probably let run for a weekend or two at a regional race,” he said. “If there was any question in my mind that I would have an issue with it, I changed it and I bought a spare to bring to Daytona.”
The moves paid off as Sooknanan dominated in Daytona, winning all the qualifiers and the championship race. The weekend wasn’t without adversity for the team.
“Every time the car came off the track, we would just find weird issues,” Sooknanan said. “The car is over 30 years-old and we’re putting it through things it was never designed for in the first place.”
Sooknanan’s road to Daytona had some interesting twists along the way. As a first-generation American, Sooknanan’s family emigrated from Guyana, a small country on the north coast of South America.
“One thing that fascinated them is where they came from, it was a huge luxury to have a car,” he said. “When they came over to the U.S., they’d see rednecks driving 500-horsepower V8s in circles on a track. It was fascinating to them, so they immediately became huge NASCAR fans.”
While in college, Sooknanan participated in Formula SAE where student engineers design, build and race a car against other universities in the SAE International Formula series. The competition is a major recruiting ground for automakers and the aerospace industry.
“I think doing Formula SAE really sank the racing teeth into me,” Sooknanan said. “It wasn’t until I got a real job and enough money put together that I could go do some track days.”
After getting hired at the Johnson Space Center, colleague Richard Pedersen took Sooknanan to a track day to ride in a Mustang that had been converted into a racecar. Pedersen had followed a similar path as his younger colleague, participating in Formula SAE and then racing in NASA competitively, winning a championship in 2006.
Pedersen remembers the first time Sooknanan brought his personal car to the track, and the young driver obliterated the brakes.
“He wasn’t following the normal build-up speed, and he was just going fast,” said Pedersen, who serves as Sooknanan’s crew chief. “We paired him with some really good instructors and the speed at which he learns is amazing.”
Sooknanan earned his competition license in 2017 and his first race was one memorable for all the wrong reasons.
“There was a huge bang in the car, and I pulled over to the side of the track and the car caught on fire,” he said. “(That) kind of ruined that car.”
Sooknanan wasn’t deterred and rebuilt the car, and raced it for the remainder of the season and into 2018. When a Ford Mustang with a championship pedigree came up for sale, Sooknanan jumped at the opportunity. The car had no spares, no seat or dash, but it was operational. He got it back into race shape, campaigning the Mustang for much of the 2018 season.
That year the NASA Championships were at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, so Sooknanan entered the Camaro-Mustang Challenge even though it was his first full season of racing. Sooknanan finished in third place, but he learned from the 2018 Championships and used it to win his first championship last season.
“I think it was more of a focus thing,” Sooknanan said about the Championships. “That was my goal for 2021. The whole year was focused on getting ready for nationals, being competitive at the nationals to the point of focusing less on the regular season races.”
With no plans to defend his CMC championship this year, Sooknanan is running a traditional season with races in Oklahoma and Texas. Sooknanan is currently in seventh place in the Texas region’s CMC class.
In addition to the Ford Mustang, Sooknanan has two other track cars. He bought a Mazda Miata to use for teaching and track days, which has helped make him a better driver.
“I’ve got to tell you, learning how to drive a Miata fast makes you a better driver in any car,” he said. “If you can drive a slow car fast, you can drive a fast car fast.”
An engineer by trade, Sooknanan uses data to evaluate and improve his speeds. Sooknanan focuses on lap times and accelerometer data on the Aim Solo 2, and he even riveted a binder clip to the dashboard to hold a notepad. Once he comes off the track, Sooknanan writes notes and then compares it to the data.
The 32-year-old Sooknanan encourages his students to take a simplified approach to data.
“When I’m working on car setup, I will usually only work on specific areas of the track at one time,” Sooknanan said. “I will focus my data analysis on that area of the track. This is something I did in Daytona (at the NASA Championships), which was hugely helpful.”
Pedersen said he’s seen Sooknanan change his approach to racing the last couple of years, with less focus on attacking the corners. Sooknanan has the ability to feel the edge and a general lack of fear, Pedersen said.
“I’ve ridden with a bunch of other people, and even the really good ones I know that are just really spectacular, I look at them and I can see, ‘I can do that,’” Pedersen said. “There are all sorts of little subtle differences, but I’m always thinking, ‘Yes, I could do that.’ When I ride with Josh, I just walk out, shaking my head, knowing that there is no way that I could ever repeat what he is doing. It is just not possible for me. It is fascinating.”
|Racing Class:||Camaro-Mustang Challenge|
|Sponsors:||Willing to have some!|
|Day Job:||Robotics engineer|
|Favorite Food:||Racetrack food and a cold beer|
|Favorite TV show:||“Drive 2 Survive”|
|Favorite Movie:||“Star Wars,” “Mad Max,” “Ford V Ferrari,” “Rush,” and all the “Batman” movies.|
|Favorite Book:||“Tune to Win”|
|Favorite Track:||Hallett Motor Racing Circuit for racing, MSR Cresson 3.1 for driving|
|Dream Racecar:||Currently, GT4 Mustang|