Veteran NASA drivers didn’t know what to expect when they saw a teenager racing a Lamborghini the last two years at regional events in Southern California. After the getting past their initial car envy, racers saw that Steven Aghakhani was the real deal even if the 15-year-old can’t legally drive on the streets.
“When he started with us, he was just super green, but had a willingness to learn and obviously had a huge drive to be successful,” said NASA National Chairman Ryan Flaherty. “He drove the heck out of that car every chance he got.”
Aghakhani, who raced with NASA for almost two years, has moved up the ranks in his quest to become a professional racecar driver. NASA Pro Racing gave Aghakhani his first chance at wheel-to-wheel racing before moving this year to the Blancpain GT World Challenge. He is now the subsidized driver for the 2019 season for AMG Motorsports, and the youngest AMG racing driver in the world. He also plans to do a race or two with the International Motor Sports Association.
Aghakhani isn’t the first teenager with aspirations of becoming a full-time professional racer. In fact, there are more opportunities than ever for teen drivers, particularly in NASA’s Teen Mazda Challenge. But Aghakhani has a incredible support from his team and family to make the dream a reality.
“I’m really pushing to become a professional racer … giving it all the effort that I have every single time that I go out and drive,” Aghakhani said. “I never take it for granted. I always go out there and drive with full passion and focus. That’s the way I think it should always be done.”
Aghakhani started karting at age 7 and spent several years working with a private instructor until the student passed the master.
“(Steven) was able to make passes on different areas of the track and beat his coach,” said his father Armik. “That’s when his coach said it’s time to put him in a natural racecar and be able to practice at a real track instead of a kart track.”
The problem was finding a track near his home in Los Angeles that would let a youth race, especially a teenager too young to have a license. They ended up at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, a road course about 30 miles north of Bakersfield, Calif.
The Aghakhanis bought a BMW E46 and went all in by hiring driving coaches and setting up a race shop at Buttonwillow Raceway. They practiced three times a month, eight hours a day with the coaches throwing race situations at the younger Aghakhani. For example, the team would give Steven the car with 80 percent tires and tell him he was trailing by 3 seconds. The team even trained on 100-plus degree days so that Steven could learn to focus in extreme conditions.
“On the first day I treated it as a business, not as fun,” Armik Aghakhani said. “I told him, you will appreciate one day when you look back and see how hard you worked, and you were able to accomplish what you accomplished.”
After training on the track for two years, Steven was ready for door-to-door racing, but finding a series to compete was a challenge for the then-14-year-old racer. Enter NASA, one of the few racing organizations that allows minors to race. About 30 teenagers nationwide race with NASA, Flaherty said.
Flaherty called the teen driver a “unique situation” because he met NASA’s criteria before the first event. The criteria includes attending a professional racing school, have HPDE4 level experience and passing a written test before he was issued a provisional racing license.
“It was obvious the first day he met all of the criteria,” Flaherty said.
After successfully completing his eight rookie races, Aghakhani had no problem matching up against older and more experienced racers. In fact, Aghakhani won the 2017 Super Unlimited class in the SoCal Region, and took third place in Super Unlimited at the 2017 Western States Championships at Thunderhill Raceway.
“My lap times have gradually decreased with my experience, and now I’m much calmer when I’m out on track,” he said. “My hands are extremely relaxed, my breathing isn’t heavy. I’m always making sure everything is set and everything is safe.”
If there is pressure on the soon-to-be 16-year-old — his birthday is April 12 — Aghakhani isn’t showing it. Aghakhani is homeschooled because he needed a flexible school schedule to train and race. “I had to leave school once, twice every single week to go train and it was just really hard to balance school and racing,” he said.
When he’s not studying, Aghakhani works on improving his driving skills.
Aghakhani practices once or twice a week on a simulator with his driving coach Kevin Madsen. Additionally, Aghakhani works weekly with a reflex coach, who also provides nutritional advice. The team’s engineers send Aghakhani spreadsheets and charts to study, comparing his data against other drivers. This work is on top of the videos and track notes that the teen studies for an upcoming race.
Even with all the racing development work Aghakhani has put in, he still has skeptics at the track because of his age.
“Being this age and going into a race series, you kind of have to hold your head up high and just ignore it,” Aghakhani said. “That’s the way it’s probably always going to be until you reach a certain age and people really start noticing you and your name is really out there. Basically, until that point, you’re just another driver.”
NASA racers might see Aghakhani at an upcoming NASA event this season to shake out the new car and do some testing. But the team’s focus is on the Blancpain GT World Challenge and the IMSA races. Flaherty said the Aghakhani family is “swinging for the big leagues” to break into the pro ranks.
“I think we’re going to see really great things from him and the team because they’re willing to do what it takes to run at the front and he’s willing to put in the time,” Flaherty said. “He’s really committed to making that his pursuit, and he’s got the raw talent. Raw talent plus the willingness to work is always a winning combination.”
|Hometown:||Los Angeles, CA|
|Sponsors:||SADA, LPA Lighting, LF Illuminations, Aghakhani & Luk LLP, Forgiato, Insignia Mortgage, Sky Financials, US Race Tronics, MLS, Shegerian Law firm.|
|Day Job:||student-homeschools every day.|
|Favorite Food:||Salmon, pizza|
|Favorite TV show:||“Top Gear”|
|Favorite Movie:||“Need for Speed”|
|Dream Racecar:||AMG GT3|